November 29, 2020

Fridays with Michael Spencer: February 10, 2017

Chicago River Bridge 2016

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 rebirthed a love for the world he had renounced.

I’m going to connect this experience to what’s going on in contemporary evangelical worship and what seem to be the goals of contemporary worship. In particular, I want to examine where true Christian spirituality takes us, and 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.

Gethsemani Abbey 2014

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.

• • •

From a classic iMonk post, “Contemporary Worship and the ‘Walnut Street Epiphany'”


  1. It is my understanding that Merton was rejected by the Franciscans…

  2. Those epiphanies are, at times, the iconoclastic end to some of our best and most dearly held theology.

  3. >> Merton’s books continue to exert a strong influence on contemporary Christian spirituality. . . . In particular, I want to examine where true Christian spirituality takes us, and the disturbing contradictory currents that are being evidenced in evangelicalism today.

    But in fact the posting today does not proceed to flog this dead horse, and I am going to assume we have CM’s editorial scissors to thank. Merton does speak to contemporary Christian spirituality in the church at large, and the church at large needs to hear what Merton has to say. I’m not so sure that the evangelical world is quite ready for Merton, but that’s okay, they have C.S. Lewis to gnaw on while they catch up.

    Merton and Lewis were roughly contemporaries. I have no idea whether they ever met each other or even read each other. I put them both in the same shoe box of influential authors I’ve never been able to get into but I observe their benefit on those around me. To put this into some perspective, my father, who read neither Lewis nor Merton, was born in between these two notables, and I am old enough to be grandfather to some here, so we are at least talking about your father’s Oldsmobile. One thing I learned from my college education, tho only later, was that at the time I studied Literature, Science, and the Arts, all presumably at their height, all three were fifty years behind the cutting edge, probably still are, and this fifty year cushion seems to be necessary to most people’s comfort zone. Fifty years ago was 1967, The Summer of Love, which devolved into turmoil much like we see today. Apparently what goes around, comes around.

    Both Thomas Merton and C.S. Lewis strike me as good introductions to closer reality. Certainly they are preferable to the fear-mongering and brain-washing of the mass media today, and at least they both are pulling people out of the nineteenth century into the twentieth, which strikes me as a step in the right direction. Most of the church is still mired in those two centuries, dazed and confused, struggling to understand what’s going on. Again, I urge anyone who has not already done so to read the two pieces up in the sidebar by Ilia Delio and Richard Rohr before they disappear.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says

      Most of the church is still mired in those two centuries, dazed and confused, struggling to understand what’s going on.

      Kind of like the opening theme from All in the Family, Except CHRISTIAN(TM).

      Which explains a lot of the demographics of the last election.
      (And the current long-lasting trend to Messiah Politics/Man On The White Horse.)

  4. “God is love. God loves me. God loves people. I love people.”

    I have come to believe this, well, at least the first three propositions though I am desperately trying to achieve the fourth because some guy I know said loving people was as important as loving God.

    • +1.

      And yet we Christians, being flawed human beings, consistently insist on turning the Gospel into “the other things”: free will vs. predetermination, full immersion baptism vs. sprinkling, pre-trib vs. post-trib, etc. etc. It’s no wonder the gate is narrow…we make it that way.

      • Yes, we do. And we have turned into gatekeepers as a result.

      • Adam Tauno Williams says


        This needs a name; like “Theologism”, or something. Using high-faluting ideas piled atop basic ideas to avoid considering the implications of those basic ideas.

  5. Charles, I’ve read a fair amount of TM’s books–and a couple of biographies. I have not encountered Merton making a reference to Lewis, even obliquely, and neither of the bio’s I’ve read have mentioned Lewis. And that seems odd. William Blake was very influential however. In Conjectures both Bonhoeffer and Barth are quoted.

    • >> William Blake was very influential however. In Conjectures both Bonhoeffer and Barth are quoted.

      Blake, Bonhoeffer, and Barth make for a strange brew. Might better have expected that one from Lewis. Interesting, thanks Tom.

  6. At some point, immersed in the monastic world, ways of viewing our humanity are altered. It happened to Merton positively, apparently.

    Truth is, getting away ‘from it all’ gives enough perspective to be able to see the forest for the trees. It also helps when a monk works in the soil and in practical ways as a counter point to prayer. In making order out of the soil, there is a need to plow up one’s fallow ground, both literally and figuratively ….. once this happens, a person gains a new perspective and often what was ‘taken for granted’ comes into focus, which happened for Merton with his view of the people ‘walking around, shining like the sun’.

    What kind of life do we need to live in order to stop taking everything and everyone for granted????? 🙂