Tag Archives: solitude

Made of Yearning and Rumors of God

In the past year I have lived deeply into two books. I returned over and over to taste and savor their wisdom, as though I were sucking on a bone, which had simmered all day long in a crock pot.

In my writers’ group, The Topeka Writer’s Workshop, I marvel at the swiftness of the group’s feedback, their pithy responses, useful suggestions, and on point critique.   My cohorts are all “real poets” in my mind and more knowledgeable about literature and the craft of writing than I am. At our workshops, they leave me in the dust, reading and rereading the rich words on the page.

I am  still at the third line rolling the author’s word choice or images in my mind, chewing at the wonder, and licking the juice off my fingers, when they are ready to move on to another poem or story. I feel the same way at public readings. As the audience softly murmurs admiration and claps politely, I want to holler and whoop, rise to my feet, pump the air and shout: “Wait a minute here! Please stop and let us all think about what you just read! This is magnificent.” And then turn about in a little dance.

Thus, you may understand how taking a year to read one or two book s of poetry suits me well. When I am not dawdling with poems, I devour mysteries, fiction, and spiritual/theological nonfiction. To be honest I am getting my fill of the spiritual/theological/what-should-we-do- about- the-church nonfiction, and plan to branch out into zombies and urban fantasy this year.

Here is one of the books of poetry I lived with last year: Mark S. Burrows’ translation of Rilke, Prayers of a Young Poet . I will share the other book with you in a later post.

orthodox monk

As the seasons of last year passed,  I looked over the shoulder of a young monk composing his prayers to the  Dark Mystery who courted him in his small cell. I watched his struggle for words to name the Unnameable, and for color and line to write an icon that might lift a corner of the curtain that covered his shy Beloved.

I followed the poet/monk into the forest and onto the ever expanding heath, as he entered into the secret intimacy of the One who would not let him go. I sat up with him late at night and tasted that ache of loneliness that borders solitude and finally becomes the gate which springs wide open onto union. The key to the gate is losing that pesky self, which seeks always to assert its primacy to grasp and to possess. I watched the monk’s continual surrender to and reverence for the holy beauty of his own weakness and deep need, where, wonder of wonders, the vast and luminous Dark Mystery makes its home.

It is true that half of what Rilke writes I do not understand, but neither do I understand God. Burrows beautiful translation of Rilke’s poems opened me to the passion and nakedness of soul of the young monk, which Rilke creates for us. The monk, smitten with what he cannot fully contain in his prayers, or comprehend, enlarged my appreciation of the ultimate hidden poverty  of God in the human soul.  I am more comfortable now with my own inscrutable self. And  I am more trusting of the exquisite beauty and uniqueness of God’s presence in the lives of those I counsel.

Here are some lines from the poems in this book I take with me into the new year:

But through it all rumors of God wander
in your dark blood as if along dark alleys.       p.73

Carry that that line around in your pocket for a week or two. Or  write the ones below on a scrap of paper and tuck it under your pillow:

He teaches you to say:
You my deeper sense
trust that I won’t disappoint You;
there’s so much clamoring in my blood –
but I know I am made of yearning.       p 74

And this from the young monk’s letter to his superior:

I live a pious life. I don’t call upon any court,
and my prayer with which I sometimes exalt myself and which I sometimes speak and sometimes live
is: “Make me simple
that I might become ever more whole in You.”  p. 101

In this new year may you be met by the the Mystery of Love in the alleys of your own dark blood.

We all are made of yearning
and the Yearning Itself is Holiness
aching for wholeness in us all.

   Oh, Great One, make me simple, make me little, make me small!                 

                                                                                                                          Loretta +

carthusian nus

 

For any who would like to read the latest issue of Holy Ground, here it is :Autumn 2014 – Let Go and Keep at It  It is about the ongoing task of the spiritual life: surrender. What do you need to let go of and leave behind in the new year?

Your gifts to the Sanctuary Fund and subscriptions to Holy Ground keep us going and are deeply appreciated. Thank you!

Winter Gifts

Eli in the snow

My soul shall be filled as with a banquet.
– Psalm 63: 2-9

At dawn my sleepy lab whines softly. I rise and let him out to sniff his boundaries and empty his bladder. A few minutes later he pounces on the door. Eyes glinting light, he shakes off the blanket of snow on his back. Then lifting one front leg after the other, he prances in the kitchen, pulls a dish towel off the counter and waves it toward me. The toaster, jar of peanut butter, and humming refrigerator sparkle like icicles in the sun.

IMG_0136

I love winter – all of it – grey dishwater skies, wind rattling the siding on the house, cold, ice, blizzards, early sunsets, long nights, and dogs ploughing glad furrows in the snow.

I love that winter is a force I cannot control, but only yield to with humility and respect.

I love winter’s summons to gather up the scattered pieces of myself, burrow down deeply, and simmer in darkness, drawing strength for spring.

I love having to wait and trust in what is unknown and unseen.

Winter grows gratitude in my heart for the privilege of shelter, warmth, running water, and the freedom to stay home. Winter also blooms with compassion and sends me out to help those for whom winter is not some cozy spiritual experience.

 winter woods

Winter spirituality is a less-is-more Holiness of pared down praise. Winter speaks in koans and says, “Behold the fullness of this emptiness!” Now excess in prayer and lifestyle seem gauche and redundant in a world, stripped down to its bare essentials – all bones and angles, holding out its harsh, nonnegotiable truths.

I had had enough of winter thirty five years ago, when I pulled out of my drive in Kalamazoo, Michigan and headed south to Kentucky. I had spent the previous thirty three years of my life in Michigan and Iowa. I am not sure why I am so hungry for ice and snow now.

Hermitage winter

In contrast to the world of humans with our getting and spending, the natural world never tries to impress or persuade me of its opinion. It has nothing to market. It simply is in its implacability, given over to being what it is – a dead maple limb in my front lawn after the storm, a dried tomato vine, a fox checking the garbage can, a rabbit without regret or apology leaving tracks in the snow.

What is implacable about me, unchanging, or nonnegotiable? I wonder. I am a hermit at heart and welcome snow days. I love people and I love being with people. And love for them burns in me like a furnace and pours out molten in my prayers.

And there is this other love – a love of absence, silence, solitude, simplicity – a winter of the soul, where I sit down to a great feast so satisfying that I need nothing else.

Sunset Heartland Center

Exploring Solitude: Leaving Solitude, Gone to Galilee

“Don’t be afraid.  I know you’re looking for Jesus the Nazarene, the One they nailed on the cross.  He’s been raised up; he’s here no longer.  You can see for yourselves that the place is empty.  Now—on your way.  Tell his disciples and Peter that he is going on ahead of you to Galilee.  You’ll see him there, exactly as he said.”

They got out as fast as they could, beside themselves, their heads swimming.  Stunned, they said nothing to anyone. (Mark 16: 6-7  The Message)

Contemplation is the world becoming luminous from within as one plunges breathlessly into human activity, wrote paleontologist, and priest, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin.

Eventually, that which calls us into solitude will also send us out of solitude. Communion with God by ourselves leads to communion with God with others and everything that is. The longing to connect with God returns us to all that is in God.  As Jesus prayed:

 I pray that they will one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. I pray that they also will be in us…I’ve given them the glory that you gave me so that they can be one just as we are one. John 17: 21-22 

 

Solitude deepens our appreciation and concern for all that is in God’s creation. Thomas Merton wrote that it was in solitude where he became capable of deep love for others.

I do not mean to imply that entering solitude means that we are without companions there. A jostling, rowdy, crowd of the saints and angels may join you from time to time. I believe the saints approve of our going off alone to pray and will show up to share their love, make wise cracks, and steal our cookies. Or – maybe it is the mice you hear in the night, muttering and munching your Cheetos. Yet other energies come and go – ancestors, spirits, the great chorus of prayer lifted night and day throughout time and space, the Trinitarian exchange of love that holds the stars in their courses.  Call it what you may. We are never alone. Yet one day, an angel of sorts will intrude on your cozy peace and tell you to go back to the crowds of Galilee.

Time to Go?
Many of us may live for long stretches with little major change in our lives. We complain and fret about the way things are, but we are comfortable in our complaining. Some kind of restriction, suffering, or limitation has become as familiar and predictable as on old friend. Or perhaps, we have grown beyond a wineskin, which once served us well, yet we continue to conform to it, cramming and squeezing ourselves in something which no longer serves us well.

Ways of living end. Even the lovely gifts of solitude come to an end. And it is time to go back home, or wherever home will be for us now. I have come to recognize an organic sense within me, which sits up, looks around, and begins to think of the world beyond my solitude. New energy, clarity, and purpose quicken within me. I know it is time to go back to the world. I am ready – rested, realigned, and serviceable for God’s good pleasure.

Or perhaps we wake one morning, rub our eyes, and say, “Well this is enough of this!” Maybe it’s the cross we are stuck on, clutching at our suffering, reviewing, blaming, nursing resentment, and bitterness.

So, we put down our fork and decide to stop eating sour grapes. And we go out to see if there is somebody who needs a hand to help them climb down from whatever they are hanging from or hanging onto.

Or maybe, you are stuck, numb, and passive in the tomb, playing out some kind of death drama. Then one day you sit up, look around and say, “Oh Rats. Guess I better get up. This is just plain silly. The door has been wide open for days. And I am missing out on all the fun.”

The Summons to Life
The Word of the Lord goes out to the mountains, the lake shores, the forests, and deserts. The Word of the Lord seeps under doorsills, writes itself upon your mirror, and grabs you by the throat in the doctor’s office.

Come, come! Follow me. I am not here. I have risen! Come plunge into the heart of the world, the hurly burly, the bustling shove and rush of life. Come, dive into the chaos. Let go of the death in your life. Follow me down the main streets crying, “Life is winning! Love is winning!”

And you, once basking in the silence and beauty of your Love, now ignite, burn incandescent, and, running with fire, immerse yourself in the midst of the darkness, blossoming like the night sky on the Fourth of July.

Isn’t this why you have been made, to be a rag, soaked in God, burning hot with truth and molten laughter? What good is all your suffering, your losses, and solitude, if they do not thrust you into the throng, wearing the fragrance of God?

People can tell you know, that fragrance, that scent of holiness, that wafts from you, when you have been spending time with God. Dogs and children will follow you. Birds will sing for you. And love-starved souls will line up at your door.

The world does not need your knowledge, your money, and competence. The world does not need your fear, your anxiety, your worry, your pitiful soul sagging from a cross, and your grim tales of death and woe.

The world needs your faith. The worlds longs for one authentic God-smitten soul, who can no longer hold back the Spirit, rising like an orange sun, like a soaring bird, like a great flag unfurling, shouting from every cell, “He is not here. He is risen. He is gone. Gone. To Galilee!”

Get over yourself. Stop sniveling and cringing.

Be a flame in the darkness, faith in the unfaith, hope in the despair, love in the hate, laughter in the gloom.

Go ahead. Rouse the dead! Stomp your foot, and cry, out, “Live!”

Pass out roses. Prepare a feast. You have died and risen with Christ. Nothing can stop you now from bearing grace into the world with every breath you breathe.

So good is this Good News.

So good is this raucous community filled with light.

 

 Solitude Practice:

  •  In a world full of fear, anxiety, and efforts by many to amplify that fear, how and where do you convey a different message?
  • Have you noticed ways in which your solitude practice helps you to love others more?
  •  What has you sniveling or cringing? Is it time to let it go for faith and trust in Christ?

 

This is the last post in the Exploring Solitude Series for now.  I am sure I will take up this topic again in the future.  Thank you for all the likes, shares, retweets, comments, and emails. You are each a beautiful treasure to me!

 Next post:  Something You Do Not Want to Miss   :  )

___________________________

 Praying Life Readers,

I am leading a workshop this month here in Topeka. Hope to see you there!

Look and See: Nurturing a Shining, Festive Life of Prayer

Saturday, April 21, 2012
8:30-12:00
$20.00
First Congregational Church
1701 SW Collins, Topeka, KS  

www.embracethequestions.com

Please register early to assure a place by calling or emailing First Congregational UCC. 785-233-1786; info@embracethequestions.com

 Related articles

Exploring Solitude: Becoming Real

Here is what I want you to do:
find a quiet secluded place so you won’t be tempted
to role play before God.

Just be there
as simply and honestly as you can manage.

The focus will shift from you
to God,
and you will begin to sense his grace.
                                                 Matthew 6:6 MSG

Nobody is watching. Go ahead. Be yourself. Relax. You walked off the stage of your life performance and the audience has all gone home. Feel the weight of that armor, the heavy guard you wear night and day about your shoulders and neck? You won’t need it now. Lay it down.

Oh. Wait a minute. It appears that not all of that audience has gone home. A few hitched a ride into the hermitage in your mind. Take that broom in the corner and chase them out. As long as you do not invite them to sit down, and then start feeding them milk and cookies they will leave. Their harping and commenting will begin to sound sillier and sillier to you in the context of your wilderness.
Go ahead. You can’t hurt the furniture here. Put your feet up and settle into that delicious and utterly joyful place of being yourself, your true self.

A wonderfully freeing aspect of solitude is that nobody cares what you look like. Nobody is there to comment upon, critique, approve, or disapprove of your actions, attitudes, words, mannerisms, personality preferences, and quirks. No one has expectations of you or needs they want you to meet. No one is going to call or drop by unannounced.

Go ahead. Remove that hot stuffy mask.

We have a public face we present to the world. In some cases it is brittle, artificial, and controlled. We put on the mask of a happy person, a competent person, a funny person. But a mask is a limited snap shot of the person we really are, which may include being happy, competent, and funny, but who we really are also has depth, texture, responsiveness, and spontaneity, which masks cannot communicate.

When the face we present to the world is the same nuanced face within us, people call us authentic and real. What we show on the outside has integrity with what is in the inside. The phoniness, pretension, and the effort of maintaining a façade are gone.

I loved taking people out to the hermitage. I would show them around the grounds and cabin, give them some orientation, and, leaving them alone for a few days, drive back to town. Then later, they arrived at my doorstep to drop off the trash, the empty water bottles, and return the key. When I opened door, I was amazed at the differences in the guests. The tension and stress were gone, and an ease and lightness filled their movements. And their faces, soft and smooth like a child’s, wore a refreshing, unguarded openness and simple presence to the moment.

After I spent a long period in solitude, a friend reported that I looked like the Velveteen Rabbit. “Worn and soft. Well loved, and real,” she said.
There is nothing like solitude for peeling off the layers of pretense and inviting a soul into deeper authenticity.

In the days of silence and company kept only with crows, meadowlarks, and the possum, who comes looking for food under the moon, one becomes aware of the vast amount of energy and time, which may be spent on building facades and presenting a particular face to the world. The hours of calculation and strategizing to strike the right note in a speech, the stress filled preparation and rehearsals to achieve a certain affect. We have all been encouraged to become marketers and publicists for our careers, our work places, and even our very lives.

Here relationships degenerate into a potential sale, or a possible connection to a step up the ladder. Social media invites us to fashion our lives on a global stage, where our preferences are watched and matched to product ads which pop up before us.

In contrast to the world of hype nothing is for sale in the wilderness. Further, in the wilderness your stuff and your “brand” start to become embarrassing — all that lipstick in your purse, the three jars of face cream, the books you lined up on the book shelf, those clothes you shopped for.

The wilderness around you takes on a depth, beauty, and fascination that cannot compare to that iPad you just had to have or that “outside the box, edgy high concept” project you have been working on. The world beyond your wilderness begins to  seem artificial, crass, and out of sync with a deeper more profound rhythm.

Oh course, it makes sense that the natural world would inspire you to drop off what is unnatural and false in yourself – those postures and attitudes you take; that pride that you use to hide your vulnerability and need.

Besides, you are not going to fool that turkey vulture soaring over the pasture. He may be pecking at your bones one day and won’t give a damn about what kind of car you drove. The lake, teeming with turtles, bullfrogs, fish, and dragonflies is unimpressed with your credentials.

Yet a few creatures may be curious about your presence. There is nothing you have they desire. All they can offer you is their own mysterious being.
The cows, snuffling at the window, wake you at dawn. A large black angus is peering into the cabin. Her face is framed by the window and the chintz curtains.
You go out barefoot in your pajamas to shoo the cows back into their pasture. There are several mamas with their young ones. You stand still gazing at each other. You watch their massive ribs expand as they breathe, their dark eyes, and pink tongues. They watch you, seeing how your feet are getting damp in the dew, considering your breath, your two legs, and your white silk pajamas.

Your being interpenetrates with their being. A conversation and exchange occurs beyond words. Atoms shift, energy moves, recedes, and gathers in the spreading light. Then they turn, their hooves sinking into the damp earth, swishing their tails, and go back through the broken fence.

Nobody in the wilderness cares what you did last week. Or what you didn’t do. One of the calves looks back at you, slowly chewing grass, hanging out both sides of his mouth.

You feel you need to get right down on your knees in your pajamas and repent of something you do not have the words for.

Oh my God, forgive me for not seeing,” you pray.

Solitude Practice

  • Do you find yourself caught up in playing a role or meeting others expectations and needs unnecessarily?
  • What is it you let go of, when you let down your guard?
  • How does being alone in nature help you be yourself?
  • In what way might the wilderness call you to repentance, or seeing in a new way?

Next post in this series: Exploring Solitude:
So What Do You Do Out There All Day Long?

Exploring Solitude: Deadly Acedia, or Too Bored to Care

Sooner or later even the most devoted hermit or spiritual seeker will discover that this solitude and silence shtick does not seem to be all that it is cracked up to be.
Saintly souls and books far and wide, which recommend and extol solitude, may not include the whole truth of the experience. At some point the solitary pray-er is likely to ask this question:


What on earth do I think I am doing out here
in the middle 
of nowhere by myself!

Next the individual may pace back and forth in his holy abode, while the walls begin to close in. A suffocating boredom descends upon the person like a choking cloud. Her whole spiritual exploration takes on the character of a really bad afternoon spent as a child with an insufferably tedious old aunt. You sit fidgeting in the rocking chair with your feet wagging in the air looking at old Readers Digest magazines and listening to tiresome adults drone on and on about dead relatives.

Now your lovely hermitage grows dull and lifeless and smells faintly of mothballs and Vicks VapoRub. You are sure all your friends are going to wonderful places and having exciting experiences, while you are trapped at Great Aunt Hannah’s and doomed to a lackluster life of gradually increasing obscurity and dull mediocrity. Your back itches. Your tummy hurts. Your neck has a cramp in it. Your brother keeps sticking his tongue out at you. And you realize now that you actually hate him. Your mom ignores you, even when you fake a faint, slide off the rocker, and lie on the floor in a lump.

It can be like this, my friends, as some of you know. You pick up a Bible, read a verse, and it leaves a taste in your mouth like an open bottle of soda that has been in the fridge for a month. A kind of angsty horror rises up in your craw and an overpowering desire to get out of there floods your being.

If someone has not seriously questioned Love’s call, and has not encountered an all- encompassing indifference, even, perhaps at times, revulsion, toward the things of God, I would suggest they simply have not been at it very long. When we enter solitude, whether we find it in the bathroom or at the lovely cottage on the beach, we bring along our retreat provisions, books, journals, music, food, as well as our illusions, expectations, hopes and dreams of what this time will be like. Here we may be in for a rude confrontation of fantasy with Reality, or my will with the will of the One I am seeking.

When I hosted guests at The Sanctuary Foundation hermitage, I watched them haul bags of books and provisions up the slope to the cabin.

“I hope to plan my sermons for the next six months,” some would tell me brightly.

“I hope not.” I would say to myself.

We bring an agenda to our solitude: I want to deepen my awareness of God. I need help in discerning the next steps of my life. I am looking for peace and resolution of conflict.

We come hoping to accomplish some task, relieve pain, even to be entertained. Then lo and behold, we are met with dryness of spirit, dullness of mind and heart, a ho hum listlessness, and growing sense that nothing fun or good is going to happen to me here.

What we fail to see is that God comes to the hermitage as well us. And God has an agenda too. At some point God’s agenda may include a healthy dose of the demon of the noonday sun.

The name the early Christians gave for the dullness can settle over us is acedia.
The desert fathers and mothers called this oppressive state of spiritual apathy the demon of the noonday sun. Evagrius warned, AThis demon attacks the monk towards the fourth hour and besieges the soul until the eighth hour. He begins by giving the impression that the sun is hardly moving or not moving at all, and the day has at least forty hours. Ardor and passion for the things of God are replaced by indifference and boredom. The miserable soul is sick both of God and self.  

Acedia, engraving by Hieronymus Wierix, 16th c...

 

The purpose of this dry discontent is seen as part of the final purification of the will so that it may be merged without any reserve in God. Acedia abolishes spiritual gluttony as it strips us of our fascination with glamour, ease and sensory delights. Since God is spirit and must be worshiped in spirit, a soul’s worship of God grows over time to be less founded in the satisfaction and entertainment of the senses and more in the dark knowing called faith. Through the harsh succor of the demon of acedia the soul is weaned from its attachment to sensory gratifications to a more mature love.
From my book: Letters from the Holy Ground, Seeing God Where You Are (Chapter 24)

As unpleasant as it is, I believe that acedia helps to rid us of the three tendencies of our age, which militate against contemplation, according to Ronald Rolheiser. Rolheiser identifies these tendencies as our narcissism, pragmatism, and unbridled restlessness. The Shattered Lantern – Rediscovering a Felt Presence of God  (Chapter 2)

The excessive self preoccupation of narcissism makes everything we encounter about us and our needs. The cult of the individual deifies the personal and encourages focus on our private concerns and preferences.

“Pragmatism,” Rolheiser writes, “asserts that the truth of an idea lies in its practical efficacy. What that means is that what is true is what works.” We become obsessed with what Thomas Merton identified as the leading spiritual disease of our time: efficiency.

Our unbridled restlessness fuels our driven, compulsive, hyper lifestyles of multi-tasking and instant gratification.


So what’s a body to do? You have come all the way out here. Are you going to turn tale and sneak back home?

Try this: Sit there or go for a walk. Watch your discomfort. Settle into your body. Be curious about your indifference and learn from it. Breathe deeply, as the anxiety and pain of withdrawal from narcissism, pragmatism, and unbridled restlessness grip your soul and cramp your body.

Surrender your agenda. Stop demanding things to be different. Cease resisting what is so, what is real for you.

Gradually a shift will occur.

Perhaps you notice the splotch of light on the wall across from Great Aunt Hannah’s china hutch. Where did the light come from? The late afternoon sun is stretching its long arms across the carpet and up the china hutch, where it touches a crystal goblet which has sat there for thirty years, and just now catches fire as your eyes lay upon it, dazzling you with brightness. You lean back in the rocker, feeling your back sink into the cushion, and watch the dust motes moving lazily above the carpet. You notice the pictures woven into the carpet – a man on a white horse, a house with a red roof, people in olden clothes walking down a lane.

The light splotch on the wall moves and dances. Why? You look at the flaming goblet across from the wall and back to the wall. Then you see through the window in the wall tree branches swaying, sweeping back and forth covering and uncovering the path of the sun.

For a moment you and the dancing splotch and the fiery goblet and the man on the horse and the tree branches swaying, and your great aunt are all laced together with tiny tendrils of light and you yourself catch fire. And you say to yourself, oh this is the way the world is. Everything is all hooked up and intertwined together.

The grown ups are still talking. You feel safe. You see your brother reading his comic book. A sudden rush of love and gratitude for him pours over you. You decide to take a nap. As you doze off, you think, I really like that mothbally VapoRub smell.

Come to me all you who are weak and heavy burdened.
And I will give you rest.     Matthew 11:28

 

Solitude Practice:

  • Have you been afflicted by the demon of the noonday sun? How did it manifest in your life. How did you respond?

  • Does it help to learn that the negative experience of indifference might be a necessary part of your deepening love for God?

  • In the essay above what do you think happened as the child character moves from fidgeting to discovering peace. Do you see anything here that might help you in your acedia attacks?

  • How do narcisscism, pragmatism, and unbridled restlessness hinder your contemplation?

  • Want to learn more about acedia? Here is a good article: Acedia, Bane of Solitaries  See also Katheleen Norris’ book, Acedia & Me: A Marriage, Monks, and a Writer’s Life

Next post in this series: Exploring Solitude: Becoming Real

Exploring Solitude: Why Bother?

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.

Thomas Merton
Thomas Merton (Photo credit: jimforest)

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.”

Thomas Merton's hermitage at The Abbey of Our ...

Hermitage of Thomas Merton at Gethsemane Abbey

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.
Carlo Carretto

 

Might part of our struggle with keeping solitude be because we have our arms around the wrong lover?

Solitude Practice:

  • 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.

As Paul Simon sang to us, there are fifty ways to leave your lover.

Next Post: The Wilderness of Solitude

You can help support this series by donating to The Sanctuary Foundation for Prayer. Just five or ten dollars will make a difference and help pay some of our costs. Your gift is tax deductible. Donate Here. Thank you so much!

Re-tired: Embracing the Call to Solitude

I need to be still for a while.

I need to savor and integrate a month of bounty, a year of gratitude.

I need to listen long

to the captivating resonance of relationships,

that singing bowl of community.

A Japanese rin marks the beginning of moments ...

I recently made a big change in my life and how I will spend my hours in the coming years. I retired. When I hear this word, retire, I see myself driving my car over to the repair shop and saying, “Hoist me up, Mike, and put on some Michelin Pilot Sport Pluses all around this dune buggy. I need something sturdy that will hold me to the road in all weather. Mike, my man, I got places to go and things to see.”


As the old year closed I said goodbye to a community I served for over twelve years and began my retirement from traditional parish ministry. The Sanctuary Foundation, which I founded over twenty years ago, will continue. In the coming year I will offer spiritual guidance, teach a little, and finish a new book.


Most importantly, I will practice what I have preached. I will allow the stillness to feed the hunger of my heart, and offer my life with greater integrity to what I feel most deeply called and what the church, regardless of all its good intentions, seems least able to support.


Mind you, I do not leave parish ministry burned out, beaten down, or resentful as some do. This may be because I worked part-time. I also did not carry the same responsibility, which a head of staff carries. And I continued my long established practice of taking a day a week for solitude and prayer through those twelve years. Besides, even though they work hard and balance multiple tasks and responsibilities, clergy continue to show statistically that they are among the happiest professionals. 


I continue to believe in the church, which is to say, that I believe in the wonder of people stepping out of their daily lives to come together to sing, and to lift their hearts and minds to something beyond their own manipulation and control. I believe in the miracle of people, who seek to love, forgive, and work together in spite of their differences. I believe in the Power that inspires their faith and surrender to One kinder and wiser than they. I believe in the Grace which meets us in vulnerability, admitting failures, and in opening our lives to the scrutiny of a loving God. I believe in the Compassion that leads people to acts of justice and mercy and the Love that empowers them to lay down their lives for each other.


In this sense church is a singular, unique mystery, which has grasped the human species. It startles the wits out of me every time I walk into or stumble upon such church in one of its many manifestations.


To leave parish ministry and my particular community of faith felt like parts of my heart were being pulled out by the roots. So deep was the love we shared and the goodness of God in our midst.


So why leave? Over the past thirty years of my service to the church I have found the traditional forms of ministry, as much as I have loved the work, have always seemed to require a compromise of what I hold most deeply – a life lived prayerfully, mindfully, steeped in the substance of the living God. Too often the church seemed to ask me to live more of the world, than in the world. The church, like each of us, is deeply influenced and captive to the values, practices, and gods of a secular culture. I find it very difficult to stand against that tide of endless production, pragmatism, and focus on self and survival.


Instead of becoming of the world, Paul calls the church to a transformation of its mind, its self understanding as it exists in the world.

Don’t become so well-adjusted to your culture that you fit into it without even thinking. Instead, fix your attention on God. You’ll be changed from the inside out. Readily recognize what he wants from you, and quickly respond to it. Unlike the culture around you, always dragging you down to its level of immaturity, God brings the best out of you, develops well-formed maturity in you. Romans 12: 2 The Message

I never fit in. My personal tension with the church is not because the church has failed. It is a because I am a monk, albeit a gregarious one. Monk, which means solitary is in direct conflict with church and its sense of gathering. And there’s the rub and the glory.  Service, whether in the hermitage or in the pulpit, on one’s knees or at the bedside of a suffering soul, listening to the pain of the poor or raising money for mission,  always requires a death, a sacrifice of some desire or another. I do not blame the church for this, but, rather, the church has educated and purified me through the very conflicts which tried and tempered my soul.


I, alone, am responsible for following the call of God in my life. I am grateful to my denomination, Presbyterian Church(USA), those intelligent, imaginative, decent and orderly ones, and the Presbytery of Northern Kansas  for making space for their solitary, monkish sister. Now at the end of her service and the beginning of her honorable retirement, she will embrace what called her out of darkness and back to the church thirty three years ago, in a way more congruent with her heart’s deepest desires.


So as you can see, I have some things to mull over. I need time to downshift and decelerate as I make for myself a life more congruent with the word of God as it sings in my heart and speaks to me in the ancient texts. Besides I have a big pile of thank you notes to write, and I need to get over to Mike’s and get those new tires.


I will take a couple weeks off from writing The Praying Life. And I will be back  before you know it. In the meantime I will post occasional thoughts and links here and on the 
Sanctuary Foundation Facebook page.

Holy God,
in your will is our peace.
In this moment is your will.
Here, now.

Let’s hit the road.


With deep love and gratitude to The Reverends Paul Waters, Ron Schultz and Rob Winger and the members and friends of Crestview UMC in Topeka, Kansas.

Dear Reader, I am interested in hearing from you. What do you need? How might this blog speak more directly to the hunger of your heart in the coming year? Email your ideas, questions, and suggestions here , or comment below.

I am looking forward to the journey ahead!