Sunday, March 25, 2012

Unless one become empty and alone ... (solitude)

Photo by Thomas Merton
"What then is the conclusion? That this solitude of which we have been speaking, the solitude of the true monachos, of the lone one, is not and cannot be selfish.  It is the opposite of selfish.  It is the death and the forgetfulness of self.  But what is self?  The self that vanishes from the emptiness is the superficial, false social self, the image made up of the prejudices, the whimsey, the posturing, the pharisaic self-concern and the pseudo dedication which are the heritage of the individual in a limited and imperfect group.

"There is another self, a true self, who comes to full maturity in emptiness and solitude -- and who can of course, begin to appear and grow in the valid, sacrificial and creative self-dedication that belong to a genuine social existence.  But note that even this social maturing of love implies at the same time the growth of a certain inner solitude.

"Without solitude of some sort there is and can be no maturity.  Unless one becomes empty and alone, he cannot give himself in love because he does not possess the deep self which is the only gift worthy of love.  And this deep self, we immediately add, cannot be possessed.  My deep self is not "something" which I acquire, or to which I "attain" after a long struggle.  It is not mine, and cannot become mine.  It is no "thing" - no object.  It is "I".

The shallow "I" of individualism can be possessed, developed, cultivated, pandered to, satisfied: it is the center of all our strivings for gain and for satisfaction, whether material or spiritual.  But the deep "I" of the spirit, of solitude and of love, cannot be "had," possessed, developed, perfected.  It can only be, and act according to deep inner laws which are not of man's contriving, but which come from God.  They are the Laws of the Spirit, who, like the wind, glows where He wills.  This inner "I," who is always alone, is always universal: for in this inmost "I" my own solitude meets the solitude of every other man and the solitude of God.  Hence it is beyond division, beyond limitation, beyond selfish affirmation.  It is only this inmost and  solitary "I" that truly loves with the love and the spirit of Christ.  This "I" is Christ Himself, living in us: and we, in Him, living in the Father."

-- Thomas Merton, Notes for a Philosophy of Solitude, in the book Disputed Questions (New York: Farrar, Straus and Cudahy, 1960) pp. 206-207

[Note, this is the last entry in the series of postings on solitude.  A blessed rest of Lent, Holy Week and Easter to all.]


  1. as i recall, ghandi said that god is found in action

    i've been thinking about the maturity of my self in relation to spirituality and find that i tend toward the escapism of fantasy of spirituality, which is easier, but leaves me unsatisfied -

    it's all paradoxical, i think

  2. Yeah - "be the change you want to see in the world" (or something like that)?

    Not just paradoxical, but somehow twisted as well. Trying to get some perspective on something that we're part and parcel of. Like trying to look at your own eyes.

    Thanks for stopping by, Marc.

  3. Beth, Thank you very much for posting this series....confirming, confusing, encouraging, enlightening, baffling and paradoxically none of the above and all of the above all at the same time. Contemplative Spirituality 101....wait until we all get to the advanced stuff (if). As I read and thought about these postings I couldn't help but think about Merton's first chapter in his book The Inner Experience. Whenever I've returned to that chapter I find that it makes me laugh because I just see Merton sitting there giggling as he wrote it .....

    Chapter 1 page 3 ....."The purpose of this opening is not simply to punish the reader or deliberately to discourage him, but to make clear that this book in no sense aspires to be classified as "inspirational". That is to say, it does not aim at making the reader feel good about certain spiritual opportunities which it claims, at the same time, to open up to him. ........ "

    Maybe it's just me but there is a funny tone running throughout that first chapter. I think he was basically laughing and saying "you think you guys are going to figure this stuff out?"

    Anyway, thanks, it's been a nice adventure each day.


  4. I'm glad that you found them useful, Robert.

    I actually put them all in at once, and then was able to be surprised everyday as a new one came to my inbox. It helped to take it a little at a time.

    One of the reasons that I like Merton so much is his detachment from the "seriousness" of religion. He has a light hearted touch, can laugh at himself and then help others to get free from the heaviness that we all apply to our own "spiritual quests". I think that Zen plays a very strong role here.

    Thanks for hanging in here, Robert. I consider you a friend!

  5. You're right, Beth. Merton does not take himself or religion too seriously. He also does not have a shred of pretension about himself. That's what I love about him: his humanity and vulnerability. Qualities which make me (and, I guess, also a lot people) identify with him and resonate with his writings...

  6. alas ----------------------------------

    a monk who wrights about emptiness
    aloneness solitude and contemplation
    not serious ! perhaps this is true ,
    he seams always to be looking for
    some lost ideal,and keeps stumbling
    over his own reality which for some
    reason does not want to accept , i enjoy his
    writings for the questions that are pondered ,
    but i think if he lived he would have given up
    the whole monastic experiment,that my take -

    blessings --------------------------------------

  7. Interesting observation, Bob. Merton certainly struggled with the monastic experiment. I tend to think that he would have become more involved and visible in the world scene. Look at Thomas Keating, a Trappist monk who is on the speaking circuit and so accessible that he answered an email I sent to him!

    Anyway, like you, I am grateful for Merton for putting it all out there, questions and struggles, and so honestly. There aren't too many who have written about emptiness, aloneness, solitude in a way that an average lay person could relate to.

  8. what a beautiful piece!


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...