News and Tribune

January 22, 2013

CUMMINS: A revelation worthy of remembrance

Local columnist

— Have you ever had a revelation? Apparently, they can occur at any time and any place. On March 18, 1958, Thomas Merton had one on the busy street corner at Fourth and Walnut (now Muhammad Ali Boulevard) in Louisville. 

That’s a rather unusual place for a revelation, and somewhat strange the Commonwealth of Kentucky placed a historical marker there. What’s most unusual is the subject matter on the marker. States don’t memorialize love of people as a noted historical event. States aren’t in the love business, but perhaps they should be. The way things are now, there seems to be too much emphasis on the hate business. Merton, who had the revelation that day, later said, “If you want to study the social and political history of modern nations, study hell.”

Merton was in the business of selling “love,” and after listening to his sales pitch, you might consider going in debt to buy his stock. However, money can’t buy what he considered an everlasting investment. Money can buy greed, divisiveness and ill will, but how do you store it for the long term? 

Thomas Merton was born in France, where both parents worked as artists. During his childhood, he lived in France and America, traveled widely and attended the best schools. As a young man, he lived a man-of-the-world type life, with particular interests in the arts, literature, jazz music and having a good time. He realized, however, the void and emptiness in his life. After joining the Catholic Church, he decided to become a monk, and entered the Trappist monastery at the Abbey of Our Lady of Gethsemani, located in the hills near Bardstown.

The Trappist order is a strict one, emphasizing physical work, poverty, austerity, solitude, meditation and prayer. From scrubbing floors in silence his first days there, seven years later, from his meager cell, he wrote “The Seven Story Mountain,” an autobiography of his evolving spiritual life. Published in 1948, the book is considered one of the great non-fiction books of the 20th Century. As he explained, “A life is either all spiritual or not spiritual at all.” There was no maybe-later in his life.

Merton wrote more than 70 books, mostly on spirituality, social justice and pacifism, as well as scores of essays and book reviews. He corresponded with the world’s great writers and studied other religions, particularly those based in Asia. He initiated dialogue with the Buddhists, including the Dalai Lama and D. T. Suziki, an authority on Zen Buddhism. He and Suziki collaborated on a book, “The Birds of Paradise,” which compares the Zen Nirvana, or enlightenment, with Christian salvation. He also kept a daily journal, which revealed his devout faith as a Christian and unyielding submission to his Master. During Merton’s relatively short life, his productivity and contributions to humankind are immeasurable.

A few of his convictions: We are so obsessed with doing, that we have no time and no imagination left for being; we are not at peace with others because we are not at peace with ourselves; love seeks one thing only, the good of the one loved; peace demands greater heroism than war; when ambition ends, happiness begins. 

In December 1968, Merton flew to Bangkok, Thailand, to attend an all-faith religious conference. When unplugging an electric heater in his hotel bathroom, he was tragically electrocuted. He was only 53, and at the prime of life. A brilliant light extinguished, but his revelation and work enduringly shines.

Monks are human beings too. On the day of his revelation, he had travelled from Gethsemani to Louisville to run some errands. On the busy street corner that day as masses of people passed by, he paused; “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. There is no way of telling people that they are all shining like the sun.” Yes, there is, Merton did, and there is a marker there to remind us.

If you get the chance, go to the corner of 4th and Muhammad Ali in Louisville.  (Merton would have loved Ali, and you and me, too.) Pause there and read the marker. Read it again. Then look at the strangers hurriedly passing by. Do you see the sun shining on their faces, even on a dreary, cloudy day?

— Contact Terry Cummins at