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.