Saturday, July 7, 2007

the rhythm and wholeness of solitude

Photo by John Howard Griffin

“The hermit life is cool. It is a life of low definition in which there is little to decide, in which there are few transactions or none, in which there are no packages delivered. In which I do not bundle up packages and deliver them to myself. It is not intense. There is no give and take of questions and answers, problems and solutions. Problems begin down the hill. Over there under the water tower are the solutions. Here there are woods, foxes. Here there is no need for dark glasses. “Here” does not even warm itself up with references to “There”. The hermit life is that cool.” (Hudson Review, 20 (1967) 211-18)

On August 20, 1965 Merton wrote, “The hermit project has been voted and approved officially by the Council of the community and is accepted and understood by most everyone. It officially begins tomorrow. I can use any prayers.”And thus began Merton’s life as a hermit. His only responsibilities within the community would be to say daily Mass in the library chapel, eat a hot meal at the infirmary, and give a lecture on Sundays that interested members of the community could attend.

“I am living as a stylite on top of a hermit hat,” Merton wrote Bob Lax in October. “I am utterly alone from human company. … I make no more cookies in the cookie factory. "

Describing an ordinary day in a letter to Abdul Aziz, a Sufi scholar, Merton says that he got up about 2:30 in the morning to recite the normal psalm-centered offices of monastic prayer. Next came an hour or so of meditation followed by Bible reading. Then he made himself a light breakfast – tea or coffee, perhaps a piece of fruit or some honey. He read while eating, studying until about sunrise. With sunrise there was further prayer and then some manual work – sweeping, cleaning, cutting wood – until about 9 o’clock when he paused for another office of psalms. After that he wrote letters before going to the monastery to say Mass. Mass was followed by a cooked meal alone at the monastery. Returning to the hermitage, he returned to reading, then said another office at 1 o’clock before another hour or more of mediation. Only then did he allow himself a period for writing, usually not more than an hour and a half. At about 4 o’clock he said another office of psalms and then made a light supper, typically tea or soup and a sandwich. After supper he had another hour of meditation before going to bed at around 7:30.

Perhaps, though, Merton’s most seasoned thought on solitude is his preface to the Japanese edition of Thoughts in Solitude. He wrote this preface in 1966, eight years after the book was published in English. (Later this preface was expanded into an article, “Love and Solitude”):

“No writing on the solitary, meditative dimensions of life can say anything that has not already been said better by the wind in the pine trees. … But what can the wind say where there is no hearer? There is then a deeper silence: the silence in which the Hearer is No-Hearer. That deeper silence must be heard before one can speak truly of solitude.

“Solitude is not withdrawal from ordinary life. It is not apart from, above, ‘better than’ ordinary life. It is the very ground of that simple, unpretentious, fully human activity by which we quietly earn our daily living and share out experiences with a few intimate friends. But we must learn to know and accept this ground of our being.”


  1. I love the photo! Where did you find it?

    I love the Merton quote too. There's certainly elements to the life of the hermit I'm drawn to. Merton is my teacher and guide.


  2. The photo is from a book of Photographs by John Howard Griffin, "A Hidden Wholeness". The photographs in the book are both Griffin's and Merton's, and there is very good commentary by Griffin. He knows Merton well.

    I have used Merton as my primary teacher and guide for almost 40 years. He has never led me down a wrong road, but, I have to say, he is not afraid to venture into darkness.

    Thanks for stopping by, Bryan.

  3. I count Thomas Merton and William Johnston among the spiritual directors of my life. Without them my journey would have been completely and utterly different.

    Blessings and bliss

  4. I would like to read more of Johnston, Miss Eagle. Something about Zen that really helps me to better "focus" on just what contemplation is.

    Thanks for commenting.



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