At Thomas Merton Square During the Compassion Tour

While in Louisville for the month of November, 2014, I came to discover the life of the Trappist monk Thomas Merton. I knew beforehand that I would be standing downtown at Thomas Merton Square where he had an epiphany of the Oneness of all life.

At the beginning of my stay in the city for The Compassion Tour, I knew little of his life, his background, and his writings. I was able to visit the Thomas Merton Center at Bellarmine University and was given a tour to learn more about Merton and his spiritual experiences. It brought Merton’s story to life through his drawings, journals, books, and other memorabilia. Here is an excerpt from Merton’s private journal, 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 separateness, of the “special” vocation to be different. My vocation does not really make me different from the rest of men or put me is 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!

Thank God! Thank God! I am only another member of the human race, like all the rest of them. I have the immense joy of being a man! As if the sorrows of our condition could really matter, once we begin to realize who and what we are — as if we could ever begin to realize it on earth.”

I came up understand the relevance of Merton’s life on the city of Louisville. Most interactions with people in the community involved some conversation about Merton. His life touched many people of many faiths that, to this day, he still has an influence in the community, so much that the city commemorated his epiphany with an interpretive sign. Even while enjoying a visit with Mayor Greg Fischer at the corner, Merton came up as a topic of conversation. Merton’s short yet profound connection with His Holiness the Dalai Lama expands his teachings beyond Christianity into the secular realm, showing how the universal truths Merton shared and his lifestyle exemplify wisdom, love, and compassion. I believe this is why Merton provides a tremendous influence on what is being done to make Louisville an example of a compassionate city.

Knowing more about Merton and the corner’s historical relevance, I can ask myself, “What did I witness while standing at Merton Square?” I saw many people going to lunch and others going without lunch. I noticed a very fancy restaurant that took up half a city block and every time I peeked inside I saw no one eating. I saw people checking into the hotel across the street while others wandered without a home to go to. I saw people being dropped off in luxury cars while others ran to catch congested buses. There were men dressed in suits and ties, others dressed with their life’s belongings on their backs. There were women dressed in high heels and others barefoot. I saw the smokers, shoppers, vagabonds, businessmen, homeless, young, old, blind, cradled, and the forgotten souls of the city, all passing by one another as if parading by in masks.

One man asked me what I was doing and after I told him about the tour, he asked if he could come with me. It struck me that someone can be without a connection to others socially, to a purpose, or to employment that he could spontaneously ask such a question. I talked to people eager to tell their story and listened to a few if time permitted. I saw the spirit of the holidays grow as decorations went up. I witnessed the convergence of so many worlds in close proximity.

I came to relate the epiphany of Thomas Merton to similar experiences while standing at the corner of 3rd and C in Davis, California. On June 3rd, 2009, I began asking people to write their concept of compassion in a notebook. Soon after I started, I reflected on such a time of Oneness while journaling one evening on July 21st, 2009:

Man came today and explained how he choose to live in ignorance rather than awareness. Wonder if that is awareness in itself? A choice to live in ignorance. Calm, aware, smooth, focused, serene, loving — thoughts move easily through the mind, focusing on This-is-All, Now, more easily. All is One. See the big picture — galaxies, stars, dust — the eternal cosmos at play. With this as Is, Awareness breathes like a newborn baby, for all eternity. Awareness lasts forever. Awareness is All Is, Now. All these galaxies, black holes, supernovas, nebulae, dust — all are One, Now!! From the moment of mind, to thought, to the void of Now. Both are Now at once. All light, all miracles, all wonder ceases to exist with Awareness.

Love for all. Compassion for all. Love and Compassion. All are blessed, all are part of One. As part of this Universe, all things are equal. All things have its value in One. Singularity. The Singular. All add up to One from Zero. Only more of the constant One. Magnificence. Source. That is God.

I understand how Merton’s compassionate heart reached out to those around him to the point where he felt at one with them all. Seeing the harmony of the Universe’s symphony, one can see how one’s thoughts, words, and deeds play as an instrument of God’s creativity. I believe this understanding leads to a will greater than our ego’s demands — it leads to surrender.

I also connect with Merton through a similar surrendering process toward a deeper, more purposeful life. I began asking people to write their concept of compassion in a notebook after listening to a soft still voice inside instructing me to do so. It became a life purpose without really knowing what would happen, how it would provide, or what any of the outcomes would be. Merton shares a similar sentiment in what has become known as “Merton’s Prayer,”

“My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think that I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road though I may know nothing about it. Therefore will I trust you always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.”

When I first began, I walked hand-in-hand with faith across a desert. I crossed a threshold into a fertile oasis, leaving behind faith, and began holding hands with knowing as I continued to walk through fresh waters and fruitful trees. The fruit has led to inspiring others to explore themselves, to live a more compassionate life, and to recognize the light that shines on the seeds within their own hearts.

The time spent at Merton Square provided an experience within a kaleidoscope of people. One can see how being exposed to humanity in a single spot can open one’s eyes to the workings of the universe and how it bends toward compassion. I am grateful to Tom Williams for suggesting Merton Square as the corner for The Compassion Tour. I am grateful to Louisville for the hospitality during my stay there. I am grateful to find out about Merton as more than just a Trappist monk, coming to a deeper understanding of Merton as a man.


Originally published at compassionis.com.