Thoughts in Solitude

Thoughts in Solitude Book Cover Thoughts in Solitude
Thomas Merton
Farrar Straus & Giroux
October 1, 1998

This is a short book but it is full of impactful thoughts. I like to read these books slowly - one page, one small chapter at a time and spend the day reflecting on it before moving on. There were many instances where Merton's reflections really got in my head and stuck there.

Teach me to bear a humility which shows me, without ceasing, that I am a liar and a fraud and that, even though this is so, I have an obligation to strive after truth, to be as true as I can, even though I will inevitably find all my truth half poisoned with deceit.

Chew on that for a little while.

The murderous din of our materialism cannot be allowed to silence the independent voices which will never cease to speak: whether they be the voice of the Christian Saints, or the voices of Oriental sages like Lao-Tse or the Zen Masters, or the voices of men like Thoreau or Martin Buber, or Max Picard.

To be a person implies responsibility and freedom, and both these imply a certain interior solitude, a sense of personal integrity, a sense of one’s own reality and of one’s ability to give himself to society – or to refuse that gift.

When men are merely submerged in a mass of impersonal human beings be pushed around by automatic forces, they lose their true humanity, their integrity, their ability to love, their capacity for self-determination. When society is made up of men who know no interior solitude it can no longer be held together by love: and consequently it is held together by a violent and abusive authority. But when men are violently deprived of the solitude and freedom which are their due, the society in which they live becomes putrid, it festers with servility, resentment and hate.

If we make good use of what we have, if we make it serve our good desires, we can do better than another who merely serves his temperament instead of making it serve him.

…the things that we love tell us what we are.

We must return from the desert like Jesus or St. John, with our capacity for feeling expanded and deepened, strengthened against the appeals of falsity, warned against temptation, great, noble and pure.

Living is the constant adjustment of thought to life and life to thought in such a way that we are always growing, always experiencing new things in the old and old things in the new. Thus life is always new.

Self-conquest is really self-surrender.

Hope is the secret of true asceticism. It denies our own judgements and desires and rejects the world in its present state, not because either we or the world are evil, but because we are not in a condition to make the best use of our own or of the world’s goodness.

There is no neutraility between gratitude and ingratitude. Those who are not grateful soon begin to complain of everything. Those who do not love, hate.

True gratitude and hypocrisy cannot exist together. They are totally incompatible. Gratitude on itself makes us sincere – or if it does not, then it is not true gratitude.

Gratitude therefore, takes nothing for granted, is never unresponsive, is constantly awakening to new wonder and to praise of the goodness of God.

Knowing that he has nothing he also knows that he NEEDS everything and he is not afraid to beg for what he needs and to get it where he can.

The proud man loves his own illusion and self-sufficiency.

The humble man begs for a share in what everybody else has received.

Meditative prayer is a stern discipline, and one which cannot be learned by violence. It requires unending courage and perserverance, and those who are not willing to work at it patiently will finally end in compromise. Here, as elsewhere, compromise is only another name for failure.

To meditate is to think. And yet successful meditation is much more than “affections,” much more than a series of prepared “acts” which one goes through.

In meditative prayer, one thinks and speaks not only with his mind and lips, but in a certain sense with his WHOLE BEING. Prayer is then not just a formula of words, or a series of desires springing up in the heart – it is the orientation of our whole body, mind and spirit to God in silence, attention, and adoration.

One cannot then enter into meditation, in this sense, without a kind of inner upheaval. By upheaval I do not mean a disturbance, but a breaking out of routine, a liberation of the heart from the cares and preoccupations of one’s daily business. The reason why so few people apply themselves seriously to mental prayer is precisely that this inner upheaval is necessary, and they are usually incapable of the effort required to make it.

If we try to contemplate God without having turned the face on our inner self entirely in His direction, we will end up inevitably by contemplating ourselves, and we will perphaps plunge into the abyss of warm darkness which is our own sensible nature. This is not a darkness in which one can safely remain passive.

The “turning” of our whole self to God can be achieved only by deep and sincere and simple faith, envlivened by a hope which knows that contact with God is possible, and love which desires above all things to do His will.

Poverty is the door to freedom, not because we remain imprisoned in the anxiety and constraint which poverty of itself implies, but because, finding nothing in ourselves that is a source of hope, we know there is nothing in ourselves worth defending.

Your life is shaped by the end you live for. You are made in the image of what you desire. To unify your life unify your desires. To spritualize your life, spiritualize your desires. To spiritualize your desires, desire to be without desire.

Poverty is not merely a matter of not having “things.” It is an attitude which leads us to renounce some of the advantages which come from the use of things.

…anything that tends to affirm us as distinct from others, as superior to others in such a way that we take satisfaction in these peculiarities and treat them as “possessions.”

Even the ability to help others to give our time and possessions to them can be “possessed” with attachment if by these actions we are really forcing ourselves on others and obligating them to ourselves.

Poverty means need.

If we were really humble, we would know to what extent we are liars!

Teach me to bear a humility which shows me, without ceasing, that I am a liar and a fraud and that, even though this is so, I have an obligation to strive after truth, to be as true as I can, even though I will inevitably find all my truth half poisoned with deceit.

It is not speaking that breaks our silence, but the anxiety to be heard.

The words of the proud man impose silence on all others, so that he alone may be heard. The humble man speaks only in order to be spoken to. The humble man asks nothing but an alms, then waits and listens.

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 speech-less at the moment of our greatest decision.

Let me seek, then, the gist of silence and poverty, and solitude, where everything I touch is turned into prayer: where the sky is my prayer, the birds are my prayer, the wind in the trees is my prayer, for God is in all.

For this to be so I must be really poor. I must seek nothing: but I must be most content with whatever I have from God. True poverty is that of the beggar who is glad to receive alms from anyone, but especially from God.

Gratitude is therefore the heart of the solitary life, as it is the heart of the Christian life.