In the midst of shamatha—calm abiding—lately, I’ve been having Fourth-and-Walnut moments. Thomas Merton (1915-1968) enthusiasts know what I’m talking about. One of the famous monk’s most beloved writings comes from Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, which Thomas Moore calls a “mind-bending collection of short pieces”:
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 . . . .
After a couple paragraphs of poetic crescendo and decrescendo, Merton closes his epiphany:
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.
But even if it were possible for me to tell a friend or stranger, “You know, I can see past your skin and know we’re family. Do you understand that you’re beautiful?” it wouldn’t be advisable. First, I’d appear to be on an acid trip. And second, I’d stomp all over the moment with my inadequate words.
It’s better to stay quiet, as I did last evening over a few Lucifer Belgian ales at the Tap House with old college teaching colleagues. One guy, who’s been retired for over ten years but looks in better shape than I do, nursed his beer and held forth at length. But this wasn’t a self-indulgent, drunken monologue. Behind my friend’s skin I could see a spirit beyond shining. He seems to be engaged in a life-long lover’s quarrel with the world: what he loves, he loves recklessly; when he rails, he rails through clenched teeth. He’s got the universe caught up in a fierce embrace.
During my first beer last night at the Tap Room, Kathy e-mailed me a photograph along with this message: “Wish you were here to share our fresh garden veggies.” Behind the food I could see my wife shining; she lives as if she were a sail, snapping full in a puff of wind and going where the weather takes her. I’m not adventurous, but I can join her when my neuroses permit and stand clear when they won’t.
Another shining spirit is a woman I saw at church this morning. I won’t name her because she’d be embarrassed, but as she volunteers with more efforts than I probably realize, she gives off life. We had a belly laugh when she showed me a potless plant. Obviously somebody had broken the pot and put the dirt and root system back in the stand. There’s no way I can imagine being alien from this friend.
Yet another church friend hangs his paintings in the office. Parish Administrator Michelle and I love the work of this self-taught guy whose basement is full of decades of canvasses. He and his wife are getting on in years, but—honest to God—their gentleness glows. Being with them for ten minutes can bless a whole morning.
Of course, Thomas Merton was talking mostly about strangers in his Fourth-and-Walnut epiphany, and the more I’m able to give myself to the refreshment of siestas and the sanity of prayer, the more I notice multiple daily shinings. Some time ago, here at Starbucks, I saw barista Abbey knitting something as a young friend made crowns. The kid was happy, proud of trying to fashion regal gladness out of construction paper. As I talked to them, for a few seconds, we belonged to each other.
Of course, sometimes seeing people shining like the sun causes sunburn. A young woman here at Starbucks just had a lover’s quarrel of her own via cell phone. After a short, tearful fight, she’s now retreated to the restroom, where I imagine she’s crying some more. I’ve never seen her before, but have a fist in my stomach I’m trying to breathe away. And now she’s gone, out into the 90-degree swelter with her puffy eyes, damp cheeks, and upset heart.
I’m still here in the air-conditioned shamatha of 4:02 p.m., glad that the sad girl was mine and I was hers (though she knew nothing about it). Most of all, I’m grateful not to suffer from the dream of separateness. I belong to everyone. Everyone belongs to me.
P.S. Who broke that pot? Wife Kathy just confessed. I should’ve known.