Come away by yourselves to a lonely place,” Jesus
What is said here about solitude is not just a recipe for hermits.
It has a bearing on the whole future of humankind and the world:
and especially, of course, on the future of religion. Thomas Merton
Over the next several weeks I will be reflecting on selected passages from Thomas Merton’s little book, Thoughts in Solitude. First published in 1956 the book is a collection of Merton’s musings about time he spent alone in a hermitage at Gethsemane Abbey in Kentucky. Merton had been a monk for a while before he finally gained the Abbot’s permission to spend an extended time alone. An outgoing, gregarious fellow, he struggled throughout his life with finding a balance between his need for solitude and for community. His prolific, engaging writing brought seekers to the monastery and his ability to teach about the spiritual life attracted many followers.
If you have a copy of the book, you might want to get it out and follow along. You can easily find a used copy online, or check your local library for Thoughts in Solitude.
I confess that my relationship with this Trappist priest has been rocky. He has both deeply inspired and deeply disappointed me. There is much I admire in his life and writing and a few things I do not. Just as I decide I am finished with the man, I am drawn back. Like us all, Father Tom, as a friend calls him, has his sin and warts, yet God has used him mightily. We may all give thanks that falling short of the aim which God intends for us (the literal meaning of sin) has never been a road block to the power of God working through human lives.
I choose this book, not because I consider it among the best on the subject. We have over 2500 years of excellent material on the spiritual practice of solitude. I hope you will share your favorite resources in the comments section below, or on the Sanctuary Foundation Face Book Page, or email me. I will be happy to compile your suggestions with others and make them available to The Praying Life readers.
So let’s begin with the Preface. Here Merton lays out what he is up to in this book and makes his disclaimers. He tells us his “thoughts here are simply thoughts on the contemplative life, fundamental intuitions which seemed, at the time, to have a basic importance.” His writing comes from his “relationship with God in solitude and silence and that “interrelation of our personal solitudes with one another,” which are for Merton “essential to his own peculiar way of life.”
Then he launches into a broad societal justification for such peculiarity. A number of internal and external obstacles make it difficult for most of us to develop and nurture a practice of spiritual solitude. I have listened to many people who struggle to claim the “legitimacy” of the practice, to respond to this call of God, and to be consistent in the “coming away to a lonely place” with Jesus.
I feel guilty. Isn’t it selfish? Shouldn’t I be doing something – working at the mission, helping out at church, serving on committees? My friends don’t understand. My pastor doesn’t get it. I can’t even explain why I do this or even what happens. Am I only fooling myself and being lazy and wasting time?
I hope this series will offer some support for your practice and a rationale which gives permission and value to a pursuit largely neglected in our culture and religious institutions, but sorely needed. In the end, though, you must come to your own rationale and your own “thoughts in solitude.” For each of us will experience solitude in different ways at different times, and God will speak within you the language of the unique nature of the intimacy you share. And each must make his or her own witness to the truth.
Merton begins his book by looking at the larger culture in which he found himself in 1956:
In an age when totalitarianism has striven, in every way, to devaluate and degrade the human person, we hope it is right to demand a hearing for any – and every sane reaction in favor of man’s [ok, from now on in this blog series I will make Merton’s gender nouns and pronouns neutral] inalienable solitude and interior freedom. The murderous din of our materialism cannot be allowed to silence the independent voices which will never cease to speak: whether they are the voices of Christian saints, Oriental sages like Lao-Tse or the Zen Masters, or the voices of persons like Thoreau, or Martin Buber, or Max Picard. It is all very well to insist that people are “social animals” – the fact is obvious enough. But that is no justification for making them into a mere cog in a totalitarian machine—or a religious one for that matter.”
Society, for Merton, depends for its very existence on the inviolable solitude of its members. This is because, as he writes, “to be a person is to possess responsibility and freedom, and both of these imply a certain interior solitude, a sense of personal integrity, a sense of one’s own reality and of one’s own ability to give oneself to society – or to refuse that gift.”
He ends his preface with: “What is said here about solitude is not just a recipe for hermits. It has a bearing on the whole future of humankind and the world: and especially, of course, on the future of religion.”
One of my pet peeves about Merton, especially in his early writing, is his penchant for sweeping generalizations and pronouncements. I happen to agree with this one. How might such a claim be true? Is there really a relationship between the time you take to create some space and time to be alone with God and our future as a race and the future of religion? I think so. And I am not alone.
When there is a crisis in the church, it is always a crisis of contemplation. The church wants to feel able to explain about her spouse even when she has lost sight of him; even when, although she has not been divorced, she no longer knows his embrace, because curiosity has gotten the better of her and she has gone searching for other people and other things.
Might part of our struggle with keeping solitude be because we have our arms around the wrong lover?
Ask the lover of your soul to show what you are hugging closer to yourself than the Holy One.
Identify competing lovers.
What might it take for you rediscover God’s embrace and forsake all others? It might be easier than you think.