Friday, August 31, 2007

louie, louie is on sabbatical for awhile.

solitude in community

Photo by Thomas Merton

“Indeed there is a special irony about solitude in community: that if you are called to solitude by God, even if you live in a community your solitude will be inescapable. Even if you are surrounded by the comfort and the assistance of others, the bonds that unite you with them on a trivial level break one by one so that you are no longer supported by them, that is, no longer sustained by the instinctive, automatic mechanisms of collective life. Their words, their enthusiasms become meaningless. Yet you do not despise them, or reject them. You try to find if there is not still some way to comprehend them and live by them. And you find that words have no value in such a situation. The only thing that can help you is the deep, wordless communion of genuine love.”

- from the essay, “Philosophy of Solitude”, Disputed Questions, p. 205

one has to be born into solitude ...

Photo by John Howard Griffin
“The terror of the lonely life is the mystery and uncertainty with which the will of God presses upon our soul. It is much easier, and gentler, and more secure to have the will of God filtered to us quietly through society, through the decrees of men, through the orders of others. To take this will straight in all its incomprehensible, baffling mystery, is not possible to one who is not secretly protected and guided by the Holy Spirit and no one should try it unless he has some assurance that he really has been called to it by God. And this call, of course, should be made clear by Directors and Superiors. One has to be born into solitude carefully, patiently and after long delay, out of the womb of society. One cannot rashly presume to become a solitary merely by his own will. This is no security outside the guidance of the Church.”
- from the essay, “Philosophy of Solitude”, Disputed Questions, p. 204

Thursday, August 30, 2007

"loneliness in which each single spirit must confront the living God"

photo by Thomas Merton

“The solitary who no longer communicates with other men except for the bare necessities of life is a man with a special and difficult task. He is called to be, in some way, invisible. He soon loses all sense of his significance for the rest of the world. And yet that significance is great. The hermit has a very real place in a world like ours that has degraded the human person and lost all respect for that awesome loneliness in which each single spirit must confront the living God.”

- from the essay, “Philosophy of Solitude”, Disputed Questions, p. 199

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

spiritual poverty

photo by Thomas Merton
“One of the most telling criticisms of the solitary may well be that even in his life of prayer he is less “productive.” You would think that in his solitude he would quickly reach the level of visions, of mystical marriage, something dramatic at any rate. Yet he may well be poorer than the cenobite, even in his life of prayer. His is a weak and precarious existence, he has more cares, he is more insecure, he has to struggle to preserve himself from all kinds of petty annoyances, and often he fails to do so. His poverty is spiritual. It invades his whole soul as well as his body, and in the end his whole patrimony is one of insecurity. He enjoys the sorrow, the spiritual and intellectual indigence of the really poor. Obviously such a vocation has in it a grain of folly. Otherwise it is not what it is meant to be, a life of direct dependence on God, in darkness, insecurity and pure faith. The life of the hermit is a life of material and physical poverty without visible support.”

- from the essay, “Philosophy of Solitude”, Disputed Questions, p. 201

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

the hermit is nothing but a failure

Photo by John Howard Griffin

“In the eyes of our conformist society, the hermit is nothing but a failure. He has to be a failure – we have absolutely no use for him, no place for him. He is outside all our projects, plans, assemblies, movements. We can countenance him as long as he remains only a fiction, or a dream. As soon as he becomes real, we are revolted by his insignificance, his poverty, his shabbiness, his total lack of status. Even those who consider themselves contemplatives, often cherish a secret contempt for the solitary. For in the contemplative life of the hermit there is none of that noble security, that intelligent depth, that artistic finesse which the more academic contemplative seeks in his sedate respectability.”

- from the essay, “Philosophy of Solitude”, Disputed Questions, p. 199

Monday, August 27, 2007

the hermitage

Photo by John Howard Griffin

A reader has requested some photos of Merton’s hermitage, so I will add some more of those to this collection, as well as some of Merton’s thoughts on hermitage.

Merton entered his hermitage on a full-time basis on August 20, 1965, the feast day of Saint Bernard of Clairvaux, the Cistercian Doctor of the Church. On August 21, 1965, Merton wrote this in his journal:

"This morning-grey, cool, peace. The unquestionable realization of the rightness of this, because it is from God and it is His work. So much could be said! What is immediately perceptible is the immense relief, the burden of ambiguity is lifted, and I am without care-no anxiety about being pulled between my job and my vocation. I feel as if my whole being were an act of thankfulness-even the gut is relaxed and at peace after good meditation and long study of Irenaeus. The woods all around crackle with guerrilla warfare-the hunters are out for squirrel season (as if there were a squirrel left!). Even this idiot ritual does not make me impatient. In their mad way they love the woods too: but I wish their way were less destructive and less of a lie."

Thomas Merton: Dancing in the Water of Life. Journals, Volume 5. Robert E. Daggy, editor. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1997: 283

[Note: the above quote is this week’s Merton reflection from the Merton Institute.]

Sunday, August 26, 2007

railroad station

Abandoned railroad station near the Abbey of Gethsemani.
Photo by Thomas Merton

Friday, August 24, 2007

going it alone

“The great temptation is to fear going it alone, wanting to be ‘with it’ at any cost. But each one of us has to be able to go it alone somehow. You don’t want to repudiate the community, but you have to go it alone at times. If the community is made up of a little group of people who always try to support one another, and nobody ever gets out of this little block, nothing happens and all growth is being stifled. This is possibly one of the greatest dangers we face in the future, because we are getting more and more to be that kind of society. We will need those who have the courage to do the opposite of everybody else. If you have this courage you will effect change. Of course they will say, ‘this guy is crazy’, but you have to do it.

“We are much too dominated by public opinion. We are always asking, what is someone else going to think about it? There is a whole ‘contemplative mystique,’ a standard which other people have set up for you. They call you a contemplative or a hermit, and then they demand that you conform to the image they have in mind. But the real contemplative standard is to have no standard, to be just yourself. That’s what God is asking of us, to be ourselves. If you are ready to say “I’m going to do my own thing, it doesn’t matter what kind of press I get,’ if you are ready to be yourself, you are not going to fit anybody else’s mystique.”

- from a talk that Merton gave at the Cistercian monastery, Our Lady of the Redwoods, as recorded by David Steindl-Rast - September, 1968

Thursday, August 23, 2007

time and prayer, part 2

“The monk is free to do nothing, without feeling guilty… this is what the Zen people do. They give a great deal of time doing whatever they need to do. That’s what we have to learn when it comes to prayer. We have to give it time."

- from a talk that Merton gave at the Cistercian monastery, Our Lady of the Redwoods, as recorded by David Steindl-Rast - September, 1968

Monday, August 20, 2007

merton on prayer and time, part 1

“We are indoctrinated so much into means and ends that we don’t realize that there is a different dimension in the life of prayer. In technology you have this horizontal progress, where you must start at one point and move to another and then another. But that is not the way to build a life of prayer. In prayer, we discover what we already have. You start where you are and you deepen what you already have, and you realize that you are already there. We already have everything, but we don’t know it and we don’t experience it. Everything has been given to us in Christ. All we need is to experience what we already possess.

“The trouble is, we aren’t taking time to do so. … If we really want prayer, we’ll have to give it time. We must slow down to a human tempo and we’ll begin to have time to listen. And as soon as we listen to what’s going on, things will begin to take shape by themselves. But for this we have to experience time in a new way.

“One of the best things for me when I went to the hermitage was being attentive to the times of the day: when the birds began to sing, and the deer came out of the morning fog, and the sun came up – while in the monastery, summer or winter, Lauds is at the same hour. The reason why we don’t take time is a feeling that we have to keep moving. This is a real sickness. Today time is commodity, and for each one of us time is mortgaged. We experience time as unlimited indebtedness. We are sharecroppers of time. We are threatened by a chain reaction: overwork- overstimulation – overreaction – overcompensation- overkill. …" (from a talk that Merton gave at the Cistercian monastery, Our Lady of the Redwoods, as recorded by David Steindl-Rast - September, 1968)

(to be continued)

Thursday, August 16, 2007

how like despair, hope is ("advancing further into solitude")

print by Thomas Merton, Untitled, 1967
(image size: 8 1/2" h x 6 1/2" w)
August 21, 1967. Can I tell you that I have found answers to the questions that torment the man of our time? I do not know if I have found answers. When I first became a monk, yes, I was more sure of “answers.” But as I grow old in the monastic life and advance further into solitude, I become aware that I have only begun to seek the questions. And what are the question? Can man make sense out of is existence? Can man honestly give his life meaning merely by adopting a certain set of explanations which pretend to tell him why the world began and where it will end, why there is evil and what is necessary for a good life? My brother, perhaps in my solitude I have become as it were an explorer for you, a searcher in realism which you are not able to visit … I have been summoned to explore a desert area of man’s heart in which explanations no longer suffice, and in which one learns that only experience counts. An arid, rocky dark land of the soul, sometimes illuminated by strange fires which men fear and peopled by specters which men studiously avoid except in their nightmares. And in this area I have learned that one cannot truly know hope unless he has found out how like despair hope is.” (Hidden Ground of
Love, p. 156)
Note: Roger Lipsey thinks that this beautiful image has similarities to the simple gather of icons that Merton kept in his hermitage chapel (photo is here) - an "element of religious imagination and something dark, a foreboding or sorrow".

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

solitude as the mark of a true revolutionary and the source of authentic prayer

The following is from an essay by Lawrence S. Cunningham, a professor of Theology at the University of Notre Dame and a frequent writer about Merton. The entire essay, "Alone Among Many", is here.

"Nearly a half century ago, Thomas Merton wrote "Notes on a Philosophy of Solitude," an extended essay in which he pointed out that a person who enjoys solitude, by which he meant the quiet possession of the self, is the one less likely to be beguiled by mass movements, collective passions, the false siren of advertising and the lust for the ephemerally fashionable. True solitude (as opposed to individualism or "going it alone") is the cultivation of the sense of the self that permits us to adjudicate the cry of the mob and resist the lure of the moment.

Such self-possession is both a gift and a risk. It is most often a risk when acting against the consensus; such acts can earn scorn or, at worst, actual physical harm. Decades ago Ignazio Silone, the Italian political novelist, said that the first lethal blow against fascism came when the first brave person in a village chalked a large NO on the wall of the town square. Interior solitude has always been the mark of the true revolutionary. It was the inner force of Gandhi's resistance; it was the inner strength of a Solzhenitsyn whose inner life could not be broken by the horrors of the Gulag.

At a deeper spiritual level the cultivation of solitude is a necessary matrix out of which comes authentic prayer. By that is not meant that one must seek a solitary place (even though that may be a good thing to do on occasion) or go to a monastery for a retreat (also a good thing) or give up one's ordinary pattern of living. What it does mean is that if we are to pray, as opposed to saying prayers, we need the capacity to slow down, get in focus and become re-collected, albeit for a short period of time. The Bible describes that capacity as watchfulness, the alertness that brings our interior attention toward a single One. God says, through the psalmist, that we are "to be still and know that I am God" (Psalms 46:11). That stillness is the defining element of solitude."

Monday, August 13, 2007

note on the notes

As I work my way through Merton’s thoughts on solitude, I’m putting quotes out here. I’m not sure where it’s going – I don’t have any set theory that I’m working toward – but I get inklings as I read that I don’t want to lose.

As most of you know, Merton is my teacher and I use this blog as a way to explore and listen to him. I love your comments; in many ways they open whole new ways of seeing and hearing Merton’s words.

“Notes on a Philosophy of Solitude” is a complex essay, dense with insights that seemingly are going off in a lot of different directions. I’m hoping to get to the bottom of this, but I may have to leave it for awhile and come back later.

the solitary man

“ … the solitary man says nothing, and does his work, and is patient, (or perhaps impatient, I don’t know) but generally he has peace. It is not the world’s kind of peace. He is happy, but he never has a good time. He knows where he is going, but he is not “sure of the way,” he just knows by going there. He does not see the way beforehand, and when he arrives, he arrives. His arrivals are usually departures from anything that resembles a “way.” That is his way. But he cannot understand it. Neither can we.” (Disputed Questions, pp. 202-203)

solitude & emptiness

From moment to moment I remember with astonishment
that I am at the same time empty and full, and satisfied
(because I am empty, I lack nothing. The Lord rules me).
New Seeds of Contemplations, pp. 16-18 excerpted

In Merton’s essay, “Notes for a Philosophy of Solitude”, he repeatedly uses the word, “emptiness” when describing solitude:

“… one who is called to solitude is … called to emptiness. “ (Disputed Questions, p. 188)

“The emptiness of the true solitary is marked … by a great simplicity. This simplicity can be deceptive, because it may be hidden under a surface of apparent complexity, but it is there nevertheless, behind the outer contradictions of the man’s life. It manifests itself in a kind of candor though he may be very reticent … the man tends to live without images, without too much conceptual thought. When you get to know him well – which is sometimes possible – you may find in him not so much a man who seeks solitude as one who has already found it, or been found by it. His problem then is not to find what he already has, but to discover what to do about it.” (p. 189)

“[the solitary’s] function in the Church – a social function and a spiritual one – is to remain in the “cell” of his aloneness, whether it be a real cell in the desert, of simply the spiritual cell of his own incomprehensible emptiness: and, as the desert fathers used to say, his “cell will teach him all things.” (p. 181)

“… the solitary … lives in a world of emptiness, humility, and purity beyond the reach of slogans and beyond the gravitational pull of diversions that alienate him from God and from himself.” (p. 184)

“… he who is called to solitude is called to walk across the air of the abyss without danger, because, after all, the abyss is only himself. He should not be forced to feel guilty about it, for in this solitude and emptiness of his heart there is another, more inexplicable solitude. Man’s loneliness is, in fact, the loneliness of God.” (p. 190)

Sunday, August 12, 2007

true solitary, false solitary

(photo by John Howard Griffin - I think this might be my favorite Merton photo.)

The Abby of Gethsemani is a Trappist monastery of the Cistercian tradition. Their style of monastic life follows ancient patterns that have been in place for at least a thousand years. The monks begin their first service of Matins at 2AM in the morning followed by Lauds at dawn, Prime at the first hour; Tierce at the third; Sext at the sixth; None at the ninth. Vespers are celebrated in the late afternoon and Compline just before retiring. Within that liturgical framework of public prayer the monks celebrate a communal Mass and have long periods of work and/or study.

The life is staunchly communal – brothers living side by side. The life is rigorously self-conscious and penitential. It was said of Dom Frederic, half humorously, that he had two basic rules for the community: “Do what you are told” and “Do what you are told”.

Merton’s longing for a solitary life was not, at first, understood by his community or his Abbot.

Merton’s essay, “A Philosophy of Solitude”, is not only an attempt to justify to his religious order his own desire for a more solitary life, it is also an appeal to the monastic tradition to fully understand the very religious concept of solitude.

Here are some excerpts from that essay in which Merton attempts to sort out the meaning of solitude, and how it is to be distinguished from loneliness or alienation.

“The true solitary is not one who simply withdraws from society. Mere withdrawal, regression, leads to a sick solitude, without meaning and without fruit. The solitary of whom I speak is called not to leave society but to transcend it: not to withdraw from the fellowship with other men but to renounce the appearance, the myth of union in diversion in order to attain to union on a higher and more spiritual level – the mystical level of the Body of Christ.”

“The solitary is one who is called to make one of the most terrible decisions possible to man: the decision to disagree completely with those who imagine that the call to diversion and self-deception is the voice of truth and who can summon the full authority of their own prejudice to prove it…”

“… the vocation to solitude is not a vocation to the warm narcissistic dream of a private religion. It is the vocation to become fully awake …”

“… eccentric and regressive solitude clamors for recognition, and seeks to focus more pleasurably and more intently on itself by stepping back from the crowd … 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 call of solitude (even though only interior) is perilous. Everyone who knows what solitude means is aware of this. The essence of the solitary vocation is precisely the anguish of an almost infinite risk.”

“Only the false solitary sees no danger in solitude.”

“[the false solitary’s] solitude is imaginary … the false solitary is one who is able to imagine himself without companions while in reality he remains just as dependent on society as before – if not more dependent. He needs society as a ventriloquist needs a dummy. He projects his own voice and it comes back to him admiring, approving, opposing or at least adverting to his own separateness.”

“The true solitary does not renounce anything that is basic and human about his relationship to other men. He is deeply united to them – all the more deeply because he is no longer entranced by marginal concerns.”

“The Christian solitary is fully and perfectly a man of the Church.”

“The true solitary is not called to an illusion, to the contemplation of himself as a solitary. He is called to the nakedness and hunger of a more primitive and honest condition.”

Saturday, August 11, 2007

a book of hours

A friend stopped by the other day and handed me this book.
This book is amazing; I love this book.

Listen to Stanley Hadsell, of Market Block Books speaking on the Northeast Public Radio book show with a review of A Book of Hours.

The following is from one of Kathleen Deignan's many fine essays introducing the "Hours".

“As Merton’s life of psalmody deepened it awakened the psalmist within him as well. He began inscribing new psalms in the poetic prose and countless poems that seemed to flow from the inexhaustible wellsprings of his silence, the original reservoir of authentic human language from which all praise arises and to which it returns. In a cascade of literary eloquence he soon became the unique voice of a contemporary contemplative reawakening, inspiring in his readers a similar hunger for the experience of God. For Merton, poetry was near the horizon of this encounter, because like music and art it attuned the soul to God, inducing contact with the Creator of a universe resplendent with traces of divinity…

“As Merton’s prose progressively became raids on the unspeakable brutality and violence of our age, his mystical poems were raids on the ineffable. In rich, outrageous, lush and lavish language he spelled out a vision of existence stunning to the impoverished religious imagination of postmodern Christianity. To the blood soaked soul of the twentieth century languishing in the eclipse of spirit deadening skepticism and self-consciousness, Merton dared to speak with the innocence of faith: the primordial intuition of original wholeness, meaning, and mercy at the heart of reality. While the “master narrative” of Christianity progressively suffered distortion, discontinuity, and fragmentation throughout his life, Merton was indefatigable in reweaving the threads of the sacred story on the loom of his inspired religious imagination, unapologetic for spinning a yarn to clothe his existential nakedness, a vestment to wear for his everyday liturgies of praise.” pp. 28-29

wheel of time

Photograph by Thomas Merton
For the unredeemed, the wheel of time
itself is only a spiritual prison.
(“Time and the Liturgy”, Seasons of Celebration, p. 49 excerpted)


Absurdity” is another word that is big for Merton.

Some societies resort to an air of intense seriousness, as in a mass movement, for diversion. Merton claims that our own society prefers the absurd:

“… 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 as contrasted with the totalitarian iniquity of our opposite number.” (Disputed Questions, p. 178)

The disconcerting task of one who attends the life of interior solitude is facing and accepting her 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 becomes 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. (Disputed Questions, pp. 178-179)

Friday, August 10, 2007

silent stones

photograph by Thomas Merton


Merton uses “divertissement”, the word of the French mathematician and philosopher, Blaise Pascal, to describe the occupations and recreations we use to avoid our own company.

The following is excerpted from a website, Pascal: The first modern Christian:

Few words, in fact, are more crucial to Pascal than divertissement, usually translated as "diversion" or "distraction." …"all the misfortunes of men derive from one single thing, their inability to remain at repose in a room." Far from being merely the obiter dictum of a dry cynic, Pascal’s remark actually forms the opening gambit of his Christian apologetics, for he knows that "being unable to cure death, wretchedness, and ignorance," and being not too fond of the medicine of Christ on offer either, "men have decided, in order to be happy, not to think about such things." … "That is why men are so fond of hustle and bustle," he says. "That is why prison is such a fearful punishment; that is why the pleasures of solitude are so incomprehensible."

This craving for distraction is so overriding and exigent that for Pascal it actually constitutes the driving force of ambition. In one sharply worded paragraph in the Pensées, he asserts that the main joy of being a king is the opportunity it affords for endless distraction, since courtiers are continually trying to keep the king’s mind off his mortality and provide him every kind of pleasure. "A king is surrounded by people whose only thought is to divert him so that he might be kept from thinking about himself, because, king though he is, he becomes unhappy as soon as he thinks about himself."

But what applies to the ambitions of a king applies equally well to the motivations of all men. We crave distractions because we do not want to face the realities of the human condition. And because we are unwilling to admit our despair, we perforce cannot face the thought of applying the appropriate balm to heal these unacknowledged wounds. Consequently we hurl ourselves into an endless round of diversions, jobs, hobbies, etc., …

“Man is obviously made for thinking. Therein lies all his dignity and his merit; and his whole duty is to think as he ought. Now the order of thought is to begin with ourselves, and with our Author and our end. But what does the world think about? Never about that, but about dancing, playing the lute, singing, writing verse, jousting and fighting, becoming a king, without ever thinking what it means to be a king or to be a man.”

Like Kierkegaard and Heidegger after him, Pascal was an acute student of boredom, and saw in this phenomenon (actually rather puzzling when one thinks about it) the clue to the very pathos of the human condition. Generally speaking, says Pascal, "we think either of present woes or of threatened miseries." But moments occur in almost everyone’s experience when life reaches a temporary pause of homeostasis, when we feel quite safe on every side, when bad health does not threaten, when bill collectors are not baying at the door, when rush–hour traffic is light and the weather pleasant. But precisely at such moments "boredom on its own account emerges from the depths of our hearts, where it is naturally rooted, and poisons our whole mind." Not just the king craves diversion. So terrified are we of boredom that the king’s ambition is our own.

In his essay “Notes on a Philosophy of Solitude”, while acknowledging our fundamental dependence on society, Merton, like Pascal, insists that no one will become a person by plunging into “warm, apathetic stupor of a collectivity which, like himself, wishes to remain amused”.

The task of the solitary is to detach from these diversions, and to realize that she has less need of them than the organization people, with dogmatic self-complacency, tell her.

Thursday, August 9, 2007

I, Solitude

I am the appointed hour,
The "now" that cuts
Time like a blade.

Merton's thought on the dimensions of solitude might best be expressed in the poem, "Song: if you seek ..." The entire poem is here.

solitude, the mystery of inner life

“One of the first essentials of interior solitude is the actualization of a faith in which a man takes responsibility for his own inner life. He faces its full mystery, in the presence of the invisible God. And he takes upon himself the lonely, barely comprehensible, incommunicable task of working his way through the darkness of his own mystery until he discovers that his mystery and the mystery of God merge into one reality, which is the only reality.”

- from “Philosophy of Solitude", an essay published in Disputed Questions, p. 180

Notes for a Philosophy of Solitude

Merton’s preoccupation with solitude was not always met with understanding. However by 1960 he was ready to speak out fearlessly and eloquently for the solitary life. “Notes for a Philosophy of Solitude”, which was published as an essay in Disputed Questions, is Merton’s strongest and most extended writing on the subject of solitude to that time. Of the essay, Merton says:

“… this is most truly myself. It is what I most want to say, almost all I really deeply want to say. Everything else just points to this.” (Letter to Therese Lentfoehr, September 12, 1960)
In a footnote to the essay, Merton explains that the “solitary” of whom he speaks “is never necessarily a ‘monk’ at all. He may well be a layman, and of the sort most remote from cloistered life, like Thoreau or Emily Dickinson."

Merton begins the study by asking:

“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 … 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.” (Disputed Questions, p. 177)

The emphasis in the first part of the essay is on “interior solitude”, interiority, which one can have in the midst of crowds and every distraction. The first essential of interior solitude is taking responsibility for one’s own inner life.

I suspect that I will be referring to this essay for awhile in my explorations of Merton's solitude.

Tuesday, August 7, 2007

elias, again

I just discovered that Part IV of the Elias poem did not appear on the linked website. Part IV is the strongest part of the poem, in my opinion, and central to understanding Merton's concept of freedom. I've corrected it now, and the full poem is here.
Under the blunt pine
Elias becomes his own geography
(Supposing geography to be necessary at all),
Elias becomes his own wild bird, with God in the center,
His own wide field which nobody owns,
His own pattern, surrounding the Spirit
By which he is himself surrounded:

For the free man’s road has neither beginning nor end.

Monday, August 6, 2007

solitude, thoughts in solitude

In 1958 Merton’s book, Thoughts in Solitude, was published. The material was actually written about 5 years before and was strongly influenced by Merton’s reading of Max Picard’s book, World in Silence.

Merton’s concept of solitude takes on a more universal tone as he relates it to interior freedom and the gift of oneself to society. He insists that persons in society are not mechanical units; but rather that their existence rests upon a sacred personal solitude. In the preface to Thoughts in Solitude Merton remarks that solitude is not just “a recipe for hermits. It has a bearing on the whole future of man and of his world.”

Merton related solitude to certain virtues, perhaps especially “poverty of the spirit. He composed a poem, “When in the soul of the serence disciple …”, with its first stanza:

When in the soul of the serene disciple
With no more Fathers to imitate
Poverty has become a success,
It is a small thing to say the roof is gone
He has not even a house.

(read the entire poem here)

“In Silence”, an especially beautiful poem, was also written during this time.

Be still
Listen to the stones of the wall.
Be silent, they try
To speak your

To the living walls.
Who are you?
Are you? Whose
Silence are you?

(read the entire poem here)

[Note: Quotes from Picard’s “World are Silence” are here.]

Friday, August 3, 2007


In the mid 1950’s Merton wrote a long poem, “Elias: Variations on a Theme”. John Eudes Bamberger, in an article for the Cistercian magazine, speaks of the poem as “one of the more forceful expressions he [Merton] has given to this complex vision of monastic spirituality which combined spiritual maturity, liberty, solitude, the deepening of human experience, protest against infringement of man’s dignity”.

The poem marked something of a turning point for Merton. It came after he had made a private retreat and was central to his thoughts on solitude. He was convinced that he had a solitary vocation of some sort but realizing that solitary vocations do not fit into “neat categories” (as in “carthusian”).

Go back where everyone, in heavy hours,
Is of a different mind, and each is his own burden,
And each mind is its own division
With sickness for diversion and war for
Business reasons. Go where the divided
Cannot stand to be too well. For then they would be held
Responsible for their own misery.

I love this poem, with its evocations of nature and the world, time, despair and unimaginable hope, aloneness and mysterious silence. The entire poem is here.

Thursday, August 2, 2007

solitude, rilke and merton

For some reason, I am having problems the last few days accessing this blog, and it is almost impossible for me to respond to comments. Hopefully this will all resolve itself in a few days. I appreciate all comments, and, as usual, I have something to say :-) ... I just can't do it right now.

Here is a Rilke quote on solitude from Letters to a Young Poet:

"Only one thing is necessary: solitude. To withdraw into oneself and not to meet anyone for hours - that is what we must arrive at. To be alone as a child is alone when grownups come and go."

And here is Merton echoing the same theme:

"I am not defending a phony "hermit-mystique,' but some of us have to be alone to be ourselves. Call it privacy if you like. But we have thinking to do and work to do which demands a certain silence and aloneness. We need time to do our job of meditation and creation." (Contemplation in a World of Actions, p. 218)

solitude, the early years

The Seven Story Mountain, and his early journals, The Sign of Jonas, show Merton to be an exceptional person – one who, by temperament, could very much be his own company. He writes of summers in Europe – France, Germany, Italy – when he would break away from the cities and take long walks alone in the countryside, perfectly content to be his own companion. Later he would trudge the wooded knobs around the Abby of Gethsemani in all weathers.

Merton had an exuberant spirit that expressed itself in warm, disarming friendliness and affection. And he was an artist, extremely sensitive and when under the impulse and inspiration of “making”, could become totally detached from time and place.

In his prologue to The Sign of Jonas, Merton writing about the 5 vows of professed Cistercians, remarks especially on the vow of stability:

“But for me, the vow of stability has been the belly of the whale. I have always felt a great attraction to the life of perfect solitude. It is an attraction I shall probably never entirely lose.” (The Sign of Jonas, p.10)
Merton’s early desire for solitude is apparent. “Pray me into solitude” he begs. The word, solitude, and its adjective, solitary, are used so frequently they appear to be an obsession. And yet, even in the monastery, Merton found that his need for quiet and prayer was difficult to come by. Though he strove to observe his rule with the strictest detail, he found the rigid structure hard, every moment of his day accounted for.

“Today I seemed to be very much assured that solitude is indeed God’s will for me and that it is truly God Who is calling me into the desert. But this desert is not necessarily a geographical one. It is a solitude of heart in which created joys are consumed and reborn in God.” (The Sign of Jonas, p. 2)

“I was once again irritated with the choir and with the work I am doing and with everything in general and went back to the old refrain about being a hermit”. (The Sign of Jonas, p. 56)

After Merton’s ordination he was assigned to be the Master of Scholastics. In one of the passages he speaks of meeting them (his scholastics) in his own solitude:

“The best of them, and the ones to whom I feel closest, are also the most solitary … All this experience replaces my theories of solitude. I do not need a hermitage, because I have found one where I least expected it. It was when I knew my brothers less well that my thoughts were more involved in them. Now that I know them better, I can see something of the depths of solitude which are in every human person, but which most men do not know how to lay open either to themselves or to others or to God.” (The Sign of Jonas, pp. 336-37)

Christ in the Rubble

The Rev. Munther Isaac lighting a candle next to an improvised crèche this month in the West Bank city of Bethlehem. Credit... Samar Hazboun...