Merton – On Silence and Solitude

Silence is a key theme in Thomas Merton’s life and writings.  During the first Eucharistic celebration in which Merton participated, he was very moved by the silence that was integral to the experience.  In 1935, Merton attended a Quaker meeting and was impressed by its silent nature.   Regarding his first visit to the Abbey of Gethsemani in 1941, Merton reflected that the silence there enfolded him and spoke more eloquently to him than any words possibly could.[1]  During his twenty-seven years as a monk at Gethsemani, Merton frequently took solitary walks on the extensive property there and quietly contemplated the beauty of the nature that surrounded him.  Encounters with birds, deer, frogs, and landscape such as ponds, knobs, and thick forests sent Merton’s spirit soaring because, for him, nature was a window on God’s incredible creativity.

In 1968, while in the Himalayas, Merton spoke of his several retreat days there in the following way:  “I appreciate the quiet more than I can say. This quiet, a time to read, study, meditate, and not talk to anyone is something essential in my life.”[2] Furthermore, at Polonnaruwa (in Thailand) close to the time of his death, Merton was completely overtaken by the profound experience of gazing into the silent, knowing faces of the Buddha sculptures there.

For Merton, silence is a basic human need.  Silence cleanses the spirit; it heals and rejuvenates one’s being. According to Merton, without some level of chosen silence, language becomes a clanging cymbal; it is mere sound and fury!  Regarding the necessity of silence, Merton asserts: “If our life is poured out in useless words, we will never hear anything, will never become anything, and, in the end, because we have said everything before we had anything to say, we shall be left speechless.”[3]

In his writings, Merton discusses exterior silence as the absence of sound which can lead to interior silence that entails the stilling of thoughts, desires, and judgments.  Entrance into the quiet of interior silence prepares one to commune with God in solitude. In solitude one is alone in conscious awakeness to God.  One is in tune with the Logos who emerges from the solitude of the Father and the Spirit, who is the solitude of love between the Father and the Son.  In solitude one, becomes absorbed and immersed in the immense and fruitful silence of God.  According to Merton, solitude is a “country whose center is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere.  You do not find it by traveling but by standing still.”[4]

Hermits testify to the truth that solitude has meaning and value.  In the following ways, Thomas Merton refers to his experience of solitude in his hermitage on the property of the Abbey of Gethsemani:

Steady rain all day.  It is still pouring down on the roof, emphasizing the silence in the hermitage and reinforcing the solitude.  I like it.[5]

 

I really need the quiet, the silence, the peace of the hermitage. [6]

 

I am just beginning to really get grounded in solitude, so that if my life were to be on the way of ending now, this would be my one regret.  Loss of the years of solitude that might be possible.  Nothing else.[7]

Merton understood the silence and solitude of the hermitage as privilege and responsibility.  From his hermitage, Merton reflected on the nexus of solitude and loving his fellow monks:  “I can see that there is a fruitful and happy obligation on my part of love them here in the hermitage and pray for them, and to share their burdens in solitude … to believe that I can be for them a source of healing and strength by prayer.[8]

According to Thomas Merton, all who are serious about their spiritual lives need the experience of some degree of silence and solitude, which are not luxuries but, rather, necessities  in life.  In one of Merton’s prayers, he states: “In solitude I have at last discovered that You have desired the love of my heart, O my God, the love of my heart as it is.[9] In solitude, one disappears into the loving, fruitful silence of God and is transformed by the experience!

Sr. Marilyn Sunderman, RSM, Ph.D., is professor of theology and chair of the on-campus undergraduate theology program at Saint Joseph’s College.

[1] See Thomas Merton, The Seven Storey Mountain (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1968) 321.

[2] Thomas Merton, The Asian Journal, Eds. Naomi Burton Stone, Patrick Hart and James Laughlin (New York: New Directions, 1973) 158.

[3] Thomas Merton, Thoughts in Solitude (New York: Farrar Straus & Cudahy, 1958) 91.

[4] Thomas Merton, Seeds of Contemplation (New York: New Directions, 1949) 58.

[5] Thomas Merton, Love and Living, Eds. Naomi Burton Stone, and Patrick Hart (New York: Farrar Strauss & Giroux, 1979) 4.

[6] Merton, Love and Living, 294

[7] Thomas Merton, Learning to Love: The Journals of Thomas Merton vol. 6, 1965 – 1967, Ed. Christine M. Bochen (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1997) 33.

[8]Merton, Learning to Love, 365.

[9] Merton, Thoughts in Solitude, 121.

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