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Exploring Louisville's Enchanting, Peculiar Thomas Merton Marker

Like many folks, Louisvillians can be rebellious nostalgists, railing against the churn of urban change.

It’s an always-apt urban metaphor, but a city is a palimpsest, a surface upon which the past has been incompletely effaced before being overwritten by the present, the past lingering on as a kind of archaeological memory. The most obvious recent example of this is Whiskey Row, a literal shell, echoing the aesthetics and economics of Main Street’s history.

Of course, usually only the heartiest bits of history survive beyond history books and aging memories.

Which makes the modest marker at the corner of Fourth Street and Muhammad Ali Boulevard that much more enchanting. The plaque — one of nearly 2,500 placed by the Kentucky Historical Society since 1949 — marks one of the most effervescent of human experiences: an epiphany.

On March 18, 1958, Thomas Merton, a Trappist monk residing at the Abbey of Our Lady of Gethsemani near Bardstown, was running errands. Standing at that corner, Merton experienced what many consider a turning point in his life. He was, as the plaque says, “suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all these people ... walking around shining like the sun.”

But why is there a state-sanctioned marker attesting to one man’s spiritual revelation? This requires an exploration of both the poetic and the prosaic.

First, the poetic.

In 1958, Merton had been famous for a decade. His autobiography “The Seven Storey Mountain,” published in 1948, had won worldwide acclaim. Merton moved to Gethsemani to live a life of seclusion, but his urge to write — and the eloquent, raw, passionate books he produced — kept him engaged in the world.

“You get the impression,” Paul Pearson, director and archivist of Bellarmine University’s Thomas Merton Center, “certainly in 'The Seven Story Mountain,' that he’d had a pretty rough early life, and he didn’t want anymore to do with the world.”

At Fourth and Walnut, Merton’s stance toward the world changed irrevocably.

The epiphany “points to Merton’s movement from being kind of an enclosed monk in the monastery, turning his back on the world, to beginning to turn toward the world,” Pearson says. “He was cutting himself off from the world, but gradually he realizes you can’t do that. That he’s in the monastery for the world. And I think that’s just a moment which clarifies the process that’s been going on. It’s not a Damascus Road conversion. It just is a moment of insight.”

There couldn’t have been a more appropriate location for the completion of Merton’s transition. Walnut Street was one of the primary commercial thoroughfares for Louisville’s African-American community. In 1958, years before the passage of both the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act, and only four years after the divisive Brown v Board of Education Supreme Court decision, Merton’s feeling of human solidarity was experienced across race and economic lines in what was — and remains — a stubbornly stratified city.

Merton didn’t publish about this experience for nearly a decade. In 1966, he published “Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander,” which includes a slightly revised version of the experience. Since then, the Fourth and Walnut epiphany has largely been viewed as a central moment in Merton’s life.

“It’s such a key experience about his understanding of the religious life and its relationship to the world,” says Pearson. “I think that in a lot of religious literature you’ve got key moments — of Augustine in the garden or Julian of Norwich. I think this moment of Merton’s will be similar in centuries to come. It will be one thing that everyone knows having read Merton.”

So that’s the poetic. What about the prosaic?

The Merton plaque is part of the Kentucky Historical Society’s Historical Marker Program. According to Becky Riddle, program coordinator, the process of applying for a plaque is simple. After submission, an advisory committee reviews applications. If approved, the applying organization — in Merton’s case, the Thomas Merton Center Foundation — pays a $2,500 fee and six weeks later, a 100-pound cast aluminum marker arrives.

Riddle says a marker for a religious moment is both odd and in keeping with values of the program, which is to tell “stories that people on the street won’t know” just by walking by.

Merton is no mystery to Louisville, of course. The Frazier Museum is currently hosting a Merton exhibit, "A Familiar Stranger." But according to Pearson, Merton doesn’t always receive his due.

“There’s a difficulty here,” Pearson says, “in that in some ways, Merton is too familiar here with a lot of people. And so they tend to dismiss him. Just so many people know stories about him. ‘Oh, I had an uncle who used to visit him.’ It takes away the impact of his work. Whereas people from all over the world come on pilgrimage because Merton’s work has had such an impact on their life.”

And when they come on pilgrimage, they usually pay a visit to the corner of Fourth and Muhammad Ali, where a man once had a vision of a better world and where, despite all odds, we have been able to anchor that moment to the present.

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