I just returned from my trip to Louisville, KY where I went to visit with my dear friend Fred Grewe from Oregon. He was there attending an annual conference for hospital chaplains, and was on the schedule to present his latest project, “Your Soul’s Legacy.” I met up with him on his free day, and the two of us travelled an hour south to the Abbey of Gethsemani, the home of the late Thomas Merton.
Some of you know of Thomas Merton and the tremendous influence he had in the 50s and 60s. If you don’t, well… just google his name. You’ll find plenty to jog your memory and educate yourself. I can’t tell you in ample words how much his writings have impacted my life. Suffice it to say, I was eager to make this pilgrimage, especially with Fred because he had been there many times in the past starting back in the 1970’s.
To make a long story short, the 160+ year old abbey has changed a lot since the days of Abraham Lincoln, who’s birth place is just a few miles away (not an easy fact to admit for an IL native like myself). For most of its history, it survived in obscurity, out-shined by the various Kentucky straight whiskey bourbon distilleries in close proximity. When Thomas Merton’s book, The Seven Storey Mountain (1948), gained wide readership, people from all around the country and world made their way to the small, humble Kentucky abbey. I can only imagine what an initial shock this traffic was for the Trappist monks living there, who were dedicated to a life of strict solitude, silence, and gardening.
Fred knew just where to find the entrance into the many trails that meandored through the rolling hills of the abbey acreage. Down the trails I followed him, up a heavily wooded pathway, across a homemade bridge, past many rough and old statues, around a small lake (Fredric Lake – Fred likes to think it was named after him), and into a clearing where Fred has sat alone and contemplated many times through the years. We spent a few moments together in that spot, and then I left him behind while I ventured off on my own to explore the twisting, turning trails Fred was well-aquainted with.
I’d like to say I felt something profound, but I didn’t. However, I purposed to enjoy my surroundings, take a few pics on my phone, pick up a couple of stones on the trail, and appreciate the fact that I was walking in the footsteps of many seeking pilgrims and great thinkers. Eventually, I made my way back to the Abbey’s Visitor’s Center/Gift Shop where Fred and I had determined to meet back up at. As I stood there waiting, three large tour buses pulled up and out poured scores of people who were promptly greeted by the Trappists monks – talking, wearing tennis-shoes and ball-caps, and serving as tourist guides. I have to admit, it was an odd sight for me… not what I was expecting. But heh, what’s the big deal anyway? After all, I was wearing a ball-cap and sneakers too… both very cool, and vintage styled I might add.
On our way home, I goaded Fred into stopping at the Jim Beam Distillery. After all, I reasoned: “We’re here, and there it is; Let’s stop so we can say we did!” Oddly enough, our disterillery visit was not much unlike our visit to the abbey – rolling hills, large buildings, a visitor’s center and gift shop, a small-steepled-Baptist-church in the middle of it all, and rows of buses belching out eager tourists to be greeted by ball-cap, sneaker-wearing tourist guides. I have to admit though, the abbey folks were pleasant, but the Jim Beam folks were much more welcoming and happy. The two experiences back-to-back were surreal, to say the least.
Once we had returned to our hotel in Louisville, Fred was tired and wanted to take a nap. He complained that he hadn’t gotten much sleep the night before because of my snoring. Personally, I don’t know what he was talking about. I never heard myself snore the night before!
Even though he had meticulously identified that my snoring occurs only when I sleep on my left-side… and, had postulated that I needed serious medical attention… and, had strongly encouraged me to seek professional help immediately… I remained indifferent.
Leaving him to nap, I made my way out the revolving front door of the hotel and ventured off to explore the noisy street-life of Louisville. What an interesting city it is with the old and new, raw and refined, all jumbled up and mixed in together. I found myself on “Fourth Street Live,” a street blocked off to auto traffic and lined with restaurants, bars, and live music venues for pedestrians to leisurely enjoy. It was early afternoon and everything was mostly closed. However, gossiping employees were scattered about, slowly prepping for the 3PM start of Happy Hour.
As at the abbey and distillery, I purposed to enjoy my surroundings, snap a few pics, and soak it all in. Eventually, I made my way past all the venders, and empty music stages to a busy intersection. Once the traffic-light had changed, I crossed the street and walked a little ways further into downtown Louisville. There wasn’t much to see, just a few wig shops (interesting?) and rundown, out-of-business storefronts. So, I returned to the same busy intersection, crossed the street again, and in the very spot where I had just previously been, there it was. Hidden behind a road construction sign, a plaque humbly stood in commemoration of the historical spot where Thomas Merton had experienced his momentous street-side revelation. His simplistic, life-changing “ahah-moment” ultimately contributed to a new vibe in the 50s and 60s! And now… remaining behind, was this simple plaque bearing witness to the fact that this ordinary intersection is where something significant, and history-changing once took place.
Yes, I got chills! I hadn’t felt anything significant at the abbey, and I had enjoyed the distillery. But here, at this very unassuming intersection, I was experiencing waves of something I can’t put into words. This was the place I was meant to stand in, the place I had travelled 7-hours from WI to arrive at. And… it was only two blocks from my hotel the whole time – surrounded by noisy traffic, busy people, many wearing ball-caps and sneakers, and intent on getting an early start on Happy Hour!
I (L.A. Emrich) could write so much more, but I’m not for sure how to put it all into worthy words. So… I’ll leave you with the wonderful words that Thomas Merton chose decades earlier to describe his experience when standing at that same, very ordinary, unassuming intersection. Wait! Before you read on, I would suggest putting your sneakers and ball-cap on first. Why? I don’t know. Perhaps, after reading, you just might need to get out and take a walk, cross a street, and… experience your very own “ahah” moment! Beautiful history still longs to be shaped on every busy street corner.
In Louisville, at the corner of Fourth and Walnut, in the center of the shopping district, I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all those 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…
This sense of liberation from an illusory difference was such a relief and such a joy to me that I almost laughed out loud… 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.