“What it all comes down to is that I shall certainly have solitude but only by miracle and not at all by my own contriving. Where? Here or there makes no difference. Somewhere, nowhere, beyond all “where.” Solitude outside geography or in it. No matter.” December 17, 1959These words have haunted me since I first read them. Merton wrote them on the day that he received official word from the Vatican about his request to leave Gethsemani to pursue a more eremitical life. He had been anxiously waiting for days. When the letter arrived Merton took it to the novitiate to read before the Blessed Sacrament. It said, “No”.
It was an official letter, serious and final. They were very sorry. They agreed with his superiors that he did not have an eremitical vocation and asked him to stay in the monastery where God had put him. There he would find solitude.
Merton found himself strangely at peace with the decision, and felt no anger or resistance. The problem was taken from him and had been “settled in some wider and deeper way than just negation”. He accepted the decision fully and was surprised at his own lack of disappointment. In fact, he felt only “joy and emptiness and liberty. Funny.”
A mountain of his own making had been lifted from his shoulders.
If Merton could be said to have had a persistent theme – from his beginning years at the monastery, and with renewed emphasis his last years at the hermitage – it was solitude. He not only wrote about solitude, he lived this unusual experiment, as he called it, for it was something new to the American Cistercian monasteries.
Merton brought an expansive and comprehensive understanding to solitude, and puts it into the preserve of every person, not just hermits or professed religious. He recognized the essential need to break away, recollect oneself, and reflect in order to “reconstitute and re-unite oneself in one’s center”.
In the next few posts I hope to explore more some of the many Merton writings on solitude.