Thursday, August 2, 2007

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)


  1. I love his honesty. The way he writes about being pissed at just about everything on that particular day. Kind of like I'm taking my ball and going home, you guys can just go pound sand.
    These excerpts remind me of a saying. "Wherever you go, there you are"


  2. I often find that the greatest truths are expressed in paradox. Merton's encountering solitude after establishing a connection to his scholastics is a case in point.
    You don't have to go far to be alone with God. Just turn around and look.

  3. at last! I can make a comment!

    Merton's honesty and human-ness appeal to me, as well. He's not a holy and righteous teacher, he is who he is.

    Many of the people who knew Merton describe his as "boy-ish", with dry humor. I recall an incident where a woman was complaining to the Abbot about his lack of "respect" for monks when he made a funny comment on the cornflakes they had for breakfast. It is that lack of forced seriousness and piety that I find so delightful and free-ing as well.



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