03 March 2019

A Contemplative Moment: Solitude is not Separation

Solitude is Not Separation
Thomas Merton
Some (persons) have become hermits with the thought that sanctity could only be attained by escape from other (persons). But the only justification for a life of deliberate solitude is the conviction that it will help you to love not only God but other (people). If you go into the desert merely to get away from people you dislike, you will find neither peace nor solitude; you will only isolate yourself with a tribe of devils.
Man seeks unity because he is the image of the One God. Unity implies solitude, and hence the need to be physically alone. But unity and solitude are not metaphysical isolation. He who isolates himself in order to enjoy a kind of independence in his egotistic and external self does not find unity at all, for he disintegrates into a multiplicity  of conflicting passions and finally ends in confusion and total unreality. Solitude is not and can never be a narcissistic dialogue of the ego with itself. Such self-contemplation is a futile attempt to establish the finite self as infinite, to make it permanently independent of all other beings. And this is madness. Note, however that it is not a madness peculiar to solitaries --- it is much more common to those who try to assert their own unique excellence by dominating others. this is the more usual sin.
. . .True solitude is the home of the person, false solitude the refuge of the individualist. The person is constituted by a uniquely subsisting capacity to love --- by a radical ability to care for all beings made by God and loved by Him. Such a capacity is destroyed by the loss of perspective. . . Go into the desert not to escape other (people) but in order to find them in God.
. . .There is no true solitude except interior solitude. And interior solitude is not possible for anyone who does not accept (her) right place in relation to other(s). There is no true peace possible for the (one) who still imagines that some accident of talent or grace or virtue segregates (her) from other(s)and places (her) above them. Solitude is not separation. God does not give us graces or talents or virtues for ourselves alone. We are members one of another and everything that is given to one member is given for the whole body. I do not wash my feet to make them more beautiful than my face.

[I write a lot here about the difference between solitude and isolation, eremitism and individualism, and these are a couple of the things I am asked about most frequently --- especially as folks discern the distinction between being a hermit and being a lone individual -- no matter how pious. Similar questions are posed on the idea of eremitical hiddenness and the distinction between that and anonymity and disengagement. Thomas Merton speaks to all of these ideas. He wrote about Solitude in Seeds of Contemplation but in New Seeds of Contemplation he wrote a new essay called "Solitude is not Separation". The differences between the two are striking; while complementary essays, they show such incredible shifts and development in his understanding and experience of eremitical solitude! The above post consists of excerpts from that second essay.]