The Abby of Gethsemani is a Trappist monastery of the Cistercian tradition. Their style of monastic life follows ancient patterns that have been in place for at least a thousand years. The monks begin their first service of Matins at 2AM in the morning followed by Lauds at dawn, Prime at the first hour; Tierce at the third; Sext at the sixth; None at the ninth. Vespers are celebrated in the late afternoon and Compline just before retiring. Within that liturgical framework of public prayer the monks celebrate a communal Mass and have long periods of work and/or study.
The life is staunchly communal – brothers living side by side. The life is rigorously self-conscious and penitential. It was said of Dom Frederic, half humorously, that he had two basic rules for the community: “Do what you are told” and “Do what you are told”.
Merton’s longing for a solitary life was not, at first, understood by his community or his Abbot.
Merton’s essay, “A Philosophy of Solitude”, is not only an attempt to justify to his religious order his own desire for a more solitary life, it is also an appeal to the monastic tradition to fully understand the very religious concept of solitude.
Here are some excerpts from that essay in which Merton attempts to sort out the meaning of solitude, and how it is to be distinguished from loneliness or alienation.
“The true solitary is not one who simply withdraws from society. Mere withdrawal, regression, leads to a sick solitude, without meaning and without fruit. The solitary of whom I speak is called not to leave society but to transcend it: not to withdraw from the fellowship with other men but to renounce the appearance, the myth of union in diversion in order to attain to union on a higher and more spiritual level – the mystical level of the Body of Christ.”
“The solitary is one who is called to make one of the most terrible decisions possible to man: the decision to disagree completely with those who imagine that the call to diversion and self-deception is the voice of truth and who can summon the full authority of their own prejudice to prove it…”
“… the vocation to solitude is not a vocation to the warm narcissistic dream of a private religion. It is the vocation to become fully awake …”
“… eccentric and regressive solitude clamors for recognition, and seeks to focus more pleasurably and more intently on itself by stepping back from the crowd … what they want is not the hidden, metaphysical agony of the hermit but the noisy self-congratulations and self-pity of the infant in the cradle. Ultimately what they want is not the desert but the womb.”
“… the call of solitude (even though only interior) is perilous. Everyone who knows what solitude means is aware of this. The essence of the solitary vocation is precisely the anguish of an almost infinite risk.”
“Only the false solitary sees no danger in solitude.”
“[the false solitary’s] solitude is imaginary … the false solitary is one who is able to imagine himself without companions while in reality he remains just as dependent on society as before – if not more dependent. He needs society as a ventriloquist needs a dummy. He projects his own voice and it comes back to him admiring, approving, opposing or at least adverting to his own separateness.”
“The true solitary does not renounce anything that is basic and human about his relationship to other men. He is deeply united to them – all the more deeply because he is no longer entranced by marginal concerns.”
“The Christian solitary is fully and perfectly a man of the Church.”
“The true solitary is not called to an illusion, to the contemplation of himself as a solitary. He is called to the nakedness and hunger of a more primitive and honest condition.”