|Photo by Thomas Merton|
The essay is prefaced with a line from a poem of St. John Perse:
Un cri d'oiseau sur les recifs ...
[the cry of a bird over the reefs]
"Why write about solitude in the first place? Certainly not in order to preach it, to exhort people to become solitary. What could be more absurd? Those who are to become solitary are, as a rule, solitary already. At most they are not yet aware of their condition. In which case, all they need is to discover it. But in reality, all men are solitary. Only most of them are so averse to being alone, or to feeling alone, that they do everything they can to forget their solitude. How? Perhaps in large measure by what Pascal called "divertissement" -- diversion, systematic distraction. By those occupations and recreations, so mercifully provided by society, which enable a man to avoid his own company for twenty four hours a day.
"... for the function of diversion is simply to anesthetize the individual as individual, and to plunge him in the warm, apathetic stupor of a collectivity which, like himself, wishes to remain amused. The bread and circuses which fulfill this function may be blatant and absurd, or they may assume a hypocritical air of intense seriousness, for instance in a mass movement. Our own society prefers the absurd. But our absurdity is blended with a certain hard-headed, fully determined seriousness with which we devote ourselves to the acquisition of money, to the satisfaction of our appetite for status, and our justification of ourselves with the totalitarian iniquity of our opposite number.
"In a society like ours, there are obviously many people for whom solitude is a problem or even a temptation. I am perhaps in no position to resolve their problem or to exorcise their temptation. But it is possible that -- knowing something at least of their interior solitude -- I might be able to say something of it which will reassure those tempted ones. At the least I can suggest that if they have not been able to rest in the fervid consolations which are lavished upon them by society itself, that they do no need to seek such rest as that. They are perhaps perfectly capable of doing without such reassurance. They ought possibly to realize that they have less need of diversion than they are told, with such dogmatic self-complacency, by the organization men. They can confidently detach themselves from the engineers of the human soul whose talents are devoted to the cult of publicity. Such an influence in their life is truly, as they tend to suspect, as unnecessary as it is irritating. But I do not promise to make in unavoidable.
"Nor do I promise to cheer anybody up with optimistic answers to all the sordid difficulties and uncertainties which attend the life of interior solitude. Perhaps in the course of these reflections, some of the difficulties will be mentioned. The first of them has to be taken note of from the very start: the disconcerting task of facing and accepting one's own absurdity. The anguish of realizing that underneath the apparently logical pattern of a more or less "well organized" and rational life, there lies an abyss of irrationality, confusion, pointlessness, and indeed of apparent chaos. This is what immediately impresses itself upon the man who has renounced diversion. It cannot be otherwise, for in renouncing diversion, he renounces the seemingly harmless pleasure of building a tight, self-contained illusion about himself and about his little world. He accepts the difficulty of facing the million things in his life which are incomprehensible, instead of simply ignoring them. Incidentally it is only when the apparent absurdity of life is faced in all truth that faith really become possible. Otherwise, faith tends to be a kind of diversion, a spiritual amusement, in which one gathers up accepted, conventional formulas and arranges them in the approved mental patterns, without bothering to investigate their meaning, or asking if they have any practical consequences in one's life." - Thomas Merton, Notes for a Philosophy of Solitude, in the book Disputed Questions (New York: Farrar, Straus and Cudahy, 1960) pp. 176-180
Perhaps of all of Merton's writings, this essay is the one that most directly speaks to me. Like the Cloud of Unknowing, he is reaching for those who already have an inkling of this calling to interior solitude. I will be excerpting from the essay over the next few days.