Friday, March 16, 2012

the solitary is called to empiness

Photo by Thomas Merton
"I do not pretend, in these pages to establish a clear formula for discerning solitary vocations.  But this much needs to be said: that one who is called to solitude is not called merely to imagine himself solitary, to live as if he were solitary, to cultivate the illusion that he is different, withdrawn and elevated.  He is called to emptiness.  And in this emptiness he does not find points upon which to base a contrast between himself and others.  On the contrary, he realizes, though perhaps confusedly, that he has entered into a solitude that is shared by everyone.  It is not that he is a solitary while everybody else is social: but that everyone is solitary, in a solitude masked by that symbolism which they use to cheat and counteract their solitariness.  What the solitary renounces is not his union with other men, but rather the deceptive fictions and inadequate symbols which tend to take the place of genuine social unity - to produce a facade of apparent unity without really uniting men on a deep level.  Example - the excitement and fictitious engagement of a football crowd.  This is to say, of course, that the Christian solitary is fully and perfectly a man of the Church.

"Even though he may be physically alone the solitary remains united to others and lives in profound solidarity with them, but on a deeper and mystical level.  They may think he is one with them in the vain interests and preoccupations of a superficial social existence.  He realizes that he is one with them in the peril and anguish of their common solitude: not the solitude of the individual only, but the radical and essential solitude of man - a solitude which was assumed by Christ and which, in Christ, becomes mysteriously identified with the solitude of God."

- Thomas Merton, Notes for a Philosophy of Solitude, in the book Disputed Questions (New York: Farrar, Straus and Cudahy, 1960) pp. 187-188


  1. where is this photo from? does anyone know?

  2. is there a book with all of Merton@s photos in? mickey

  3. The photo above is taken from between two trees near Our Lady of the Redwoods, California. Merton was here before his trip to Asia in the Fall of 1968.

    Most, but not all, of the Merton photos in this blog are scanned from John Howard Griffin's book, "A Hidden Wholeness - The Visual World of Thomas Merton". This photo was in that book. I believe the book is out of print but used copies can be found on Amazon and elsewhere. It is not a comprehensive collection of Merton's photos, just the ones that JHG selected.

    1. cheers beth, in the meantime I continued my readings in Intimate merton and guessed that that was were the photo was from, he even saw a shark in the surf! thanks for the tip re the book, mickey

  4. Beth,
    More good Merton. The photo reminds me of the view from the retreatant hermitages at New Camaldoli Hermitage in Big Sur. They are another group that Merton had pondered and at one time hoped to have joined as each member of the community lives as a hermit monk. They have no ministry other than to bare witness.

    Beyond that I ran across a writing this morning that really captures much of what is being said in this latest series of Merton's thoughts that you've put together. It's an except from Wendell Berry's Jayber Crow book.
    It was posted yesterday and seems to fall right in line with today's posting that you offered.

    More later...

  5. That's a great Wendall Berry excerpt, Robert. THANKS! I read that Jayber Crow book several years ago. Basically, I like everything I've ever read of Berry. A fellow Kentuckian too!

  6. Struck by these words of Merton:"Even though he may be physically alone the solitary remains united to others and lives in profound solidarity with them..."

    It is always good for solitaries to be reminded that their solitude is not only for themselves but also for others. Solitaries are called to compassionately hold in their hearts our wounded and broken world before the Divine Presence. In the words of Evagrius Ponticus: "The monk is one who is separated from all and united to all."

    ~ Matt

  7. Thanks, Matt.

    Being solitary involves getting below (or deeper than) our usual way of knowing ourselves as isolated individuals. I think that we're all called to be monks like this.