Thursday, May 10, 2012


Louisville, KY:  Site of an epiphany.

There's a great story about Thomas Merton, the great 20th century spiritual writer and Trappist monk.  In the 1950's, and after being a monk for 15 years, Merton was in Louisville, KY on some practical business, and standing on the corner of Fourth and Walnut, he watched the crowds of ordinary people walking by.  As he observed them going about their day to day business, some happy, some sad, some young, some old, he was struck with a profound sense of how much he loved them, how connected and invested in them he felt.  He recalled the event, saying "It was like waking from a dream of separatedness... There's no way of telling people that they're all walking around shining like the sun."

Quaint story, right?  Or, perhaps, is there something a little more to be learned from this story.  Perhaps, one of the 20th century's greatest spiritual lessons was learned in *gulp* Louisville, KY.  Thomas Merton, at the time, was a very very developed contemplative.  As a Trappist monk, he lived life in simplicity and relative isolation, spending virtually all of his time in the Trappist monastery of Our Lady of Gethsemani, in Trappist, KY.  Prayer was his fascination, his greatest preoccupation, his deepest obsession.  Merton had a long and fascinating spiritual life, one that led him to great insight and fruitfulness.  How was it then, that, on this rare sojourn into the outside world, that Thomas Merton felt so connected to the common people on the streets, none of whom he had ever met, none of whom he had any knowledge of, none of whom probably gave the slightest concern for who he was.  Regardless, Thomas Merton understood, in that moment of sheer exuberance, the deep connection that he shared with each and every passerby on that street corner.  It was from his prayerful heart that Thomas Merton came to understand so deeply his love for fellow man.  Why?  Because he was connected.

Our culture, love it or hate it, has an unprecedented emphasis on connectedness.  Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, cellphones, texting, the list of social media outlets and sources goes on and on, all geared towards one end:  to get the user connected.  I, however, can only but ask:  connected to what?  I log onto Facebook more often than any person ever should, so I'm a capital offender, but I still ask "Are we connected in the right ways?"  The major problem with social media connectedness is that it connects us with who we want to be, who we want people to think we are, and not with who we actually are.  Thomas Merton's genuine moment of solidarity lacked that trait; he knew exactly who they were, regardless of the image they projected or the person they wanted to be.  He knew them in a level far deeper than our modern social media could ever know them.

"You are made in the image of what you desire"
-Thomas Merton
Merton knew them, not because he had taken the time to go out and individually meet them and engender some sort of relationship with each individual, but because he took the time to go out and meet their maker.  Thomas Merton, from the walls of his monastery, did the arduous labor of prayer; his heart soaring to meet the God who created him, his desire for God touching God's even greater desire for Thomas Merton.  Thomas Merton spent the long hours, restless nights, and magnificent labor of prayer to truly know God, and when he began to know God, he also began to know what God knows, to see what God sees, and to love what God loves.  Deeper than any news feed could portray, Thomas's walk through Louisville was graced with the knowledge that everyone he met on the street was a uniquely original masterpiece of God, that each soul he saw had within him or her a radiant spark of the Divine.  It was from this realization that he came so sublimely to love them, and so poetically to describe them as as "walking around, shining like the Sun."

In a culture so fascinated with being connected, I have to wonder, are we satisfied with being connected to facades and veneers, or do we desire to truly know people and to be known by people?  Are we content with false images and poorly constructed fronts, or do we desire a connection of the heart?  Wouldn't our lives be so much better if we walked down the street with the same heart as Thomas Merton, saturated with a deep understanding of the sheer beauty of each and every person, beauty flowing through them from the heart of God?  Wouldn't our social justice efforts be so much more fruitful if we "woke from a dream of separatedness" and saw the people we serve, shining like the sun?  If, like me, you believe so, then by all means, follow Thomas Merton's lead and be genuinely invested in the labor of prayer.

1 comment:

  1. Be more invested in prayer? Or in cultivating relationships: in loving, and allowing ourselves to be loved? Though one could say that being grounded in prayer and relationship with God allows us to know we are loved, and to love one another in turn... At least, that's what Thomas Merton believed. :-)

    Some call it creeping. Others, harmless people-watching. Thomas Merton goes and has a mystical experience. What a guy.