In October thanks to a friend, I had the chance to spend three days in silence at a Jesuit retreat house outside Detroit – just what I needed.
One morning at Mass, as we began to pray the Lord’s prayer, I found myself unable to go beyond the first word – “our”. The sense of belonging overwhelmed me. Pure grace.
I shared this with a priest I saw for a short talk and confession and he noted that it sounded like Thomas Merton’s epiphany experience, recounted in Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, pp. 140-141.
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 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…
I have the immense joy of being man, a member of the race in which God Himself became incarnate. As if the sorrow and stupidities of the human condition could overwhelm me, now I realize that we are all one. 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….There are no strangers!
… the gate of heaven is everywhere.
The whole quotation is worth meditating over since it reveals Merton’s incarnational theology and calls us to recognize our connectedness with OUR Father. We are not isolated individuals.
But for Merton his epiphany was also an experience of joy. As he wrote, “This sense of liberation from an illusory difference was such a relief and such a joy to me that I almost laughed out loud.”
A few months before leaving for Honduras in 2007, I was at a meeting of the Just Faith board in Louisville. We had a chance to walk around town and reached the corner of Merton’s epiphany. I almost laughed out loud, because there, just by the historical marker noting Merton’s experience on March 18, 1958, there was a small statue of a gnome. How appropriate! What a way to make this epiphany experience something real – and not just a pious act.
I don’t know it is still there – and I had no camera to take a photo – but that ugly gnome reminds me of our connectedness with all creation – including the gnomes.
“Our” Father embraces all of creation.