Murray Bodo, OFM
Thomas Merton resigned his post as Master of Novices
at the Monastery of Gethsemani in mid-August of 1965 and entered upon a more
solitary life, living in a small, cinderblock hermitage in a wooded area overlooking
the old abbey in Nelson County, Kentucky.
—Brother Patrick Hart, The Literary Essays of Thomas Merton
THAT I should be here in Merton’s hermitage! Sunday, March 19, 1995, the Feast of St. Joseph. I am here, by exception and with special permission of Father Abbot, for a six-day private retreat—I, who when I read The Seven Storey Mountain as a boy of thirteen in Gallup, New Mexico, thought I’d entered a world like that of the Arabian Nights, so fantastical did that story seem, so remote was Gethsemani, Kentucky. And now forty-four years later I sit at Merton’s table, the one designed by Victor Hammer. At my back is the fireplace before which, still and empty, waits the rocker Jacques Maritain sat in when he visited Merton here.
The dwelling is quite spare. The smell of burnt wood permeates the hermitage, and I wonder how long before my clothes reek of smoke. The sunlight frets the concrete floor as it passes through the partially opened Venetian blinds. Firewood is stacked next to the fireplace. In the corner are several walking sticks.
On the table rest a few books I’ve pulled off the shelf from the original collection Merton had here when he left for the Far East in 1968: The Portable Thoreau, The Mirror of Simple Souls by an unknown French mystic of the thirteenth century, Early Fathers from the Philokalia, Western Mysticism, The Mediaeval Mystics of England, The Flight from God by Max Picard, The Ancrene Riwle, The Book of the Poor in Spirit by a Friend of God (fourteenth century), A Guide to Rhineland Mysticism, A Treasury of Russian Spirituality, The Teaching of SS. Augustine, Gregory, and Bernard.
How different from my three books on the same table, The Bostonians by Henry James, Selected Poetry of Yehuda Amichai, and Rainer Maria Rilke: New Poems 1907.
I walk out on Merton’s porch and am overwhelmed with stars, the whole sky alive with their lights as when a boy I would look up into the New Mexico sky in wonder.
Stars and daffodils and a dead bluebird. When I cleaned the ashes out of the wood stove earlier in the afternoon, there on the grate, not fallen through like the ashes, was a dead bluebird, its tiny feet aloft and rigid as if clinging upside down to a branch no longer there. I lifted the bird reverently from the cold grate and buried him on the path behind the hermitage. I placed two twigs in the sign of the cross on the earth beneath which his blue feathers would now begin to fade into the black Kentucky soil. Would I have noticed a dead bird as I rushed to class from our friary on Pleasant Street in inner-city Cincinnati?
Maybe this is the beginning of contemplation, the part about the bird, I mean. At least, it strikes me that finding the bird and burying it was the beginning of Franciscan contemplation, not because of St. Francis and the birdbath thing, but because of St. Francis’s reverence for all things, his sacramental eyes that saw the Incarnation concretely in the sacredness of everything animate and inanimate. “Be praised, My Lord,” he sang, “through all that You have made.”
When I was out earlier, the sky full of stars, I looked for but did not find the moon. Now getting ready to retire, I look up and there is the moon, yellow, just beginning to wane, low on the horizon to the left of the hermitage’s front window. The silent moon. I go out on the porch for a better view. Silent the moon in rising, silent in its sentinel watching.
I retire to the bedroom, where a single bed is pushed up close against the wall, but return to the front room again, just to check on the moon. When was the last time I did anything like that? My hermitage retreat must be beginning.
I care now about the moon, when before I came here all my care was on what to bring. I remembered Thoreau’s “simplify, simplify, simplify.” But just in case, I brought two loaves of bread, canned soups, fruit, laptop computer, underclothes, socks, sweat pants, extra jeans, extra shoes, umbrella, three coats (one for cold, one for cool, one for rain), flashlight, cellular phone (notice how I sneaked in computer and cellular phone the way adultery is sneaked into Confession between harmless peccadilloes), batteries, two tape recorders (one that plays only, one that records), books and books and books, juices and candy, two cameras (one in fact did jam and I had to use the other), binoculars, Sorel boots (in case of a surprise snow storm the first week of spring), pills and pills and Skin-So-Soft (in case of early mosquitoes), whiskey (Heaven Hill bourbon, Merton’s favorite)—in case of snake bite or for hot toddies should I catch a chill.
All of that and more, and now all I see is the moon, all I care about is the silence and the night full of stars.
I had thought the silence might frighten me. Instead it’s more than comfortable here—I’m happy. Especially with the sun rising now where the moon surprised me last night. And no phone ringing. I’ve unplugged the cellular phone, put it away.
I’m lounging with a cup of coffee, having slept well. I’m following the Italian dictum “dolce far niente,” sweetly doing nothing, as I prepare for morning Mass in Merton’s chapel. There’s a small ceramic cross here, fashioned for Merton by Ernesto Cardenal, the Nicaraguan priest and poet, who was for a time in the late fifties Merton’s novice at Gethsemani Abbey. There are three icons as well. None is the original icon given to Merton by Marco Pallis in 1965. That marvelous Greek, probably Macedonian, icon from around 1700 is now wisely preserved in the archives of the Abbey.
Merton describes the icon thus: “The Holy Mother and Child and then on panels that open out, St. Nicholas and St. George, St. Demetrius and St. Chorlandros—whoever that is.”
Merton wrote to Pallis that he never tired “of gazing at it. There is a spiritual presence and reality about it, a true ‘Thaboric’ light, which seems unaccountably to proceed from the Heart of the Virgin and Child as if they had One heart, and which goes out to the whole universe. It is unutterably splendid. And silent. It imposes a silence on the whole hermitage.”
Earlier I took a walk down the road to where I could see the abbey unobstructed by trees and brush. Photographed the back of the abbey church and monastery.
Back here in the hermitage, I take in the silence Merton’s icon bequeathed to this cinder-block dwelling. I recall the distinctions of silence which John F. Teahan made in his Cistercian Studies paper about the place of silence in Merton’s life. He divides silence into public, ascetical, and meditational:
The public or ritual use of silence facilitates solemnity, reverence, recollection, and sense of mystery.... [Ascetical silence], the attempt to rescue physical quiet from verbal overload, is normally considered a means to the more important goal of calming interior consciousness, an important prerequisite for many forms of mystical experience.... A final type of religious silence is associated with the practice of meditation.... The silence of meditation directs attention away from everyday turbulence, fosters inner calm, and thus makes the meditator more aware of innermost self.
The purpose of religious solitude is to be alone with God, to find myself in God, and in God to see and understand my communion with everything that is. In solitude and silence I come to know the interconnection of all things. In their aloneness in God, who is their source, all things are both unique and in union. To know the One in my own aloneness is to know the many. Even the word “alone” contains the word “one” and a suggestion of the word “all.”
I enter into solitude and silence in order to know that I am not alone. In aloneness I experience that all are one and one is somehow all.
Franciscan eremitism follows through on the implications of such a discovery of the many in the one. I enter into solitude to rediscover my connectedness with all that is; I leave the hermitage for the open road impelled by charity to make manifest in my life and relationship with others that we are all in God. That relationship ultimately comes down to seeing, listening, and responding in charity.
But service, doing, even seeing and listening, dulls; and I enter solitude again in order to renew my sight and hearing, to rediscover the One who is the source of my reason for listening to and serving the many.
In silence and solitude I re-learn that I am in others and they are in me, whether or not we are physically present to one another. My own uniqueness discovered in the One who made me and dwells in me, is my simultaneous discovery of everything that is in the same One who inhabits silence and solitude—a silence and solitude I carry with me in the tabernacle of my deepest self. A silence and solitude I forget is there when I abandon retreating into that center and allow myself to be distracted by the proliferation of things and people, by noise and sound that obscure the way back into the center of myself where I realize how deeply connected I am to others. If I continue to immerse myself in other things and people, I paradoxically become alienated from them and myself. I lose myself in them and resent their demands on my time and attention. If I take the time to withdraw periodically into silence and solitude, I reconnect to myself and others from whom I’ve grown alienated.
Silence, solitude, and communion are all complementary. In communion I know solitude; in solitude I know communion; in silence I know both solitude and communion. For God’s silence is God’s speaking beyond words and ideas. It is God’s communication to the heart silent and alone, listening beyond words for the truth of its oneness and communion.
All of which sounds terribly abstract. I better go out and look at the daffodils.
I’m back from yesterday’s daffodils. Seeing them and loving them made me realize that when I came here to Merton’s hermitage, I was angry about a lot of things: like politics and politicians, the incessant chatter of newspeople whose talk is largely made up of half-truths and sometimes downright lies—for effect or ratings, or whatever else words become when they are detached from truth and reflection.
I was appalled at the sensationalism of talk shows and the O.J. Simpson trial. The invasion of privacy, the lack of taste and decorum and basic human decency depressed me. What was happening to the world? How could we permit the atrocities in Bosnia to go unnoticed, except in passing, and spend hours and hours and hours on the O.J. Simpson trial?
And now here in solitude, I’m no longer angry or alienated from those “others” who don’t think or act like me. I feel, rather, compassion and love and connectedness, communion with all of them. I see myself in those I criticize; they are in me and I in them. They, too, long for solitude and silence where they can find themselves again. They, like me, are really solitudes trying to connect with one another. We all feel disconnected when we fail or refuse to be alone long enough to know we are not alone.
All great religious leaders entered into solitude and there heard the word of God. When they returned again to community, they shared God’s word. Those who heard and became disciples of that word, if they, too, did not enter into solitude with the word they had heard from their teacher or prophet, often used the word they’d heard to make other words that divide and separate. These other words breed hatred and even war among other hearers of these new words that have nothing of solitude and silence in them and therefore do not derive from God but from the perversity of the human heart when it refuses to listen to the silence wherein God speaks to it.
So in a very real way we enter into silence in order to keep from killing each other. We find in solitude the reason why we need to love one another or lose our very selves.
Already last night I wished I’d brought a small TV to relax with late at night. But I hadn’t brought one, and so I was forced to look elsewhere. That’s when I began to really see the hermitage, the woods, the tone of the evening. A thunderstorm was gathering and I went out onto the porch to watch the black clouds gather. Lightning began to crack around the hermitage and I withdrew to the safety of the living room where I already had a fire roaring in the wood stove. I wanted to stand by the large window next to the stove, but the trees were beginning to bend in the strong wind, and I was afraid here on this knoll one of the trees would be hit by lightning, especially the tall beech next to the window.
I retreated to the kitchen and then into the chapel where I could watch the incredible electrical display moving east where I’d seen the moon the night before and the sun rising that same morning. The thunder and lightning lasted only about twenty minutes, abut the length of a half-hour sitcom minus the commercials.
I walked back to the kitchen, and light was breaking in the west even as the last flashes of lightning strobed the interior of the hermitage. Light following light. As the storm had approached, there were patches of light in the sky over the hermitage and the western horizon was black and thunderous. Now the east was black as light broke in the west, the sun’s last rays illumining a sliver of horizon where the black clouds were lifting, moving east with the rest of the storm.
The whole thing was better than most half-hour TV shows and I felt much more involved with the consequences of what might happen before it was over.
Then, just as I thought it was all over, the grounds in front of the hermitage lit up like a visitation of angels, and the town of New Hope, far in the distance beyond, shone like a painting of Bethlehem’s first Christmas with its flood of light from the Magi’s guiding star.
I usually don’t carry on like this about TV shows, nor do I write about what I’ve watched on the screen. But here in the hermitage I was seeing something actually happening, not seeing what the camera’s eye is seeing whether or not it’s live or recorded, fact or fiction. I was directing my own eyes east and west, before and after, not watching what someone else has decided I should see.
How often I’ve been shocked or felt pity for victims of the camera’s merciless, invasive eye. Compassion, mercy, or simply decency would have moved me to look aside, allow the person or scene its private sorrow or shame or pain. How cruel is the camera’s eye, or more accurately, those who direct and aim and focus that indifferent lens.
This knowledge, too, I will take home with me. I probably knew as much before, but this retreat has made the knowledge more real somehow. I’ve seen, reflected, written, and been led into prayer that centers on the incarnate, not the televised, event—a storm over the hermitage, light flaring over the town of New Hope.
When darkness falls at the hermitage, I am at first apprehensive, even fearful. Night. Within and without we feel more vulnerable, especially in a strange place, removed from the security of friends and loved ones. We notice every small sound until we can identify it and dismiss it. We wonder what ghosts might inhabit such places deep in the woods where there are no street lights, no passing cars, no sirens and horns. Or are the ghosts only our own fears?
I take up a book to distract me, I do chores like stoke the stove, wash dishes, order the table where I will write in the morning. I pray Divine Office in the chapel before the Blessed Sacrament. My fears dissipate.
Routine, familiar and not so familiar, begins to fill the night hours. I pen some notes, pray, take up the novel I brought with me, Henry James’s The Bostonians. I put it down, wish I’d brought something lighter, surrender to silence, solitude, oncoming drowsiness.
It is already the fourth day in the hermitage when I begin to understand the importance of domestic chores. I wake and put on the coffee water, open the blinds, and welcome the morning. Shaking down the ashes from the grate into the ash pan at the bottom of the stove, and carrying in wood and sweeping the floor afterwards and lighting the newspapers under the kindling wood, all of these mundane, small activities become the vehicles of grace for me. I putter about the hermitage, make the bed, wash the breakfast dishes, sweep the porch; and something begins to order itself inside me as I order my external world. The ordering and puttering become a kind of prayer, a way of attending to the human which is a way of attending to the divine, charged as we are and the world is with the presence of God.
Domestic chores also become simply something to do. One cannot pray and meditate unendingly. There is a rhythm to life lived anywhere that calms the heart if we surrender to the necessities of the world around us and the world within. In a letter to the poet Clayton Eshleman, Merton writes of the simplicity of his own rhythm at the hermitage: “I get some writing done, read a fair amount, chop wood, think a lot.”
Instead of being wrenched and tortured by the demands of others, the greed and competition, the frenetic pace of the modern world, if I can bring myself to retreat from time to time, if for no other reason than to listen to my own heart and body, then this other, simpler, often more domestic rhythm begins to modulate the heart’s nervous pounding. Simple, deliberate acts humanize what has become, little by little, a robot-like existence. “’Tis a gift to be simple,” as the old Shaker hymn has it.
The hope, of course, is that I take this new rhythm with me when I return to other responsibilities, that what I have experienced within, I can return to as to a memory of where I need to be, how I need to be if I am to be fully human with myself, fully loving toward others.
I know from past experience that what I learn here in the hermitage won’t last long in the onslaught of the “real world.” But I know also that the experience will beckon me to return, to enter into retreat again and again until it does in fact become portable like an inner habit I carry with me though it may lie dormant in the face of other demands.
It’s about discovering anew my true self which I find paradoxically when I forget myself in simple tasks: in an ordering routine, silence, solitude, and above all, in God. For every quiet, ordering task, every murmured prayer, every contemplation of tree or flower or weather is a losing of myself in the other in preparation for losing myself in the Other, God. God, who comes not when I am straining, twisting the Divine arm to reveal his presence, but who comes when I least expect, when I’m sweeping the hermitage floor, lighting the fire, drinking a cup of coffee. God is gift. God comes when I am quiet, when I surrender to the rhythm of my own heart, when I take time to refind the time that is not clock time, chronological time, but inner time, fullness of time, the time of mystery.
I look at my watch and see the second hand move. I look at the morning sun and don’t see it move though I know it will continue to be in different places in the sky as the earth moves; and time becomes something other than linear movement.
Time is something I don’t see but rest in as in God’s presence, something which affects the tone and color of everything. Time reveals itself as God does in brief epiphanies that come as intuitions, glimpses of something I can’t quite see but know is there affecting everything I do, everything I am.
Today is the first day of spring. The view from the hermitage is of a clear, crisp morning after a night of lightning and thunder and wind clearing the sky for this grace of morning. Gratitude rises in me like the sun. I am suddenly immensely grateful for the silence and for simple things like naps and leisure and long walks in the woods, and food I haven’t given sufficient thanks for before.
Here at the hermitage, for example, I look forward to the simple meals. Lots of fruit and homemade bread, and strong, stinky, marvelous Trappist cheese that Brother Patrick gave me when I arrived. Someone baked me a loaf of pumpkin bread, too, which I brought along for a breakfast substitute for oatmeal a couple of mornings. And coffee for mornings, Earl Grey tea for late afternoons. And some M&M’s I said I wouldn’t bring but did and have enjoyed inordinately.
I feel thankful, too, for a new awareness of time, pregnant time that gives birth to one’s own private revelation, one’s own insight, only in the fullness of time, when gestation has come full term within and God is born from the soul. This gratitude and this new awareness of time is common to all traditions, to all who enter solitude in order to pray and listen to silence.
Each day of the hermitage experience I ventured farther into the woods surrounding the hermitage, each night I stayed out longer looking at the stars. At first I holed up in the hermitage as in a safe refuge from whatever was out there; I pretty much kept to the main fireplace and wood-stove living room where there was light and warmth and a door I could secure. Like someone put down in the wilderness I needed a hut, a cabin, an anchoring place.
The same is true of the human soul. It stays indoors at first, only tentatively exploring the other, the unknown, the seemingly unsafe. It fears the dark. What I feel my body doing, exploring, is what my soul is doing as well.
On the fifth afternoon I leave the hermitage to travel to a small grocery mart in Culvertown, a couple of miles down the road. My emotions surprise me. It feels almost like a sin to leave, and I can’t wait to return. This gift is so precious, so rare, I don’t want to waste a minute of it—then I realize I am back in linear time again and surrender to what needs to be done and return to the hermitage after picking up a head of lettuce and a half pint of milk—and all is well again.
I guess I’m growing accustomed to this place. I wonder why, though? Is this just a romantic junket like a Caribbean cruise, something different, a fling in the woods pretending to be Thoreau or Merton or anyone else who’s entered solitude without a car waiting to whisk them away as soon as possible after the quick fix of solitude? Well, I’ve done the hermitage thing; now what?
I don’t think it’s that at all. It’s certainly not a cruise; no luxuries here, no fellow travelers. Why, then, am I here?
The only answer I can give is that somehow we gravitate to solitude and silence as to the ground of our being; but something has to happen inside for us to act upon that simple truth. What that is is as varied as are the human beings who find their way to a place of hermitage. It has something to do with wanting to find God or ourselves, which is the same thing. For only in God do we know who we are and only in our deepest selves do we find God. Our selves in solitude and prayer, or our selves loving selflessly another or others, or our selves responding to a sacred ritual.
In religious hermitage there are all of these: God, self, solitude, prayer, charity, and ritual. But the key to all of them is prayer. For it is in prayer that God finds us and we find ourselves, find love, have the need to ritualize our experience.
Nor is God’s finding us always an experience of sweetness and light. It may be like the divine wrestling Jacob experienced in the Book of Genesis:
"And Jacob was left alone; and there wrestled a man with him until the breaking of the day. And when he saw that he prevailed not against him, he touched the hollow of his thigh; and the hollow of Jacob’s thigh was out of joint, as he wrestled with him. And he said, Let me go, for the day breaketh. And he said, I will not let thee go, except thou bless me. And he said unto him, What is thy name? And he said, Jacob. And he said, Thy name should be called no more, Jacob, but Israel: for as a prince hast thou power with God and with men, and hast prevailed. And Jacob asked him, and said, Tell me, I pray thee, thy name. And he said, Wherefore is it thou ask me after my name? And he blessed him there. And Jacob called the name of the place Peniel: for I have seen God face to face, and my life is preserved."
Prayer is often a struggle, a wrestling with ourselves to quiet down, to focus, to listen. A wrestling with faith to believe we’re not just talking to ourselves but are in fact in dialogue with a God we cannot hear. A wrestling with the God we do hear deep inside those insights and convictions that invite us to change, to begin moving out of our self-preoccupation into charity and other-centeredness motivated by God’s love for us. A wrestling at last with a God who may not be who we thought God was, who may even wound us that we might know who it is we are wrestling with.
But no matter how prolonged the wrestling, in the end we know from the peace in our hearts that it is God we’ve been struggling with; it is God who finally has our attention.
This sort of dynamic happens in practically all prolonged prayer, and even, at times, in short prayer. We settle down, try to move to that quiet place within, try to become conscious of our breathing, its rhythm, its calming effect. We begin to feel we are being breathed by the Other we have come to listen to, to surrender to. And then, in spite of our focus, all our concerns and worries rush in. How are we going to pay the mortgage, who’s going to pick up the kids from the pool, what am I going to cook for supper, did I remember to pay the light bill, was I supposed to call Aunt Clara, will I pass algebra, will I get a job, why doesn’t he/she love me the way I love her/him, do I have an ulcer, will God cure Uncle Frank? Etc., etc.
We wrestle with these and myriad other concerns, trying to put them out of our minds, trying to focus on the one thing necessary; and mostly we fail at it until the very end of the time we’ve set aside for prayer. If it’s an hour, usually the last ten minutes or so we begin to settle down; and peace comes. Comes we don’t know how, but we suspect it’s from God, and the wound that the headache, worry and struggle have caused us is worth it; and we remember the place where we were wounded. We want to return there tomorrow for the five or ten minutes of mysterious peace. And we do because we got through the day better after the wrestling and its attendant peace.
Sometimes, as in Jacob’s other experience of God, we want to ritualize our experience in some tangible way.
"And he lighted upon a certain place, and tarried there all night, because the sun was set; and he took of the stones of that place, and put them for his pillows, and lay down in that place to sleep. And he dreamed, and behold a ladder set up on the earth, and the top of it reached to heaven: and behold the angels of God ascending and descending on it. And Jacob awakened out of his sleep, and he said, Surely the Lord is in this place; and I knew it not. And he was afraid, and said, How dreadful is this place! This is none other but the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven. And Jacob rose up early in the morning, and took the stone that he had put for his pillows, and set it up for a pillar, and poured oil on the top of it.... And this stone, which I have set for a pillar, shall be God’s house: and of all that thou shalt give me I will surely give the tenth unto thee."
Like Jacob we are moved to set up a pillar, a stone, or hollow out a place in the earth, a womb, a kiva; or we are moved to turn toward Mecca, to pray at Jerusalem’s Wailing Wall, to go to a mosque or synagogue or church or meeting house, to go on pilgrimage to our own holy place, that place where God dropped a ladder down to us. Or we want to prolong the experience or allow time to let the experience of God in prayer take root, become a pillar of strength within us.
And so we enter into our inner hermitage where prayer becomes an intensification and celebration of these daily wrestlings with God, an act of profound thanksgiving and commemoration of the wound and the ladder we carry with us daily.
It is interesting that in the story of Jacob’s ladder, which comes before the wrestling with God, God reveals, “I am the Lord God,” but in the wrestling, God asks, “Wherefore is it thou ask me after my name?” God knows that Jacob knows, as we do, with whom we are wrestling, even if we have no image or name for Him.
As quoted in A Thomas Merton Reader, the Tao Teh Ching says:
Names can be named, but not the Eternal Name.
Its name is Formless.
Listen to it, but you cannot hear it!
Its name is Soundless.
Grasp at it, but you cannot get it!
Its name is Incorporeal.
This, too, is what we find in prayer. For most of us, there is no tangible person to wrestle with; there is no voice of God; there is only Formless, Soundless, Incorporeal. But we know that that, too, is God. God comes to us as God will, and we know when we have been in the presence of the Divine. We know it in the peace that follows upon the experience, even if the experience itself is a wrestling; we know it in the impulse to love more selflessly, to reach out to the poor, the despised, the rejected; we know it in that Formless, Soundless, Incorporeal Other we bear with us that transforms us little by little from superficial, outer-dominated persons to persons who act from the inside out rather than feeling always acted upon, pushed and shoved and forced to go where we don’t really want to go, to be who we know we aren’t.
Leaving. When it comes time to leave this solitude, I begin to have the same feelings I had leaving home. I am anxious, a bit sad, wondering how it will be to “face” everything again. Will I be better able to handle things? Will I continue to feel as whole as I do now, as close to God? Will I be able to take something of this experience with me and hold it for awhile?
And the birds, the daffodils, the wood stove, the other solitudes I have met here, what of them? Won’t I need to return again to this place, this feeling, this quiet that I’ve found? Somehow I know I’ll take it with me but then eventually it will seem all used up, and I’ll need to return to refund the place in the heart that this experience has opened up. Hermitage, like prayer, is for doing again and again. For what you find there and bring from it, you seldom find elsewhere. It needn’t be the same physical locale, but the same kind of experience whose geography you recognize each time you find it again.
And what about the return I’m so worried about? Won’t it be like the hermitage itself, something I’ll get used to? And won’t I grieve, or at least miss, my time in solitude?
Thomas Merton spent his whole monastic life fretting in one way or another whether he should leave the cenobitic, communal, Trappist life for a more heremetical, solitary life. And even toward the end of his life, when he finally had his hermitage in the woods, he would return to the monastery to reconnect with his brothers. Merton’s secretary, Brother Patrick Hart, remembers how at the beginning of his hermitage life,
"Each Sunday afternoon...he could be seen hiking through the woods and jumping over the creek in blue jeans with an empty water jug hung from his shoulder. He was returning to continue his conferences, or informal talks, to the novices and young monks. Later he opened them up to the entire community, where the attendance grew as he began to explore more literary themes, such as the poetry of Rilke....
In January of 1967, Father Merton commenced his lectures on “The Classical Values in William Faulkner,” which continued for several months."
And yet, Merton was always happy to return to his hermitage. He said if he really knew how, he would set these words to a beautiful music: “I can imagine no greater cause for gratitude on my fiftieth birthday than that I wake up in a hermitage.”
The short distance between Merton’s hermitage and the Abbey of Gethsemani, which he could see from the front porch, and the tension between the two, is the distance and tension we experience entering and leaving a hermitage. We want to stay, but we need community, companionship, human love; we want community but we need some solitude, silence. That tension brings us to the hermitage and allows us to leave. Like a pilgrimage to a holy shrine, there is always the return and the subsequent longing to go on pilgrimage again.
Even Merton, who had in the end found the solitary hermitage he wanted all his life, left it to go on pilgrimage to the East, where he learned what he must have known all along:
"The rimpoches all advise against absolute solitude and stress “compassion.” They seem to agree that being in solitude much of the year and coming “out” for awhile would be a good solution."
For most of us it is the other way around, and each experience of prayerful solitude makes it more so: being with others most of the year, but needing to enter solitude for awhile, as well. That rhythm, that silent music of the soul.
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