Wednesday, January 30, 2013

"The Strangeness of Being...Really Alone": A Week in Solitude at Gethsemani

Merton's hermitage
On 20 August 1965, Thomas Merton began living full-time as a hermit.  His hermitage was a simple cinder-block building not far from the Abbey of Gethsemani, but the distance provided the kind of intense solitude for which Merton had longed for so many years.  Almost from the moment he entered the Abbey of Gethsemani, he wrote consistently in his journal about his desire for more solitude, and when he finally received permission to become a hermit, his journal records his jubilance.  But on August 28, eight days after moving to the hermitage full-time, eight days after attaining to the kind of solitary life for which he so desired, Merton wrote the following:

The days go by and I am beginning to experience the meaning of real solitude.  It is certainly real enough now…I am beginning to feel the lightness, the strangeness, the desertedness of being really alone…Now that everything is here, the work of loneliness really begins, and I feel it.  I glory in it (giving thanks to God), and I fear it.  This is not something lightly to be chosen (Dancing in the Water of Life (vol. 5 of The Journals of Thomas Merton), p. 286).

Merton was expressing here the suffering that is a necessary part of solitude, the kind of suffering experienced by the many men and women before him who had themselves chosen the solitary life, and Merton’s journals throughout his three years of life at the hermitage frequently evoke the difficulties associated with being alone.

I, like so many others, lead a busy life.  In addition to my position as Assistant Professor of Theology and Director of the Master of Arts in Spirituality program here at Bellarmine, I am a husband and a father to three young boys – aged seven, four, and one.  When all three boys are awake, our house is LOUD!  But I love the noise, I love the chaos, and I love their energy.  And I love these boys.  I love who they are as individuals and I love how their very presence in my life makes me a better person.

That said, I crave and enjoy silence and solitude, and I have endeavored to carve out time during each day for silence, and also to find times throughout the year when I can have extended periods of solitude.  Such an opportunity came this past August when Br. Paul Quenon, a monk from the Abbey of Gethsemani, arranged for me to spend one week living in solitude at one of the hermitages on the Abbey’s property.

This was a pilgrimage of sorts for me.  I first read Thomas Merton’s autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain, when I was 23, and the experience was transformational.  As so many do at that age, I was having something of a vocational crisis as I contemplated what I wanted to do with my life, and it was immensely comforting for me to read the experiences of one who was as confused as I was and yet found his calling in life.  I started to read everything I could get my hands on by and about Merton, and he became for me something of a spiritual companion whose writings continue to speak to me today.

It is still wonderfully surreal for me to think that, so many years after first coming under Merton’s influence, I now teach at Bellarmine University, which houses the Merton Center, the official repository of his manuscripts, letters, journals, drawings, etc.  So the opportunity to spend some time in solitude in a hermitage at the Abbey was one shot through with significance for me.

My view from the hermitage
My hermitage for the week was located less than a mile from the monastery next to a beautiful little lake.  Apart from the tolling of the bells at the monastery and the sounds of fish jumping and turtles and otters swimming in the lake, there was no noise.  I woke up each day at around 5:30, and spent each day in almost total solitude, apart from the occasional walk up to the monastery for mass or a meal.  I went for hikes.  I napped.  I prayed.  And I read Merton.

For the first three days I reveled in the silence.  I wrote in my journal that I could “almost literally hear my mind quieting down” as I entered into the solitude of the place.  

But I also experienced, albeit less profoundly than Merton (I was, after all, going home after a week), “the lightness, the strangeness, the desertedness of being really alone” to which he refers in his August 28th journal entry.  I learned that it is disconcerting to be alone with one’s own thoughts for an extended period of time.  Most of us have grown accustomed to finding ways to avoid ourselves, to avoid having to confront our own complexity into which we have to plunge if we are to come to self-knowledge.  Merton frequently wrote about the necessity of discovering the true self that lies hidden beneath the false self, the masks that we wear that obscure our true identity from ourselves and others.  And he stressed that such self-knowledge can only occur in solitude.  For solitude strips us of the usual attachments and distractions of life, and leads us within.  If you’re like me, this is a path not usually taken.

My reading chairs at the hermitage
The last three days at the hermitage were not easy ones for me.  While I enjoyed the quiet and the natural beauty that surrounded me, I found myself at various points profoundly lonely and restless.  When I mentioned this to one of the monks, he remarked that it was very healthy to experience such things in solitude.  He didn’t elaborate, but it seems to me that the general sense of unease I felt over the last half of my retreat was a necessary part of truly experiencing the kind of transformative solitude Merton describes in his writings.

This short time of solitude made me even more thankful for the gift my family and friends are to me.  At the same time, it led me to understand Merton a bit more, and more importantly, to understand the centrality and necessity of solitude as a means of opening one’s self to the transforming love of God.  Despite the challenges, I look forward to my next stay at the hermitage.

This piece appears in the Winter 2013 edition of Bellarmine Magazine.  The article, as it originally appeared in the magazine, can be accessed here

Below are links to books I mention above.

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