Wandering with Thomas Merton

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When Pope Francis addressed Congress in September 2015, he took time to mention four distinguished Americans: Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King Jr., Dorothy Day, and Thomas Merton.

Thomas Merton was a 20th-Century Catholic monk, mystic, writer, peace activist and champion of social justice. Although he was isolated in a monastery, he maintained an active correspondence with many notable people from around the world and his writings continue to influence people today.

As a monk and as a serious thinker, he resurrected a way of non-dualistic / contemplative thinking that had more or less been ignored since before the Reformation. Through his writings and studies, he opened doors to many other traditions. It was while attending a conference of contemplatives from different religions in Thailand that he was accidentally electrocuted by a malfunctioning fan in his bathroom at the age of 53 on December 10, 1968.

Exactly 27 years earlier, Merton entered the Abbey of Gethsemani in rural Kentucky on December 10, 1941. Although he wanted to devote his life to being a monk separated from the world, his superiors recognized his writing talents and encouraged him to continue writing. Among his notable works are Seven Story Mountain and New Seeds of Contemplation.

Earlier this month my, dog Petey and I had the chance to visit the Abbey of Gethsemani while on a road trip. Here’s what Petey and I saw while wandering around the grounds of Gethsemani:

The Abbey cemetery is above the retaining wall.

Thomas Merton is buried in this small cemetery next to the Abbey.

Thomas Merton’s “abbey name” was Father Louis.

Merton’s grave overlooks this Kentucky countryside.

The church at Gethsemani.

Since Gethsemani is only a little over an hour from Louisville, we also went to downtown Louisville to visit Fourth and Walnut (now Muhammed Ali Blvd) where Thomas Merton had his great epiphany on March 18, 1958. Merton was in Louisville that day to run some errands for the monastery and during his wandering through downtown Louisville he had this great realization:

In Louisville, at the corner of Fourth and Walnut, in the center of the shopping district, I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all those people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers. …

… that they are all walking around shining like the sun.

… It is because I am one with them that I owe it to them to be alone, and when I am alone they are not “they” but my own self. There are no strangers!

Then it was if I suddenly saw the secret beauty of their hearts, the depths of their hearts where neither sin nor desire nor self-knowledge can reach, the core of their reality, the person that each one is in God’s eyes. If only they could all see themselves as the really are. If only we could see each other that way all the time. There would be no more war, no more hatred, no more cruelty, no more greed. … But this cannot be seen, only believed and “understood” by a peculiar gift.

Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander (pages 153 – 156)

There is now a plaque at the corner of Fourth and Muhammed Ali Blvd to mark the place where Thomas Merton had his epiphany. Although the corner is no longer a major shopping district, there are still hotels, offices, restaurants, night life, and plenty of people hanging out at the corner.

Have you had any special moments of awareness when you wandered?

Here is how the corner looks today:

Fourth Street is now an entertainment district with outdoor stages, several restaurants, a pedestrian bridge, and a portion of the street covered with a roof. Merton’s had his epiphany just across the street.

The location of Merton’s epiphany is marked by this plaque.

The other side of the plaque.

Check out the bike rack sculpture next to the plaque.

The view from the plaque looking down Fourth Street.

Not long before he went on his fateful trip to Asia in 1968, Merton was allowed to go west to investigate two other monasteries. He was looking for a place to establish a more isolated hermitage. One of the monasteries he visited was Christ in the Desert Monastery.

Christ in Desert is at the end of a dirt road deep in a canyon in the heart of Georgia O’Keefe country near Abiquiu, New Mexico. (Merton even met with O’Keefe during his visit.) You would be hard pressed to find a more stunning setting for a monastery or any other type of get-a-way. If you have a chance to visit the area, you’ll know why Georgia O’Keefe and many others have been called to this part of New Mexico.

Last summer I spent a weekend at Christ in the Desert. Here is what the area looks like today:

When you see this sign, it’s time to leave the pavement.

Not all of the road is this nice. The flat top mountain or mesa to the left is Cerro Pedernal. Georgia O’Keefe painted many many pictures of Cerro Pedernal.

When you see this sign, you’re almost there.

The church at Christ in the Desert.

Another view in different light.

Inside the church.

The guesthouse. This where you’ll stay if you spend the night.

You’ll have a meditation garden right outside your door.

Your accommodations will be quite simple but adequate. You’ll eat your meals in the main dining hall.

The teachings of Thomas Merton are very similar to the practice of the gentle art of wandering. That is being connected to and aware of the world around you and ultimately just being grateful for the gift of having the opportunity to wander in this world. To conclude the book The Gentle Art of Wandering, I borrowed a quotation on “the cosmic dance” from Thomas Merton’s New Seeds of Contemplation:

What is serious to men is often trivial in the sight of God. What in God might appear to us as “play” is perhaps what He Himself takes most seriously. At any rate the Lord plays and diverts Himself in the garden of His creation. And if we could let go of our own obsession with what we think is the meaning of it all, we might be able to hear His call and follow Him in His mysterious, cosmic dance.

5 Comments

  1. This is a beautiful recollection of our reading of Merton. I have had similar soul filling experiences similar to this. Nothing to change my life, but causing me to be open and accepting of all life around me and a sense of generosity to others.

  2. Lovely post.
    On my first visit to Cañon de Chelley, I had one of the most powerful spiritual experiences of my life. I felt completely safe, secure, and at one with all.

    I could barely tear self away from the spot. And when I did leave, I realized there were tears streaming down my face.

  3. ” Strangers on this road we are on , we are not two we are one.”
    The KINks. 1970

  4. This is an excellent juxtaposition of these two monasteries, each an important landscape whose background stories infuse their landscapes with a somewhat “mystical” allure – yet also hold in sacred spaces the simple call to everyday holiness. Great pictures and accompanying commentaries – as usual! Thanks, David, for sharing your insights on Thomas Merton’s life and work. I’m grateful for our faithful, weekly “Merton Group” gathering.

  5. Thanks for your lovely observations and wanderings…there are many connections here for me.
    I was born in Kentucky. Reading Thomas Mertons “No Man is an Island” when I as 20 (many years ago) shifted and deepened my spirituality. Last year I attended an “Architecture, Culture, and Spirituality ” Forum in Abiquiu. I have also seen photos of Christ in the Desert church, and would like to see it in person when we go to New Mexico in July.
    And I am doing the stained glass windows for one of the other Cistercian monasteries – The Abbey of New Clairvaux in Vina, CA. They have been able to restore a 12th c. Monastery from Nothern Spain which William Randolph Hearst brought over in th 1920’s. It should be completed next year.
    A fellow wanderer, Elizabeth

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