The Corner of Fourth and Walnut
Our reading this Sunday came to us from the book, “Conjectures of a Guilty Bystanders,” by the Trappist monk, Thomas Merton, concerning his revelation at the corner of Fourth and Walnut in Louisville, KY.
There is something fantastic and yet mundane at the same time about the spiritual life. People have long thought about the depth of our inner world and how it relates to the grand scheme of life and all existence.
And yet, the greatest pieces of spiritual wisdom, in my opinion, are not the stories of saviors, creation, or Armageddon – but the simpler moments of routine living. Whether we ultimately identify those moments as spiritual or practical, I’ll leave that to the linguists.
But for me, as a minister, they are in the very least transcendent – teaching moments – unexpected – and harbingers of wisdom. I suspect we all long for those moments. We know what they are. Those unexpected glimpses of wonder with each passing day.
They come to us when we are stirring cream into our coffee, meet eyes with a stranger, or pause to behold the beauty of, yes, the world, but also the single moment we find ourselves in. I remember one such moment for myself.
It was in the midst of my seminary education, though I can’t remember the year. Like all small spiritual moments that come out of the mundane, the specific details are lost to me. I remember the place, I remember the feeling, I remember the thoughts that followed.
It was another long day in seminary – my education was punctuated with intensive sessions of classwork where I would commute to downtown Chicago from the suburbs by train every morning for weeks. On the train by six only to return home more often than not at ten, rinse and repeat the next morning.
Seminary is a peculiar thing. It tries to break you down with tests of spiritual endurance much like organic chemistry tries to break down pre-med students. It was one of those weeks where I was sitting there on the train ride home late at night wondering about this calling, wondering about how it would unfold, and wondering about what led me to that moment of my life.
Nothing unique to the human experience, we all wonder about our lives, many of you may have done so before walking through the doors this morning. On the train that evening, as it whirred by rusty junkyards, the complicated neighborhoods of the west side, and bright lights and dive bars and this city of three million people that was home, I zoned out and simply thought, looking out.
Halfway through the ride home as the train slowed and began to stop at a platform, I noticed two people standing there on the far side of the platform, waiting for a train to take them back into the city. They were about my age, well-kempt, and, oddly enough, dressed to the nines.
The man was in a tuxedo, the woman in a summer dress, both were impeccable – they were facing each other. As the train stopped, they took hands, smiled, and began to waltz on the train platform. They kept smiling, clearly started laughing, and waltzed around under the dim lights of a Chicago train station.
As the train pulled away, they kept dancing. I was completely obsessed with what I had just witnessed. Some would think it absurd, some would call them stupid, most probably didn’t think twice about it – you see some strange things happen in the city and this didn’t hold a candle to any of that.
But what I saw was the most perfect moment that night. Two people that clearly loved one another – be it romantic or platonic – it didn’t matter – dancing a waltz as the rush and blur of the city passed them by.
It was a simple glimpse into the lives of two people that I will never see again, but in my mind, they are still dancing, still smiling, still finding room for enjoyment on a dingy train platform. For a seminary student discerning their call in life, it was exactly what I needed to see.
It reminded me of why the religious and spiritual matter to me. It is not because of those grander stories we tell – stories of cosmic balance, good vs. evil, resurrection over despair, though those stories have a place of importance in their own right, but more important still – to the religious, to the spiritual, to these communities we call church – I was reminded that it was those glimpses into the simple moments of life that teach us the most.
If two people can waltz in the endless rush of the world, one person can turn their prayers into actions, one person can make a difference, one person can help build and strengthen community. I was flooded with hope that night.
Not a hope for myself, not really a hope for some grand transformation in our world, but a hope for the endurance of the human spirit – we can still dance and sing and love in the seconds we find between our busy schedules.
When have you had such hope upon observing or experience an otherwise simple or mundane moment in your life? When has the light come rushing in when you least expect it – when have you found extraordinary wonder, be it beautiful or terrifying or both, in the ordinary? We all have those moments.
Some call them transcendent, some call them epiphanies, some grace or majesty or the divine breaking through to our heart, and to some they are just happenstance. However we name those moments, they are truly moments of connection with the world around us – especially the people in our midst.
It’s a way of feeling compassion and connection at once. The Trappist monk and spiritual writer, Thomas Merton, wrote of this compassion when he said: “The whole idea of compassion is based on a keen awareness of the interdependence of all these living beings, which are all part of one another, and all involved in one another.”
Who better to speak of simple revelations and compassion than a man considered to be one of the greatest religious thinkers of our time. Though I am, of course, biased. Thomas Merton is by far my favorite, well, my favorite everything: priest, monk, teacher, contemplative, social activist, theologian, Catholic. His work has an accessibility to it that reaches across religious and political divides.
For those of you unfamiliar with him, Thomas Merton was a Trappist monk, a prolific writer, and is to this day a revered spiritual and religious writer. He was born in France in 1915 to artist parents and was orphaned after his mother died of cancer when he was six and his father when he was sixteen.
He went on to study in France and then England but was called back to the United States for poor behavior and went on to study at Columbia University. A religious eclectic in his youth, a baptized Anglican, and an on and off again agnostic, he attended Episcopal and Quaker services until he was finally received into the Catholic church at the age of 23.
He graduated college and would go on to teach English at St. Bonaventure College. Not long after taking a class on St. Thomas Aquinas, Merton felt a call to the priesthood and the monastic life.
He would go on to discern which order was his true calling, but ultimately was welcomed into the Trappist order at the Abbey of Gethsemani just south of Bardstown, Kentucky in 1941.
When he was 33 years old he published his autobiography – The Seven Storey Mountain – and attracted a following for his insights, his vulnerability, his wisdom, and the depth of his spiritual autobiography. His relatable Christian mysticism has appealed to generations since.
The Dalai Lama would go on to call him a “holy man” and a “spiritual father” – and he lived his Christian faith by building relationships with people across the religious divide.
He was fascinated by Eastern religion, was known for his sense of humor – a famous image of him shows him in his habit wearing a baseball cap – and to many today he is still known as a writer, a poet, a mystic, a theologian, a spiritual teacher, a priest, and chiefly a monk.
Sadly, his life was cut short at the age of 53 as he was stepping out of his bath he accidently touched an electric fan, which shocked him and caused him to suffer a fatal heart attack. He was in Thailand for a meeting of monks from various Eastern and Western religious traditions.
His life was much richer than that synopsis, and his writing deals in a raw spirituality that I could only hope for as a person of faith. But one of the most famous stories of his life is the one you heard earlier – the revelation he had on the corner of Fourth and Walnut in Louisville.
It was a simple moment, a passing flicker of life, and unexpected to him. It was an unexpected waltz on a platform. This story of his sudden connection and love for all of humanity encapsulates the core of what it is to find beauty and wonder in the most ordinary of moments.
How lucky are we to have such experiences in our lives? Back in 2013, when the Unitarian Universalist Association held their General Assembly, a nationwide gathering of UUs from near and far, in Louisville, I went to the corner of Fourth and Walnut. It was actually an accident.
I had no expected to stumble upon it, though I knew his revelation happened in Louisville. If you were there during that General Assembly, you’ll remember just how hot and humid it was.
I was standing on the corner, waiting for the dang light to change so I could cross, and I looked up at the historical marker and read it. Upon reading it, I thought it was a happy accident that I happened to be there – Merton being one of my heroes.
And so I waited for my own sudden realization, similar to Merton. I wanted to be flooded with some divine truth, whether it was loving everyone around me or being inspired in some other way. And I waited. I looked up and down the sidewalks. Nothing.
No divine revelation, no sudden awareness, no greater love for the world, just a pale red head dripping on an ungodly hot and humid day with a historical marker mocking me. Here’s the reality with these simple spiritual moments – or even the greater revelations of life – they cannot be commanded.
And they are uniquely ours. Merton’s compassion for all humanity on the corner of Fourth and Walnut was entirely his, my wonderment at seeing a couple waltz on a train platform belonged only to me that night.
So it begs the question, what moments of inspiration are uniquely and wholly yours? And while we cannot be participants in those happenings, we can still learn from what you experienced.
We all won’t get historical markers like Thomas Merton did, but perhaps we can help one another learn of our own private worlds and enrich our communal experience by the stories of compassion and connection that we experience.
But so, too, what could we be inspired to do upon hearing of one another’s revelations? Unitarian Universalist theologian and minister James Luther Adams once remarked, “We have long held to the idea of the priesthood of all believers…we need also to affirm belief in the prophethood of all believers.”
Prophethood for Unitarian Universalists is just as I’ve been describing it – not as grand as Moses or Jesus or Mohammed – but often mundane, ordinary, simple, and still unexpected.
It’s the love you learn about from a waltzing couple on a train platform, the connection you feel standing on a street corner, the bridges you build by reaching out to your neighbor, the realization that your voice is important and that it is so much more resonant in a supportive community.
Thomas Merton lived a life where he saw the infinite in the passing moments of each day. He felt it in the silence he held as a Trappist monk, in the simple, clean lines of his artwork, in his poetry and prayers and casual observations, and in each interaction with the world.
And that moment he had on the corner of Fourth and Walnut transformed his life, transformed him into someone that could look at a stranger and say, yes, I love them. I don’t think those glimpses of infinity I’ve had in my own life have ever led to such widespread connection, but I can at least look at each person, be they friend or enemy, and know they are capable of love and redemption.
What have you learned from those seemingly unimportant but suddenly explosive seconds in your life? How have they moved you to be a more compassionate, connected, and aware person? What truths have you found that you are called, as a Unitarian Universalist, to not only share but practice in the world?
This is our great calling as Unitarian Universalists. To find beauty, wonder, and always a way forward in all that comes upon us – and more importantly, to do so in community, to reveal those vulnerable moments to our neighbors, to go deep and invite people to go with us. To take risks. To be prophetic where others would see the ordinary.
Imagine what 300 people could do if they stopped, smiled, and waltzed on the platform of our everyday living. We need to be asking of ourselves what great wonders does life hold in our everyday living? I contend that is what all of the great spiritual masters of our time have shown us, that the ordinary can be wondrous.
That there is beauty and wonder to be found – and what we do with it makes all of the difference. I suspect the world could use more revelations on the corner of Fourth and Walnut and with young couples waltzing on a train platform.
The world could use more of what you have found, too. In closing I share with you the words of Thomas Merton, who summed up this seeking and finding in a way only a Trappist monk could: We have what we seek, it is there all the time, and if we give it time, it will make itself known to us.