Muhammad Ali and Thomas Merton

Muhammad Ali died last week (Jun 3). His hometown, Louisville, KY, is hosting his memorial today. Tens of thousands are expected to line the streets for the procession, which will traverse Muhammad Ali Blvd for 25 blocks.

I'm reminded that the thoroughfare that has been named Muhammad Ali Blvd since 1978 was previously known as Walnut Ave. It was at the corner of Walnut Ave and 4th Street in 1958 that a 43-year-old monk visiting Louisville from a monastery in Kentucky had a profound experience. His name was Thomas Merton, and he had been a Catholic Trappist monk for 15 years. As he stood on that corner, all around him people and cars were going about their usual business. Then something amazing happened. His heart opened up. This is how he wrote about it:
“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. The whole illusion of a separate holy existence is a dream....This sense of liberation from an illusory difference was such a relief and such a joy to me that I almost laughed out loud. And I suppose my happiness could have taken form in the words: ‘Thank God, thank God that I am like other men, that I am only a man among others.’ It is a glorious destiny to be a member of the human race, though it is a race dedicated to many absurdities and one which makes many terrible mistakes:...A member of the human race! To think that such a commonplace realization should suddenly seem like news that one holds the winning ticket in a cosmic sweepstake. 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. They are not ‘they’ but my own self. There are no strangers! Then it was as if I suddenly saw the secret beauty of their hearts, the depths of their hearts where neither sin nor desire nor self-knowledge can reach, the core of their reality. If only they could all see themselves as they really are. If only we could see each other that way all the time. There would be no more war, no more hatred, no more cruelty, no more greed....I suppose the big problem would be that we would fall down and worship each other.”
Louisville was Ali's hometown, and the town where Merton had a profound experience of "home." The street where Merton had his epiphany now bears Ali's name.

In many ways, of course, the brash Ali and the calm Merton could not have been more different. Yet both men are known for their commitment to their respective faiths. Both stood out, and faced rebuke, for their opposition to the Vietnam war. Both of them were men of both words and action. They were each models of courage, and both showed the world new possibilities of liberation.

Their lives, so different, both remind me of Jonathan Swift's epitaph (written in Latin by Swift himself, and here translated by William Butler Yeats):
Imitate him if you dare,
World-Besotted Traveler; he
Served human liberty.
Ali and Merton -- for all their unimitating and inimitable uniqueness -- each served human liberty. Their lives have left us freer.

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