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A reflection on Thomas Merton, by Tim Summers

The following is an extract from the introduction to Monica Furlong's Merton, her biography of the monk Thomas Merton.

"What did it mean to meet to be a monk, contemplative, in the twentieth century? In a way his whole twenty-seven years at Gethsemani had been an attempt to find the answer to this problem, and as the years stripped away the obvious answers and the comforting illusions he felt that he was left with little but his humanity. Like Dietrich Bonhoeffer in his Nazi prison, he began to see that the highest spiritual development was to be ordinary, to be fully a man, in the way few human being succeed in becoming so simply and naturally themselves. He began to see the monk not, as he had believed in youth, as someone special, undertaking feats of incredible asceticism for the love of God, but as one who was not afraid to be simply ‘man,’ who, as he lived near to nature and his appetites, was the ‘measure’ of what others might be if society did not distort them with greed or ambition or lust or desperate want. [...]

“The hermit, or just the man who tries to explore solitude, finds himself no longer reassured by the affirmation of others, and may suffer deeply from the emptiness caused by loneliness, feeling that he has ceased to exist. On the far side of this emptiness, Merton believed, there is an identity scarcely dreamed, an identity to be found only in the religious search, and one that sets the contemplative free to love his or her fellow human beings."

And here is Merton on the subject of solitude, in his journal The Sign of Jonas:

"So much do I love this solitude that when I walk out along the road to the old barns that stand alone, far from the new buildings, delight begins to overpower me from head to foot and peace smiles even in the marrow of my bones."

"The circumference of one's discovered union with others in the solitary intimacy of divine love has a way of widening out to include everyone. Indeed, the desert of solitary transformation in divine love is the origin of prophetic speech. Words that come from one's silent communion with God are words that have the power to move the heart of others. Actions that incarnate the compassion that one breathes in prayer are prophetic actions that have the power to give witness to the presence of the kingdom on earth. The more genuinely one lives in solitude with God, the more clearly one sees that social justice is not an issue but a metaphysical necessity."

So this is what is found on the far side of loneliness and emptiness: solitude as a source of delight; solitude as the way of transformation; solitude as the key to self-forgetting and a growing love for God and one's fellow humans. These writings of Thomas Merton show an obsession with solitude: at first, while he is still living as a monk in community, the passionate longing for it; later, having been allowed to live as a hermit in the forest, a passionate enjoyment of it.

"When I am with people I am lonely, and when I am alone I am no longer lonely." Alone in his forest hermitage, where there was no room for illusions, Merton found that reality was friendly. Comfortingly for the rest of us, the real awakening in this renowned Christian's life comes in the move away from high spiritual ambition, "feats of incredible asceticism," into a simple quiet life alone.

The arc of his story is a steady coming down to earth: finding an ever greater authenticity, peace and loving-kindness in the act of living alone, apart from the distortions of modern society. Solitude enabled him to be less and less fake.

It is comforting to discover that one of the wisest and best among us found the greatest fulfilment, indeed the only fulfilment possible, in a life reduced to bare essentials: few possessions, no "relationship" (in the usual sense) and, one senses from his later writings, no longer much of a spiritual program; just himself, amid the sounds of nature, and the Person he met in this solitude.

The above image is a photograph of Thomas Merton in the forest.

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