Sunday, March 11, 2012

the hidden agony of the hermit (solitude)

"It should be quite clear then, that there is no question in these pages of the eccentric and regressive solitude that clamors for recognition, and which seeks to focus more pleasurably and more intently on itself by stepping back from the crowd.  But unfortunately, however often I may repeat this warning, it will not be heeded.  Those who most need to hear it are incapable of doing so.  They think that solitude is a heightening of self-consciousness an intensification of pleasure in self.  It is a more secret and more perfect diversion.  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 individualist in practice completely accepts the social fictions around him, but accepts them in such a way that they provide a suitable background against which a few private and favored fictions of his own can make an appearance.  Without the social background, his individual fictions would not be able to assert themselves, and he would no longer be able to fix his attention upon them."

-- Thomas Merton, Notes for a Philosophy of Solitude, in the book Disputed Questions (New York: Farrar, Straus and Cudahy, 1960) p. 184-185


  1. Okay then, off to the monastery for the rest of my life.

    "Ultimately what they want is not the desert but the womb." This line certainly lays it right open. Handy with a scalpel that Merton.

  2. Yeah. I also like his: "individual fictions asserting themselves". Boy do I know what he means, but never heard anyone put it quite like that.

  3. i find spiritual egotism almost impossible to erase when i'm looking at the crowd

  4. That's really honest, Marc.

    Someone told me (or I read somewhere) that TV was a mirror, and we see ourselves in it - that's why we're so disgusted.

    Who among us doesn't feel somewhat "superior" when seeing all that humanity?

  5. Marc's comment certain rings bells here too. Merton's epiphany in Louisville when he transitioned from "What's up with THESE people" (my phrasing)to his ability to find in himself love and compassion and acceptance for them (mankind at large I assume)seems to really speak to a moment where he was able to see and feel deeply beyond his own ego and other blockages. At least for that moment he was granted a gift, an opportunity to see it all from some a more sacred space. What's good about Merton's experience is knowing that it's available to us all. We might not catch it right away if it's offered or find our way to it but it is out there waiting.

  6. I was just reading that "epiphany" passage on the corner of 4th and Walnut today. (I used to have to go to Louisville to the dentist, just like Merton, and 4th and Walnut was a very busy intersection to cross)...

    I tend to think that Merton's experience on that street corner was letting him know what he knew. He actually was already at the place where his ego did not compete or compare, and had been there for awhile but didn't know it. It took being in a crowd of humanity for him to recognize that he was no longer seeing others as projections of his own ego needs, and could see them as they are.

    But he sure had to struggle for a long time with his Abbot.


God speaks

God speaks, and God is to be heard, not only on Sinai, not only in my own heart, but in the voice of the stranger. — Thomas Merton, Emble...