The plaque is easy to miss. It stands on the corner of a busy intersection, right in front of Fourth Street Live in downtown Louisville. With all the people, traffic, flashing lights and noise, one might not even see the small bronze sign much less take the time to stop and read it. But if you did, you’d find that plaque commemorates an event that is pretty strange for a hectic, city intersection…it marks the spot of a moment of particular peace, a moment of clarity and quiet.
On March 18, 1958, Thomas Merton, a monk from the Gethsemni Monastery in Bardstown, was in Louisville running some errands when he was suddenly overtaken by a vision. In his book “Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander,” Merton wrote: “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.”
That vision, that mystical experience, set Merton on a new path, prompting him toward a new understanding of his vocation as a monk and his role within the world. He went further into explaining his revelation by stating: “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.”
It’s the job of a historical marker to draw attention to significant locations and people, but it must be a pretty rare thing for a marker to memorialize a vision. But the commemoration doesn’t stop there. Not only was a historical marker erected, but the street names were changed as well. Where Merton had his vision at Fourth and Walnut streets is now the intersection of Muhammad Ali Boulevard and Thomas Merton Square.
For more about the fascinating life of Thomas Merton, join us for the Evening Upstairs program at the McCracken County Public Library on Thursday, August 18, at 7:00 p.m.