I was in Sauchiehall Street last week and I took the notion to buy an Evening Times from one of the street vendors. I asked the price and handed over 65 pence but, instead of just being given the latest edition, I was given an Evening Times goody-bag containing the newspaper, a can of Irn Bru, a chocolate biscuit, and a packet of cheese and onion crisps, all for the price of the newspaper.
As I pondered whether I had ever received such a bargain before my mind went back to the year 2001 when myself and another Passionist priest were asked to go to an International Vocations Seminar run by the Sisters of St. Benedict, at the Immaculate Conception Monastery in a place called Ferdinand, Indiana, in the U.S.A. We flew into Louisville International Airport, Kentucky, picked up a hire-car, and began the drive through what was very much bible belt America to Indiana. At one point we thought we might stop for a coffee but, when we walked into the first bar we came to, every head in the place turned towards us and seemed to be measuring up the two strangers. I think we were both hearing “Duelling Banjos” playing in our ears, even if were in the wrong part of the country, and mutually agreed to postpone the coffee until we reached our destination.
The seminar was okay but the food was pretty sparse for two grown men, and when the last day came my colleague and I departed as quickly as we could. We returned the car to the airport and, with several hours to kill, we made our way into Louisville in search of decent food. We first of all visited the spot downtown where there is a plaque commemorating Thomas Merton’s famous vision, insight, revelation, call it what you will. Louisville is also the birth place of Cassius Clay, later Muhammad Ali, the greatest boxer who ever lived, and who was known as the Louisville Lip; but we didn’t go in search of his boyhood home, now a museum, because the craving for food was too strong.
It was a Sunday and there didn’t seem to be much open so we asked a taxi driver where we might get a decent bite to eat. To cut a long story short the Kentucky Derby Race Meeting was starting that day and he brought us a couple of miles down the road to the Churchill Downs Race Course where we paid 2 dollars in, for which we also received a commemorative glass with the names of all the winners of the famous Run for the Roses going back to its inception in 1875; plus admission to the restaurant above the track with a table overlooking the winning post, and where for another 10 dollars we could eat as much as we wanted from a carvery containing the most incredible spread of food we had ever seen in our lives. Needless to say we took full advantage, and in all honesty I’d have to say this must rate higher than the Evening Times goody-bag, a great bargain though that surely was.
If you’ve never read Thomas Merton’s account of his famous downtown Louisville vision, which seems appropriate in this Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, here it is:
“In Louisville, at the corner of Fourth and Walnut, in the centre 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… 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.”