by Alys Willman
There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun.
— Thomas Merton, Conjectures of Guilty Bystander
At the corner of Fourth and Walnut Streets in Louisville, Kentucky, about 20 minutes from where I grew up, stands a plaque very unlike most plaques you see in American cities. This one is not a tribute to a fallen war hero, or a commemoration of a battle, or a testament to a building that burned to the ground. It marks the site of a mystical experience for one of our most admired Christian theologians, Thomas Merton.
I imagine Merton standing at that corner, as the busy shoppers rushed in and out of stores around him. It was 1958. The world was leaving one turbulent period and about to head into another. In 10 years, he would be dead.
In the midst of all that noise and movement, he felt this:
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.”
At a time when we are subjected to a constant parade of tragedy, when we are relentlessly reminded of the worst human beings can do to one another, this monument to the experience of pure love and connection is a miracle.
Merton spent most of his life actively listening for God. But even those of us who don’t spend our lives in a hermitage are allowed moments where we awaken from the dream of separateness and know, with every single cell in our body, that we and all of creation are shining like the sun. In these moments, we feel how close God really is to us, and we realize what we all are! We see God face-to-face, and no longer as if in a mirror.
I have received these experiences when my children smile at me, when I’m laughing myself to exhaustion with my husband or a good friend, or when I sing in a group and the harmonies meld just right. I have also known them in moments of deepest despair.
How I wish we would go around marking all the places we experience grace, and know our oneness, instead of commemorating only moments of fear and division. What would it be like if we memorialized the places people came together to help one another out, instead of the places we let each other down?
Imagine what could happen if we put little plaques up everywhere we experienced God’s light? Where would you put your plaque, and what would it say?
This radical love, this relentless insistence on the knowledge of our oneness, may be what the world needs most right now. It may be the only thing the world has ever needed.
I pray that, this Lenten season and always, we find new ways to remind one another that we are all walking around shining like the sun.
Prayer: Lord, your grace shines around all of us all the time, and yet we often miss it. Open our hearts now so that we may awaken from the illusion of separateness, and know our oneness in You.