Hilary Pearson writes:
Thomas Merton (1915-1968) is one of the best-known modern monks, famous for his many writings which include autobiographies and books on biblical topics, contemplation, and Eastern religion and philosophy.
Although born in France and educated in France, England and the US, he spent all of his adult life in America. After a difficult period as a young man he became a Roman Catholic, and, after trying other vocations, he became a monk at the Trappist monastery of Gethsemani in Kentucky. Trappists follow very strictly the Rule of St Benedict and are known for living in almost total silence, using a complex sign language for most communications between themselves. He was ordained priest, was the monastery novice guardian for several years, but eventually became a hermit living in a hut in the grounds of the monastery. His books ‘Thoughts in Solitude’ and ‘Solitude and Love of the World’ came out of this experience of solitude, and they were influenced by his study of the Desert Fathers.
Talking about the modern world in ‘Thoughts in Solitude’, Merton says that the ‘desert is the home of despair. And despair, now, is everywhere…This, then, is our desert: to live facing despair, but not to consent. To trample it down under hope in the Cross.’ We must fight this war with courage, humility, self-control and prayer.
The solitary life means dependence on God. ‘The hermit is one who knows the mercy of God better than other men because his whole life is one of complete dependence…upon our heavenly Father.’ However, it is vital that we do not become inward looking and self-obsessed. Merton says that ‘In order to live happily in solitude I must have a compassionate knowledge of the goodness of other men, a reverend knowledge of the goodness of creation, and a humble knowledge of the goodness of my own body and of my own soul. How can I live in solitude if I do not see everywhere the goodness of God, my Creator and Redeemer and the Father of all good?’
He is also very clear that solitude must not mean cutting ourselves off entirely from other people. While reading is important, books are ‘no substitute for persons’. We must ‘find the silence of God not only in ourselves but in one another.’
Merton does warn that, without love, the person living on their own can become self-centred and discontented, which can lead to mean and unpleasant treatment of others. The solitary life must be a life in total response to God’s love for man.
One of the reasons Merton’s books are so popular is that he comes over as a warm and balanced human being, not a weird ascetic. Like Annora, he chose solitude voluntarily, although he could leave his hermitage. Indeed, he died while attending a monastic conference in Thailand. One lesson we can learn from him while we self-isolate is the need to continue our human connections, and to learn to love and be grateful for other people -and ourselves.