The day before yesterday – March 18 – was the fiftieth anniversary of the epiphany Thomas Merton experienced at the corner of Fourth and Walnut street in Louisville, Kentucky. Merton immortalized that experience in his book Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander (and which I quote at length on my Thomas Merton page). Conjectures was published in 1966, eight years after the epiphany took place; here is what Merton initially wrote about it, in his journal on March 19, 1958:
Yesterday, in Louisville, at the corner of 4th and Walnut, suddenly realized that I loved all the people and that none of them were, or, could be totally alien to me. As if waking from a dream — the dream of my separateness, of the “special” vocation to be different. My vocation does not really make me different from the rest of men or put me in a special category except artificially, juridically. I am still a member of the human race — and what more glorious destiny is there for man, since the Word was made flesh and became, too, a member of the Human Race!
I have heard it said that the dividing line between the early Merton (writings that are deeply mystical, but tend to be narrowly Catholic) and the later Merton (where he opens up about social justice issues and deep interfaith exploration) occurred when he began reading the Zen Buddhists in 1960. But I rather think that the emergence of the mature Merton took place at that singular moment on a street corner in 1958, when the scales fell from Merton’s eyes and he no longer saw being a monk as some sort of higher calling, but rather that the dignity of his calling as a monastic was, in fact, the same dignity we all share.
Incidentally, nowadays Walnut Street has been renamed Muhammad Ali Boulevard – but the intersection is, this year, being named “Thomas Merton Square” in honor of the ephiphany. It’s rather neat to see a landmark named in honor of a mystical experience.