January 23, 2018

iMonk Classic: Thoughts on Merton’s “Walnut Street Epiphany”

iMonk Classic: Thoughts on Merton’s “Walnut Street Epiphany”
From a 2005 post by Michael Spencer

“Yesterday, in Louisville, at the corner of 4th and Walnut, I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all these people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers. It was like waking from a dream of separateness, of spurious self-isolation in a special world, the world of renunciation and supposed holiness. The whole illusion of a separate holy existence is a dream. Not that I question the reality of my vocation, or of my monastic life: but the conception of “separation from the world” that we have in the monastery too easily presents itself as a complete illusion….I have the immense joy of being man, a member of a race in which God Himself became incarnate. As if the sorrows and stupidities of the human condition could overwhelm me, now I realize what we all are. And if only everybody could realize this! But it cannot be explained. There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun.”

• Thomas Merton (1915-1968)

For those who don’t know, Thomas Merton was one of the most influential spiritual writers of the twentieth century. Born in France to a New Zealander father and an American mother, Merton grew up in England, converted from atheism to Catholicism, and eventually came to America to attend Columbia University. In 1941 he entered the Trappist monastery of Gethsemani near Louisville, Kentucky, where he spent his life as a writer and spiritual director. Merton’s books continue to exert a strong influence on contemporary Christian spirituality.

Thomas Merton is a friend of mine. He has been endlessly helpful to me as a Christian, a minister and a human being. Many who study Merton divide his life into three “epiphanies.” The first being his conversion to Roman Catholicism and the third being his vision of a unity between Eastern and Western monastic spiritualities. It is the second- and most influential- epiphany that interests me: his famous “Walnut Street” epiphany of connectness to the world of “real” humanity, an experience that reclaimed and re-birthed a love for the world he had renounced.

This experience contrasts with what’s going on in contemporary evangelical worship and what seem to be the goals of contemporary worship. In my opinion Merton’s “epiphany” shows where true Christian spirituality takes us, and shines light on the disturbing contradictory currents that are being evidenced in evangelicalism today.

The “Walnut Street Experience” happened at a crucial point in Merton’s life. He had come to the monastery with the zeal of the new convert, and wanted nothing more than to fade from the surface of the earth into a life of prayer. Instead, on the orders of his superiors, he wrote an autobiography (The Seven Storey Mountain) and became a best-selling author. He was the best known Catholic in America in the 1950’s. After following up with several other books, Merton became disillusioned with his writing career and notoriety, and wanted to stop writing and resume his calling as an anonymous, contemplative monk. His superiors wouldn’t hear of it, and told him to keep writing. Merton was miserable….until he went to Louisville one day to see the dentist, and was captured by a vision of humanity and his love for and commonality with, the human race. It is one of the brightest and best paragraphs Merton ever wrote, and his joy is evident.

It was a transforming experience, one that all Merton lovers are grateful arrived when it did. The “Walnut Street epiphany” returned Merton to his writing, but it was not the same writer. He took off in new and daring directions, writing his most influential and appealing books; books that explored the connection between the Christian and the world of suffering, art, love, war and real living. Instead of the retreated spiritual writer, Merton became the involved political and social writer. He became “worldly,” and embraced a role as spiritual advisor to movements for peace and social justice. After moving to a private hermitage away from the monastery, Merton became a celebrity again, but this time hosting writers, poets and musicians whose names are a “who’s who?” of the sixties.

It would be easy for me to quibble with the politics of Thomas Merton, because I do not share a number of his liberal stances, and have to smile at some of the naive sixties’ sentiment that fill his pages during this period. But at the same time, I am impressed with Merton’s spiritual progress. He came to the monastery convinced that following Christ would take him out of the world, into prayer, into a separate world of Christian spirituality. The Walnut Street experience brought him back into the world, back to the place where involvement and service to people was a clear expression of love for God.

In his early years as a convert, Merton had worked in Harlem with a Catholic ministry to the poor. Merton considered this as a vocation, and then later considered life in a Franciscan lay order that would have allowed him to teach and work in the world, rather than live in the monastery. Merton decided against these callings, feeling in his new convert’s zeal that God surely wanted him to disappear into a life of prayer for others. (It should be understood that Merton saw monastic prayer as undergirding the ministries of those in the world, and not cut off from them.)

Did the “Walnut Street epiphany” reconnect Merton with his earlier callings? Perhaps, but it is more likely that Merton discovered a very simple truth, a truth that inevitably flows from the Gospel when properly, deeply understood.

God is love. God loves me. God loves people. I love people. Not a series of “shoulds” and “oughts,” but a discovery of the reality of the Christian God. Not an audible voice, but the discovery of how the world looks through the Gospel and in Jesus. A stark contrast to non-Trinitarian understandings of God and certainly a contrast to views of reality that cannot accept the incarnation. It was, I would contend, a most healthy development in anyone’s Christian journey.

Merton’s experience suggests that Christian spirituality, worship, prayer and calling ought to bring us, eventually, to the love of people. Where God is most clearly seen and known, compassion and love for people ought to overflow. It is a wrong expression of Christianity that bears the fruit of hostility towards the world of humanity, and directs the Christian away from that world’s brokenness and reality. Merton shows us a rediscovery of true humanness, one where the world and the people in it have the glory of God about them, and we are called by that God into that world.

Comments

  1. Paul McGuire says:

    A lot is being written about the 50 year anniversary of 1968. We lost a lot back then; RFK, MLK, Thomas Merton and it seems like the church and the country are still feeling the loss. We need another generation of leaders like that desperately.

  2. Is Walnit St. now Muhammed Ali Blvd. ?

  3. Very similar experience, seems to me, happened to E. Peterson early in his ministry (after he had started a young church). To be found in “Under the Unpredictable Plant”: I’ll try and chase it down.

  4. Michael was great at packing so much content in so little space. What is this, fewer than a dozen paragraphs? But it’s filled with wonderful insights into who Merton was, how Merton impacted Michael, and what we might glean from those two things for ourselves.

    Money paragraph:
    “God is love. God loves me. God loves people. I love people. Not a series of “shoulds” and “oughts,” but a discovery of the reality of the Christian God. Not an audible voice, but the discovery of how the world looks through the Gospel and in Jesus. A stark contrast to non-Trinitarian understandings of God and certainly a contrast to views of reality that cannot accept the incarnation. It was, I would contend, a most healthy development in anyone’s Christian journey.

  5. Burro [Mule] says:

    What a completely different world Fr. Louis lived in. How unpoliticized and unpoliiticizable his remarks are. This was 1958, an era I just barely remember and am certainly not qualified to comment on, but how healthy it seems to be able to make a statement like that, have it reported accurately, and have it increase your celebrity.

    After 1958 it seems that a lot of things that Fr Louis was able to keep in tension flew apart. I cannot imagine, these days, anyone following the syncretistic path he was following, making a remark like that without controversy.

    • It wasn’t as if Fr. Louis was known outside a fairly restricted circle of religious intellectual readers; he wasn’t a celebrity, except in a very limited sense among people who had similar interests. I’m not sure it was recognized as a syncretistic path by those who would have been aware of it. His vocationally conservative monastic superiors certainly weren’t concerned about syncretism; they were worried about the celebrity he was acquiring, even before he had this Walnut Street epiphany, and expressed it in his writing. One superior accused him of wanting to be a hermit on Main Street, or something to that effect.

    • What I mean to say is that his superiors felt that his notoriety as a man of letters and public intellectual was at odds with his vocation as a monk, and one that aspired to the life of a hermit at that.

      • Burro (Mule) says:

        I think Fr Louis was probably better known than you give him credit for. My parents read his books and lamented his death. One difference between his world and ours is that my parents, who were skeptical middlebrows in their day, would qualify as religious intellectuals today.

    • flatrocker says:

      And if you read the full quote, it envelops you into the radical beauty of what Merton realized. And this type of beauty is at once profoundly freeing, connective, dangerous and threatening..

      Here is the full quote (the quote as listed in the posting is only a partial quote).

      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. It was like waking from a dream of separateness, of spurious self-isolation in a special world, the world of renunciation and supposed holiness. The whole illusion of a separate holy existence is a dream. Not that I question the reality of my vocation, or of my monastic life: but the conception of “separation from world” that we have in the monastery too easily presents itself as a complete illusion: the illusion that by making vows we become a different species of being, pseudoangels, “spiritual men,” men of interior life, what have you.

      Certainly these traditional values are very real, but their reality is not of an order outside everyday existence in a contingent world, nor does it entitle one to despise the secular: though “out of the world” we are in the same world as everybody else, the world of the bomb, the world of race hatred, the world of technology, the world of mass media, big business, revolution, and all the rest. We take a different attitude to all these things, for we belong to God. Yet so does everybody else belong to God. We just happen to be conscious of it, and to make a profession out of this consciousness. But does that entitle us to consider ourselves different, or even better, than others? The whole idea is preposterous.

      This sense of liberation from an illusory difference was such a relief and such a joy to me that I almost laughed out loud. And I suppose my happiness could have taken form in the words: “Thank God, thank God that I am like other men, that I am only a man among others.” To think that for sixteen or seventeen years I have been taking seriously this pure illusion that is implicit in so much of our monastic thinking.

      It is a glorious destiny to be a member of the human race, though it is a race dedicated to many absurdities and one which makes many terrible mistakes: yet, with all that, God Himself gloried in becoming a member of the human race. A member of the human race! To think that such a commonplace realization should suddenly seem like news that one holds the winning ticket in a cosmic sweepstakes.

      I have the immense joy of being man, a member of a race in which God Himself became incarnate. As if the sorrows and stupidities of the human condition could overwhelm me, now I realize what we all are. And if only everybody could realize this! But it cannot be explained. There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun.

      This changes nothing in the sense and value of my solitude, for it is in fact the function of solitude to make one realize such things with a clarity that would be impossible to anyone completely immersed in the other cares, the other illusions, and all the automatisms of a tightly collective existence. My solitude, however, is not my own, for I see now how much it belongs to them – and that I have a responsibility for it in their regard, not just my own. 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 as 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 they 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. . .I supposed the big problem would be that we would fall down and worship each other. But this cannot be seen, only believed and “understood” by a peculiar gift.

      Again, that expression, le point vierge, (I cannot translate it) comes in here. At the center of our being, is a point of nothingness which is untouched by sin and illusion, a point of pure truth, a point or spark which belongs entirely to God, which is never at our disposal, from which God disposes of our lives, which is inaccessible to the fantasies of our own mind or the brutalities of our own will. This little point of nothingness and of absolute poverty is the pure glory of God in us. It is sot to speak His name written in us, as our poverty, as our indigence, as our dependence, as our sonship. It is like a pure diamond, blazing with the invisible light of heaven. It is in everybody, and if we could see it we would see these billions of points of light coming together in the face and blaze of a sun that would make all the darkness and cruelty of life vanish completely. . . .I have no program for this seeing. It is only given. But the gate of heaven is everywhere.

      • The extended passage is indeed beautifully powerful. It seems to me to express the core insight that Bonhoeffer in his conjectures about religionless Chistianity was trying to get at, and best of the latter secular theology too.

  6. john brry says:

    Robert F. , I think you are right and I agree with you about the conflicting endeavors of Thomas Merton. It is like the hermit Ben Gunn of Treasure Island fame. Actually it is more like not only wanting and longing for unattainable cheese like Ben Gunn but when able going on a cheese speaking tour and becoming a Kraft Cheese spokesman, while professing to want the quite life of a hermit pirate or completive monk. . If I recall correctly Ben Gunn, decided to remain a hermit on the island while Merton answered the call of enlightenment he searched. Thomas Merton was one of the “cool” voices of the late 1960’s as he was the purported hermit who entertained visitors and got world exposure. I would imagine that he put his monastic superiors in a Hobson choice situation as his fame and financial contributions increased. A lot of my fellow students at junior college got Merton more than I did and they were right. For one I did not know a monk could have a girlfriend. He did write well and became a social justice advocate with a large following.
    His untimely death was shocking and would have made a good ending to a “Twilight Zone or Alfred Hitchcock drama. The comparison to M. Ali is probably very appropriate as both made many detours in their travels.
    I am sure as it is noted here many times science and faith are two separate roads and unplugging an electric fan from a third world outlet with damp feet is basic electrical science knowledge that should be observed. We can transcend to many levels perhaps but the power of electrical current is real.

    • jb, You’re kind of putting words in my mouth here. I described the way Merton’s situation was viewed by his superiors, not the way I view it. I’m very glad that Merton continued to write what he wrote and think the thoughts he did, sometimes against his superior’s preferences. By exercising disciplined resistance to the monastic habits of his order and superiors, he was able to leave a spiritual legacy in the body of his work that has been of great benefit to me and many others.

      I also think you are being a little glib about the life and death of a man who was a giant of the spirit in comparison to most of us. To offhandedly and superficially touch on the matter of his relationship to the nurse during the latter part of his life is unfair, since neither you nor I, nor anyone else, knows the character of that relationship, aside from God. His death at such a young age, at the height of his spiritual and literary powers, was a tragic loss to the world.

      • john barry says:

        Robert F. Sorry, did not mean to put words in your mouth, I have trouble enough putting them into my mine in a coherent way. I do think you stated the views of his religious superiors well and it should be duly noted you were expressing their concerns correctly not yours, which I do think were valid concerns for them to have. .
        I certainly am not an expert on Merton and do not know what the Catholic Church thinks of his endeavors as that was his faith. I meant no disrespect to the memory of the man and I am sure he would tolerate my immature and perhaps low intellect comments. I only gleamed my very superficial knowledge of Merton from memory as I stated he was quite well known in the late 60′ and early 70’s . One of the few items I recalled was the rare, freak accident , uncommon and sad early end to his life.
        My main takeaway from Merton as he got into his Zen phase was that Eastern religion seems to turn inward toward self awareness and self while Christianity turn outward toward Christ . I am certainly no expert in Zen or Eastern religions or Merton for sure. If people learn and deepened their faith though him then he certainly brought more into this world than I ever will.
        I would rather in a selfish kind of looking for an excuse personally think that a great wordsmith like Merton with his obvious deep searching intellect and self confidence might appreciate my low brow attempt to have others be engaged in his life story that is the foundation of his writings. As with all people if you want to judge Merton do so by his life work not his death or what someone with limited knowledge of him may pen about him.
        Sorry about putting words in your mouth as I am use to putting my foot in mind but that only affects me unless at an at the drive though at McDonalds.

        • My main takeaway from Merton as he got into his Zen phase was that Eastern religion seems to turn inward toward self awareness and self while Christianity turn outward toward Christ.

          Actually, as Merton immersed himself in Zen, he turned toward the world. He did this in his photography and oriental calligraphy, as well his continued writing. He became more political, established and kept correspondence with many important social and political activists of his time, providing inspiration and support to them in their struggles to change the world. He also did it by striving to make contact with monastics from other religious traditions, with whom he felt strong kinship, going so far as seeking and receiving permission from his abbot to take a tour of Asia for this purpose. It was near the end of this tour that he had his fatal mishap. In fact, it was this increased gregariousness, his stepping toward the world with one foot even as he kept his other foot firmly in his hermitage, that caused the most friction between him and his superiors. Merton was no navel gazer; he loved humanity, and sought to integrate his spirituality with a profound religious humanism.

        • My admiration for Merton’s love of humanity, his own as well as others, leads me to admire his ability so late in middle age, after so many years of celibacy as a monastic, to fall in love with one of the nurses who cared for him when he spent some time as a patient at the hospital in Louisville. I don’t view this, insofar as I know anything about it, as a moral failure, but as a testament to how profoundly human, and turned toward the world and people, Merton remained throughout his life, to the very end.

  7. Do people today read Merton with the excitement we did back in the seventies? “Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander” was an indispensable text. Here was a person engaging with his culture while not leaving his spiritual experience behind. An alternative to the religious bubble I grew up in that used its piety as a shield. The irony (and the paradox) that he was a monk was not lost on us.

    I’ve always wondered what a post-60s Merton would have been like.

  8. john barry says:

    Stephen, I am intrigued as to how piety was used as a shield in the religious teachings you grew up with. I think I know what you mean but how do you pop the bubble of piety and replace it with your current beliefs? Was Merton not a pious monk or would not a devout Buddhist Monk be pious?