Merton’s Thoughts in Solitude

Though unable to find the specific post, I’m pretty sure that The Solitary Walker inspired me to order Thomas Merton’s Thoughts in Solitude, though I’ll have to admit that now that Fall, and the accompanying rainy season, has begun here in the Pacific Northwest my thoughts tend to turn inward. Reading about Robert Sund’s life contributed to this renewed interest, too. Of course, seeking various degrees of solitude has been a constant in my life (and probably anyone else’s who was an English major). Reading, at least for me, requires a certain degree of solitude.

I’ve thought more than once that if I’d lived in the Middle Ages I would have joined a monastic order, though my less-than-Christian beliefs might have gotten me burned as a heretic. Meditation has long been part of my life; I began yoga long ago, before every YMCA or athletic club offered their own version of it. Although originally attracted by the stretching, I continued because of the meditative aspect.

The greatest appeal of the week-long backpacking trips I took for many years was the solitude and simplicity required to survive in the wilderness, the necessity of living with what you could carry on your back. Even long day hikes, though I seldom hiked alone, provided a sense of solitude that I found invigorating.

I’ve only finished the first of two parts of Merton’s work, the one entitled Aspects of the Spiritual Life. So far, I like what is said in the Preface more than anything that appears in this section, probably because our religious beliefs are so different. Merton seems right on, though, with his attack on society’s materialism.

The murderous din of our materialism cannot be allowed to silence the independent voices which will never cease to speak: whether they be the voices of Christian Saints, or the voices of Oriental sages like Lao-Tse or the Zen Masters, or the voices of men like Thoreau or Martin Buber, or Max Picard. It is all very well to insist that man is a “social animal” — the fact is obvious enough. But that is no justification for making him a mere cog in a totalitarian machine-or in a religious one either, for that matter.

Unfortunately, materialism so dominates American society that even religious leaders seem unwilling to challenge it, which seems strange to me since Emerson could argue that “Things are in the saddle and ride mankind” over 150 years ago. I was nearly dumbfounded when some ministers even came up with the “Gospel of Wealth.” It’s a strange form of “Christ-ianity” that ignores the fact that Jesus, God’s Only Son, apparently chose to live a simple existence among the poor people rather than live as a king.

Like Merton, I see very little hope for any sort of spiritual revival if people continue to worship at the altar of Mammon:

No amount of technological progress will cure the hatred that eats away the vitals of materialistic society like a spiritual cancer. The only cure is, and must always be, spiritual. There is not much use talking to men about God and love if they are not able to listen. The ears with which one hears the message of the Gospel are hidden in man’s heart, and these ears do not hear anything unless they are favored with a certain interior solitude and silence.

In other words, since faith is a matter of freedom and self-determination-the free receiving of a freely given gift of grace-man cannot assent to a spiritual message as long as his mind and heart are enslaved by automatism. He will always remain so enslaved as long as he is submerged in a mass of other automatons, without individuality and without their rightful integrity as persons.

What is said here about solitude is not just a recipe for hermits. It has a bearing on the whole future of man and of his world: and especially, of course, on the future of his religion.

Only when people think for themselves can they break away from our increasingly materialistic society, one that measures people by their wealth, and only by wealth. Since it seems extremely unlikely that society is going to turn away from mass consumption in the near future, individuals will have to find the inner resources to resist these pressures to consume, and it’s doubtful they can find those resources without spending considerable time alone discerning what they need to find personal happiness.