Thomas Merton, who lived a monk’s life for 27 years, experienced one of his most intense revelations at a busy city intersection.
A monk at the Abbey of Gethsemani in the Kentucky hills, Merton was running monastery errands in nearby Louisville in March 1958. At Fourth and Walnut, he looked around at passers-by. Later, he wrote in “Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander” that he saw the “secret beauty of their hearts, … the core of their reality, the person that each one is in God’s eyes.”
We learn to negotiate intersections at a young age. Color-coded lights, walk and don’t-walk signs that flash — together, they suppress danger. Order, or at least its reasonable expectation, is imposed on chaos. Crosswalks mark the safe perimeter that we imagine. But the unexpected seeps in: Scramble crosswalks disrupt expectations. Crossing diagonally feels like entering unknown territory, where we may find both fear and freedom.
Intersections happen all around us. A Jesuit axiom puts it this way: Go out and encounter the world, meet the people where they are, find God in all things. You don’t wisely head to an intersection if you can’t accept that the unexpected may lurk there. When Jesuits wrote to Ignatius from far-away lands for help in solving a local problem, he replied that since he wasn’t there they’d have to figure it out themselves.
Flannery O’Connor, another Catholic writer who lived a somewhat cloistered life, described the risk of not preparing for the unexpected in her story “The Enduring Chill.” Asbury Fox, all of 25 and convinced he’s on his death bed, asks for a priest, a man of culture, one who is his presumed intellectual peer. “Most of them are very well-educated,” Fox tells his mother, “but Jesuits are foolproof. A Jesuit would be able to discuss something besides the weather.” Who he gets is old Father Finn, with one working eye and only half his hearing. Finn’s urbane conversation: Do you say your prayers? Problems with purity? Do you know your catechism? Fox receives a surprising revelation. But Finn is not the messenger Fox foresaw.
It makes sense that Merton the Trappist met his epiphany in downtown Louisville: Cities are intersections of ideas, faiths, imaginations, temptations, and people and their histories. He wanted to tell people that day “that they are all walking around shining like the sun.” He died in Bangkok, at a conference of Catholic and non-Christian monks, in the month of December. That may be a coincidence, but in December the Nativity intersects the world.