Thursday, March 29, 2012

to live in God so thoroughly, so unselfconsciouly, that we become pure act

Cristiani Bros. Circus 1956
A caption that goes with this photo:
After the teeterboard act, left to right, Ortans (Cristiani) Canestrelli, Oscar Cristiani, Belmonte Cristiani, Mogador Cristiani and Lucio Cristiani. Behind Oscar, may have been Daviso Cristiani or Freddie Canestrelli.
(Lax's friend, Mogodor, is front and center)

During the 1950s Lax traveled to western Canada with the Cristiani circus family.  He saw in this family something similar to what he intuited as "pure act", not only when they performed but when they interacted with each other as well:

"Everything they did was both spontaneous and confident, flowing the way a river flows. This way of being in the world came from years of practicing their art but also from a deeper well of knowing. They had been acrobats for several generations and the way they moved, the way they were, seemed bred in the bone. He found himself wanting to be a poet in the same way they were acrobats, his poetry flowing from who he was by nature, without the artistic calculations that kept it from being pure.

That should be our goal as people of God as well, thought Lax, who had converted from Judaism to Catholicism several years before: to live in God so thoroughly, so unselfconsciously, that we become pure act, too. In his Circus cycle, in comparing creation to a traveling circus, he equated God’s people with acrobats. How do God’s people move on the earth? Here’s his description of Mogador Cristiani, the book’s central character and Lax’s good friend:

He walks the earth like a turning ball: knowing
and rejoicing in his sense of balance:
he delights in the fulcrums
and levers, teeter-boards, trampolines, high-wires,
swings, the nets, ropes and ring-curbs of the natural

Beneath his feet the world is buoyant,
thin and alive as a bounding rope.
He stands on it poised,
a gyroscope on the rim of a glass,
sustained by the whirling of an inner wheel.

He steps through the drum of light and air, his
hand held forth.
The moment is a sphere moving with Mogador.

- from "A Gyroscope on the Island of Love" by Michael McGregor, an article published in Image Magazine, Issue 70, available HERE.
 See also:
Lax on Pure Act
acrobat and pure prayer - Phillippe Petit

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

one stone

Photo of Lax taken by Dr. Paul Spaeth at St. Bonaventure University in 1990

The following is excerpted from a fascinating and excellent article about Lax by Michael McGregor.  It appears HERE in the online version of Image magazine, Issue #70.  I understand that the excerpts from this article are part of a new, upcoming, biography of Lax.  The first one really.  I can't wait.  Like McGregor, I believe that Lax was Merton's mentor.  Lax had an intuitive grasp of what Merton was - and we all are - seeking.  Merton called it a direct link to the living God.  But to get Lax, you have to go slow, be still.
Words—those wonders he wielded better than anyone else, requiring “remarkably few” to “weave awesome poems,” as critic Richard Kostelanetz put it.

Words—those specks of speech he parceled out like perfect pearls—one per line in later poems, or maybe just a syllable.

“Write as though sending a telegram in which every word costs a dollar,” he said more than once, paraphrasing Joyce, his literary hero. “Never use a single word more than necessary.”

His breakthrough as a writer—his transformation from mainstream poet into experimental minimalist—had come from a single word. A single object. A single act. In New York City in 1961, twenty-four years before I met him, he’d seen a stone on a sidewalk and picked it up. A few years before that, he had lingered in Europe for the first time, living on little money among immigrants and drifters near the Marseilles harbor, then in a seminary high in the French Alps. He’d returned to New York for work because he’d run out of cash, but after living so simply, so relatively quietly, the words that whirled round him there—the words he and others used so blithely both in poetry and conversation—bothered him. He wondered how many he or anyone understood.

Then that day he saw the stone. That undeniably physical and natural object in an uncomfortably abstract, unnatural world. As he picked it up, he thought only: stone. Stone, he realized, was one word he felt sure about. One word he could write down and feel confident a reader would understand. Standing there, he started a poem that began:

one stone
one stone
one stone

i lift
one stone
one stone

i lift
one stone
and I am

i am
as I lift
one stone

one stone
one stone
one stone

Although he’d written unusually vertical poetry before, publishing some in the New Yorker, this was his first poem in what critics would come to call his minimalist or concrete style. He wrote more—dozens in the days ahead—feeling freer every time he set one down. A year later, Emil Antonucci, an artist who had collaborated with him before, published a book of them called simply New Poems.
And further down the page, there is this:

These compositions have the force to imply that everything is capable of being transformed into symbolic meaning by coming into contact with a passionate human being. Nothing is too small and nothing is too great to be comprehended—or to transmit the meaning which is beyond meanings and which defines itself by remaining incomprehensible. Lax has chosen to write about the common experience in order to avoid seeming to be an elected person. Sanctity is meaningful to him only if it belongs to everything; to sea, sky, minnow and god.

You really have to read the whole essay.  McGregor gets Lax and is able to talk about him within the context of his own creative writing without in any way distorting what Lax was about:

Living among poor Greek fishermen and sponge divers had freed him from the American obsession with money, the expectations of editors and writer friends, and the need to maintain anything anyone might call a career. It had allowed him to write as he wanted to write and live as he wanted to live—a life of what he called pure act among people he saw living that way naturally.

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.]

Saturday, March 24, 2012

real hermits don't have answers (solitude)

Photo by Thomas Merton
"We must remember that Robinson Crusoe was one of the great myths of the middle class, commercial civilization of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries:  the myth not of eremitical solitude but of pragmatic individualism.  Crusoe is a symbolical figure in an era when every man's house was his castle in the trees, but only because every man was a very prudent and resourceful citizen who knew how to make the best out of the least and could drive a hard bargain with any competitor, even life itself.  Carefree Crusoe was happy because he had an answer to everything.  The real hermit is not so sure he has an answer."

-- Thomas Merton, Notes for a Philosophy of Solitude, in the book Disputed Questions (New York: Farrar, Straus and Cudahy, 1960) pp. 201-201

Friday, March 23, 2012

a life of direct dependence on God (solitude)

"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."

-- Thomas Merton, Notes for a Philosophy of Solitude, in the book Disputed Questions (New York: Farrar, Straus and Cudahy, 1960) p. 201

Thursday, March 22, 2012

the hermit is nothing but a failure (solitude)

"The true solitary is not called to an illusion, to the contemplation of himself as solitary.  He is called to the nakedness and hunger of a more primitive and honest condition.  The condition of a stranger (xeniteia) and a wanderer on the face of the earth, who has been called out of what was familiar to him in order to seek strangely and painfully after he knows not what ...

"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 become 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."

-- Thomas Merton, Notes for a Philosophy of Solitude, in the book Disputed Questions (New York: Farrar, Straus and Cudahy, 1960) pp. 198-199

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

the desert can be found in the midst of men (solitude)

Photo by Thomas Merton
"There have always been, and always will be, men who are alone in the midst of society without realizing why.  They are condemned to their strange isolation by temperament or circumstance, and they get used to it.  It is not of these that I am speaking, but of those who having led active and articulate lives in the world of men, leave their old life behind and go into the desert.  The desert does not necessarily have to be physical -- it can be found even in the midst of men.  But it is not found by human aspirations or idealism.  It is mysteriously designed by the finger of God."

-- Thomas Merton, Notes for a Philosophy of Solitude, in the book Disputed Questions (New York: Farrar, Straus and Cudahy, 1960) p. 195

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Man's loneliness is the loneliness of God (solitude)

"The solitary condition also has its jargon and its conventions: these too are pitiful.  There is no point in consoling one who has awakened to his solitude by teaching him to defile his emptiness with rationalizations.  Solitude must not become a diversion to itself by too much self-justification.  At least allow the lonely one to meet his emptiness and come to terms with it: for it is really his destiny and his joy.  Too many people are ready to draw him back at any price from what they conceive to be the edge of the abyss.  True, it is an abyss: but they do not realize that 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 the fact, the loneliness of God.  That is why it is such a great thing for a man to discover his solitude and learn to live in it.  For there he finds that he and God are one: that God is alone as he himself is alone.  That God wills to be alone in him.

"When this is understood, then one sees that his duty is to be faithful to solitude because in this way he is faithful to God.  Fidelity is everything.  From it the solitary can expect truth and strength, light and wisdom at the right time.  If he is not faithful to the inner anonymity and emptiness which are the secret of his whole life, then he can expect nothing but confusion."

-- Thomas Merton, Notes for a Philosophy of Solitude, in the book Disputed Questions (New York: Farrar, Straus and Cudahy, 1960) p. 189-190

Monday, March 19, 2012

the obligation to be spiritually mature (solitude) - Updated

Photo by Thomas Merton
"One who has made the discovery of his inner solitude, or is just about to make it, may need considerable spiritual help.  A wise man, who knows the plight of the new solitary, may with the right word at the right time spare him the pain of seeking vainly some long and complex statement of his case.  No such statement is necessary: he has simply discovered what it means to be a man.  And he has begun to realize that what he sees in himself is not a spiritual luxury but a difficult, humiliating responsibility: the obligation to be spiritually mature."

-- Thomas Merton, Notes for a Philosophy of Solitude, in the book Disputed Questions (New York: Farrar, Straus and Cudahy, 1960) p. 189

Update: There's an interesting article in today's New York Times, "Kierkegaard, Danish Doctor of Dread", that speaks to the need for solitude, and its relationship to the anxiety of being alone.  Look how similar this paragraph is to Merton's:

"In his “Works of Love,” Kierkegaard remarks that all talk about the spirit has to be metaphorical.  Sometimes anxiety is cast as a teacher, and at others, a form of surgery. The prescription in “The Concept of Anxiety” and other texts is that if we can, as the Buddhists say, “stay with the feeling” of anxiety, it will spirit away our finite concerns and educate us as to who we really are, “Then the assaults of anxiety, even though they be terrifying, will not be such that he flees from them.” According to Kierkegaard’s analysis, anxiety like nothing else brings home the lesson that I cannot look to others, to the crowd, when I want to measure my progress in becoming a full human being."

Sunday, March 18, 2012

solitude is marked by simplicity

Photo by Thomas Merton
"The emptiness of the true solitary is marked then 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.  There is in this lonely one a gentleness, a deep sympathy, though he may be apparently unsocial.  There is a great purity of love, though he may hesitate to manifest his love in any way, or to commit himself openly to it.  Underneath the complications that are produced in him by his uneasiness with social images, 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."

- Thomas Merton, Notes for a Philosophy of Solitude, in the book Disputed Questions (New York: Farrar, Straus and Cudahy, 1960) pp. 188-189

Saturday, March 17, 2012

solitude is a basic human reality

"The solitary is one who is aware of solitude in himself as a basic and inevitable human reality, not just as something which affects him as an isolated individual.  Hence his solitude is the foundation of a deep, pure and gentle sympathy with all other men, whether or not they are capable of realizing the tragedy of their plight.  More - it is the doorway by which he enters into the mystery of God, and brings others into that mystery by the power of his love and his humility."

- Thomas Merton, Notes for a Philosophy of Solitude, in the book Disputed Questions (New York: Farrar, Straus and Cudahy, 1960) pp. 188-189

Friday, March 16, 2012

the solitary is called to empiness

Photo by Thomas Merton
"I do not pretend, in these pages to establish a clear formula for discerning solitary vocations.  But this much needs to be said: that one who is called to solitude is not called merely to imagine himself solitary, to live as if he were solitary, to cultivate the illusion that he is different, withdrawn and elevated.  He is called to emptiness.  And in this emptiness he does not find points upon which to base a contrast between himself and others.  On the contrary, he realizes, though perhaps confusedly, that he has entered into a solitude that is shared by everyone.  It is not that he is a solitary while everybody else is social: but that everyone is solitary, in a solitude masked by that symbolism which they use to cheat and counteract their solitariness.  What the solitary renounces is not his union with other men, but rather the deceptive fictions and inadequate symbols which tend to take the place of genuine social unity - to produce a facade of apparent unity without really uniting men on a deep level.  Example - the excitement and fictitious engagement of a football crowd.  This is to say, of course, that the Christian solitary is fully and perfectly a man of the Church.

"Even though he may be physically alone the solitary remains united to others and lives in profound solidarity with them, but on a deeper and mystical level.  They may think he is one with them in the vain interests and preoccupations of a superficial social existence.  He realizes that he is one with them in the peril and anguish of their common solitude: not the solitude of the individual only, but the radical and essential solitude of man - a solitude which was assumed by Christ and which, in Christ, becomes mysteriously identified with the solitude of God."

- Thomas Merton, Notes for a Philosophy of Solitude, in the book Disputed Questions (New York: Farrar, Straus and Cudahy, 1960) pp. 187-188

Thursday, March 15, 2012

the solitary is either god or beast

"Most men cannot live fruitfully without a large proportion of fiction in their thinking.  If they do not have some efficacious mythology around which to organize their activities, they will regress into a less efficacious, more primitive, more chaotic set of illusions.  When the ancients said that the solitary was likely to be either a god or a beast, they meant that he would either achieve a rare intellectual and spiritual independence, or sink into a more complete and brutish dependence.  The solitary easily plunges into a cavern of darkness and of phantoms more horrible and more absurd than the most inane set of conventional social images.  The suffering he must then face is neither salutary nor noble.  It is catastrophic."

- Thomas Merton, Notes for a Philosophy of Solitude, in the book Disputed Questions (New York: Farrar, Straus and Cudahy, 1960) p. 187

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

self-seeking aggressivity

"The solitary is first of all one who renounces this arbitrary social imagery.  When his nation wins a war or sends a rocket to the moon, he can get along without feeling as if he personally had won the war or hit the moon with a rocket.  When his nation is rich and arrogant, he does not feel that he himself is more fortunate and more honest, as well as more powerful than the citizens of other, more "backward" nations.  More than this: he is able to despise war and to see the futility of rockets to the moon is a way quite different and more fundamental from the way in which his society may tolerate these negative views.  That is to say, he despises the criminal, bloodthirsty arrogance of his own nation or class, as much as that of "the enemy".  He despises his own self-seeking aggressivity as much as that of the politicians who hypocritically pretend they are fighting for peace."

- Thomas Merton, Notes for a Philosophy of Solitude, in the book Disputed Questions (New York: Farrar, Straus and Cudahy, 1960) p. 187

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

the pretenses of solidarity

Photo by Thomas Merton
"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.  What he renounces is the superficial imagery and the trite symbolism that pretend to make the relationship more genuine and more fruitful.  He gives up his lax self-abandonment to general diversion.  He renounces vain pretenses of solidarity that tend to substitute themselves for real solidarity, while masking an inner spirit of irresponsibility and selfishness.  He renounces illusory claims of collective achievement and fulfillment, by which society seeks to gratify and assuage the individual's need to feel that he amounts to something.

"The man who is dominated by what I have called the "social image" is one who allows himself to see and to approve in himself only that which his society prescribes as beneficial and praiseworthy in its members.  As a corollary he sees and disapproves (usually in others) mostly what his society disapproves.  And yet he congratulates himself on "thinking for himself".  In reality, this is only a game that he plays in his own mind - the game of substituting the words, slogans and concepts he has received from society, for genuine experience of his own.  Or rather - the slogans of society are felt to rise up within him as if they were his own, "spontaneous experience".  How can such a man be really "social"?  He is imprisoned in an illusion and cut off from real, living contact with his fellow man.  Yet he does not feel himself to be in any way "alone"!"

- Thomas Merton, Notes for a Philosophy of Solitude, in the book Disputed Questions (New York: Farrar, Straus and Cudahy, 1960) pp. 186-187

Monday, March 12, 2012


It seems that back in 2007, on this blog, I was doing something similar to what I am doing now - excerpting from Notes on a Philosophy of Solitude, and including a Merton photograph.  Interestingly, those excerpts are slightly different from the ones I've chosen for this Lenten meditation on solitude.  The photographs are different too.

The 2007 excerpts are here:
Solitude in Community- August 31, 2007
Loneliness in which each single spirit must confront the Living God - August 30, 2007
Spiritual poverty - August 29, 2007
True solitary, False solitary - August 12, 2007

true solitude vs. false solitude

Photo by Thomas Merton
"There is no need to say that 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.  But his solitude is imaginary, that is to say built around an image.  It is merely a social image stripped of its explicitly social elements.  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 to the group and it comes back to him admiring, approving, opposing or at least adverting to his own separateness.

"Even if society seems to condemn him, this pleases and diverts him for it is nothing but the sound of his own voice, reminding him of his separateness, which is his chosen diversion.  True solitude is not mere separateness.  It tends only to unity."

- Thomas Merton, Notes for a Philosophy of Solitude, in the book Disputed Questions (New York: Farrar, Straus and Cudahy, 1960) pp. 185-186

Sunday, March 11, 2012

the hidden agony of the hermit (solitude)

"It should be quite clear then, that there is no question in these pages of the eccentric and regressive solitude that clamors for recognition, and which seeks to focus more pleasurably and more intently on itself by stepping back from the crowd.  But unfortunately, however often I may repeat this warning, it will not be heeded.  Those who most need to hear it are incapable of doing so.  They think that solitude is a heightening of self-consciousness an intensification of pleasure in self.  It is a more secret and more perfect diversion.  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 individualist in practice completely accepts the social fictions around him, but accepts them in such a way that they provide a suitable background against which a few private and favored fictions of his own can make an appearance.  Without the social background, his individual fictions would not be able to assert themselves, and he would no longer be able to fix his attention upon them."

-- Thomas Merton, Notes for a Philosophy of Solitude, in the book Disputed Questions (New York: Farrar, Straus and Cudahy, 1960) p. 184-185

solitude simply is

Photo by Thomas Merton
"It should be clear from the start then that the solitary worthy of the name lives not in a world of private fictions and self-constructed delusions, but 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.  He lives in unity.  His solitude is neither an argument, an accusation, a reproach or a sermon.  It is simply itself.  It is.  And therefore it not only does not attract attention, or desire it, but it remains, for the most part invisible."

-- Thomas Merton, Notes for a Philosophy of Solitude, in the book Disputed Questions (New York: Farrar, Straus and Cudahy, 1960) p. 184

Saturday, March 10, 2012

the vocation to become fully awake (solitude)

"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.  He is therefore bound to sweat blood in anguish, in order to be loyal to God, to the Mystical Christ, and to humanity as a whole, rather than to the idol which is offered to him, for his homage, by a particular group.  He must renounce the blessing of every convenient illusion that absolves him from responsibility when he is untrue to his deepest self and to his inmost truth - the image of God in his own soul.

"The price of fidelity in such a task is a completely dedicated humility - an emptiness of heart in which self-assertion has no place.  For if he is not empty and undivided in his inmost soul, the solitary will be nothing more than an individualist.  And in that case, his non-conformity is nothing but an act of rebellion: the substitution of idols and illusions of his own choosing for those chosen by society.  And this, of course, is the greatest of dangers.  It is both futility and madness.  It leads only to ruin.

"For to forget oneself, at least to the extent of preferring a social myth with a certain limited productiveness, is a lesser evil than clinging to a private myth which is only a sterile dream.  And so, as Heraclitus said long ago, "We must not act and speak like sleepers ... The waking have one common world, but the sleeping turn aside each into a world of his own."  Hence the vocation to solitude is not a vocation to the warm narcissistic dream of a private religion.  It is a vocation to become fully awake, even more than the common somnolence permits one to be, with its arbitrary selection of approved dreams, mixed with a few really valid fruitful conceptions."

-- Thomas Merton, Notes for a Philosophy of Solitude, in the book Disputed Questions (New York: Farrar, Straus and Cudahy, 1960) p. 183-184

Friday, March 9, 2012

evil done "for the common good" (solitude)

Photograph by Thomas Merton
"There are crimes which no one would commit as an individual which he willingly and bravely commits when acting in the name of his society, because he has been (too easily) convinced that evil is entirely different when it is done "for the common good".  As an example, one might point to the way in which racial hatreds and even persecution are admitted by people who consider themselves, and perhaps in some sense are, kind, tolerant, civilized and even humane.  But they have acquired a special deformity of conscience as a result of their identification with their group, their immersion in their particular society.  This deformation is the price they pay to forget and exorcise that solitude which seems to them to be a demon."

-- Thomas Merton, Notes for a Philosophy of Solitude, in the book Disputed Questions (New York: Farrar, Straus and Cudahy, 1960) p. 183

Thursday, March 8, 2012

each one must die alone and live alone (solitude)

Photo by Thomas Merton
"Every man is a solitary, held firmly by the inexorable limitations of his own aloneness.  Death makes this very clear, for when a man dies, he dies alone.  The only one for whom the bell tolls, in all literal truth, is the one who is dying.  It tolls "for thee" in so far as death is common to all of us, but obviously we do not all die at one and the same moment.  We die like one another.  The presence of many living men around the deathbed of one who is in agony may untie them all in the mystery of death, but it unites them in a mystery of living solitude.  It paradoxically unites them while reminding them acutely -- and beyond words -- of their isolation.  Each one will have to die, and die alone.  And, at the same time (but this is what they do not want to see) each one must also live alone.  For we must remember that the Church is at the same time community and solitude.  The dying Christian is one with the Church, but he also suffers the lonliness of Christ's agony in Gethsemani.

"Very few men are able to face this fact squarely.  And very few are expected to do so.  It is the special vocation of certain ones who dedicate their whole lives to wrestling with solitude.  An "agony" is a "wrestling".  The dying man in agony wrestles with solitude.  But the wrestling with one's solitude is also a life-work - a "life agony".  When a man is called to be a solitary -- (even if only interiorly) -- he does not need to be anything else, nor can anything else be demanded of him except that he remain physically or spiritually alone fighting his battle which few can understand.  His 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, or simply the spiritual cell of his own incomprehensible emptiness: and, as the desert fathers used to say, his "cell will teach him all things"."

- Thomas Merton, Notes for a Philosophy of Solitude, in the book Disputed Questions (New York: Farrar, Straus and Cudahy, 1960) pp. 180-181

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

the mystery of one's inner life (solitude)

Photo by Thomas Merton
"One of the first essentials of the interior solitude of which I speak is that it 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.  That God lives in him and he in God -- not precisely in the way that words seem to suggest (for words have no power to comprehend the reality) but in a way that makes words, and even attempts to communicate, seem utterly illusory.

"The words of God, the words which unite in "One Body" the society of those who truly believe, have the power to signify the mystery of our loneliness and oneness in Christ, to point the way into its darkness.  They have the power also, to illuminate the darkness.  But they do so by losing the shape of words and becoming -- not thoughts, not things, but the unspeakable beating of a Heart within the heart of one's own life."

-- Thomas Merton, Notes for a Philosophy of Solitude, in the book Disputed Questions (New York: Farrar, Straus and Cudahy, 1960) p. 180

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Un cri d'oiseau sur les recifs ...

Photo by Thomas Merton
Merton's 30-page essay, Notes for a Philosophy of Solitude is his clearest articulation of his thoughts on solitude, representing a refinement of earlier arguments defending monasticism and eremiticism.  Notes extends the philosophy of solitude to lay people, that is, to all his readers.

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.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

like swimming in the heart of the sun

Ordination Day, May 1949, photograph of Thomas Merton
May, 1949.   Merton had been at Gethsemani for 6 years and was ordained.  He was 33 years old.  For days after this event Merton's journals go on and on about his joy in being a priest, saying Mass.

This is the passage I like best:
"Yet a certain restraint seems to be the best thing about the Mass in our liturgy.  The whole thing is so tremendous that no amount of exuberance will ever get you anywhere in expressing it.  To bend down, unnoticed, and kiss the altar at the Supplices te rogamos [Humbly we pray to you] is a movement that lifts me out of myself and doubles my peace, and saying the Pater [Our Father] is like swimming in the heart of the sun."  -Entering the Silence, p. 320-321
I am reminded that this, pious as it is, is the ground from which Merton was able to write with such wisdom and authority - a total surrender to God.


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