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Merton's Thoughts in Solitude

Some Final Comments on Merton

I’ve finished Part Two: The Love of Solitude of Merton’s Thoughts in Solitude. I must say that the book left me with a familiar feeling. I keep thinking I should like Merton more than I actually do. I felt the same way when I read his collected poems several years ago. I was attracted to the book by a few of his poems I absolutely loved but was largely indifferent to most of them.

The same seems to be true of this book. Some insights seem absolutely right on, like this one:

In our age everything has to be a “problem.” Ours is a time of anxiety because we have willed it to be so. Our anxiety is not imposed on us by force from outside. We impose it on our world and upon one another from within ourselves.

Sanctity in such an age means, no doubt, travelling from the area of anxiety to the area in which there is no anxiety or perhaps it may mean learning, from God, to be without anxiety in the midst of anxiety.

Fundamentally, as Max Picard points out, it probably comes to this: living in a silence which so reconciles the contradictions within us that, although they remain within us, they cease to be a problem (of World of Silence, p. 66-67).

Contradictions have always existed in the soul of man. But it is only when we prefer analysis to silence that they become a constant and insoluble problem. We are not meant to resolve all contradictions but to live with them and rise above them and see them in the light of exterior and objective values which make them trivial by comparison.

Silence, then, belongs to the substance of sanctity. In silence and hope are formed the strength of the Saints (Isaias 30:15).

I’ve always been a critical thinker; it comes naturally to me; it’s what I was rewarded for lo those many school years. Meditation provides at least momentary relief from my monkey brain. Long hikes or backpacks provided an extended vacation.

Merton’s comments remind me of Whitman’s “Do I contradict myself? Very well, then, I contradict myself. I am large, I contain multitudes.” We should be aware of contradictions, but we don’t have to be obsessed with resolving them. Critical thinking has become such a way of life, at least for liberal progressives, that we think we have to find the answer to every aspect of life.

Unfortunately, at least as far as this book is concerned, his religious views and mine are so far apart that I can’t identify with passages like this:

The solitary life is above all a life of prayer.

We do not pray for the sake of praying, but for the sake of being heard. We do not pray in order to listen to ourselves praying but in order that God may hear us and answer us. Also, we do not pray in order to receive just any answer: it must be God’s answer.

Therefore a solitary will be a man who is always praying, and who there is always intent upon God, solicitous for the purity of his own prayer to God, careful not to substitute his own answers for God’s answers, careful not to make prayer an end in itself, careful to keep his prayer hidden and simple and clean. In so doing, he can mercifully forget that his “perfection” depends on his prayer: he can forget himself and live in expectation of God’s answers.

In the end, I’m afraid Merton’s book reminds me more than ever that I wasn’t raised a “Christian” and simply can’t identify with that way of seeing the world. I’m not sure I’ve ever “prayed” for anything, certainly not for “perfection.” The unintended effect of the book is to make me think that I’m closer to being a Buddhist than to being a Christian, though I really have no illusion that I’m a Buddhist other than in philosophy.

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Merton's Thoughts in Solitude

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.