Thomas Merton (left) in 1951 and Muhammad Ali in 1970.
On an afternoon in 1958, near the shopping district at Walnut and Fourth Streets in Louisville, Ky., Thomas Merton was moving about inconspicuously gathering supplies for the Abbey at Gethsemani. The monastery, established in 1848 by the Order of Trappist Cistercians, is in Nelson County, south of Louisville near Bardstown. It is where Merton lived as a Trappist monk beginning in 1941.
Merton’s autobiography “The Seven Storey Mountain,” published in 1948, and other works on interfaith dialogue, peace and nonviolence had made him an international best-selling author. The Washington Post would later call him the most significant Catholic writer of the 20th century. In an address to Congress, Pope Francis described Merton as a thinker “who opened new horizons for souls and for the church” and “a man of dialogue, a promoter of peace between peoples and religions.”
That afternoon on Walnut Street Merton had a revelation that, according to his biographer, William H. Shannon, caused him to rethink the separateness of his life at the abbey. Merton experienced “the glorious destiny that simply comes from being a human person and from being united with, not separated from, the rest of the human race.” It was as if, Merton himself said, “I suddenly saw the secret beauty of their hearts.” Merton would emerge from the confines of the abbey and become a significant figure in the 1960s social justice movement.
Twenty years later, in 1978, Walnut Street was renamed Muhammad Ali Boulevard, after my late husband. In 2008, the intersection at Fourth Street and Muhammad Ali Boulevard was dedicated as “Thomas Merton Square.” It would have been difficult to predict in 1958 that the divergent paths of the two men would someday be merged in the permanent markers of the same city street. At the time of Merton’s revelation, 16-year-old Muhammad was across town delivering his own revelation to a series of opponents on his way to a gold medal and the World Heavyweight Championship.
But by the 1960s, their voices in support of peace and justice began to merge. Both men had been shaken from their respective sanctuaries of literary and athletic attainment by the harsh realities of a nation deeply divided by war, race and social inequality. In 1968, during his last days, Merton set off for China and India to visit the Dalai Lama and other faith leaders concerned about the conditions of the world. By this time Muhammad was standing by the courage of his convictions in his refusal to go to Vietnam, a position ultimately vindicated in a unanimous decision of the Supreme Court.
It is the convergence of their message of faith that bears noting as we mark what would have been Muhammad’s 75th birthday on Jan. 17. Over time, Muhammad’s deep, evolving devotion to God, whom as a Muslim he called Allah, came to be rooted in his love of all people. Boxing had taken him around the world and it opened his eyes to the beauty in diversity. Akin to Merton’s revelation, Muhammad was fond of saying, “the key to a man’s soul is in his heart.”
Like Merton, whom he never met, Muhammad was naturally drawn to the power in all faiths and at his direction his memorial service included an imam and an Islamic scholar, two Baptist ministers, two Jewish rabbis, a Roman Catholic priest, a Native American tribal chief and faith leader, and a Buddhist monk. Muhammad famously said, “Rivers, ponds, lakes and streams — they all have different names, but they all contain water. Just as religions do — they all contain truths.”
As America stands divided once again in the aftermath of a polarizing election, we would do well to follow the example of Thomas Merton and Muhammad Ali in their approach to diversity, pluralism and faith. Regardless of our differences, we share a common humanity, something that will always bind us to each other. We must find ways to reconnect to each other by developing empathy and by giving back. In truth, America has always faced division in varying degrees. The test for America has always been how she manages her division, how she finds and clings to a common purpose, and how she spins the tapestry of her diversity.
Neither the monk nor the boxer relied on political leaders to set their course in matters of justice, equality and tolerance. Neither man was elected to high office, but their messages in print, in words and in deeds reverberated across the globe and in the highest chambers of power. Although one was a scholar and the other bore no papered credential, they each challenged convention or, as Pope Francis said of Merton, “the certitudes of the time.”
Muhammad was fond of the Buddhist expression, “The only constant in the universe is change.” He drew on those words to embrace each day and each person he met. Merton said, “we do not find the meaning of life by ourselves alone — we find it with another. Happiness is not a matter of intensity but of balance, order, rhythm and harmony.”
Lonnie Ali is a philanthropist and chairwoman of “Ali in All of Us,” a campaign to inspire community service.