Thomas Merton on Solitude

The American Trappist monk Thomas Merton (1915-68) was a prolific writer on a variety of subjects but known especially for his popularization of the monastic life and for his advocacy -- unique among American writers and religious -- of eremiticism. In the twenty short years of his life as a writer, beginning with his autobiographical Seven Storey Mountain in 1948, Merton published over sixty books and pamphlets, over five hundred articles and contributions to books, plus translation and poetry. He composed private journals and maintained a voluminous personal correspondence, and also recorded his classroom lectures. The public writings are consistent and constructive, with a definable trajectory that established his well-read and reflective mind. After his death, with publication of private journals and correspondence, a more controversial and iconoclastic figure emerged, one dubbed contradictory by both fellow monks and outside observers.

The private Merton does not impinge upon the integrity of Merton's writings on monasticism, eremiticism, and solitude. Because the published works so clearly represent his intended reflections, and because the same themes underlie his work even through the evolution of his ideas, what follows draws entirely on the public Merton.

We can identify several phases of thought in Merton, with the transitions and overlap that occurred between them. They are cumulative phases, spirals absorbing the best of the previous period, sometimes anticipating the next period. They are not strictly linear. Roughly put, these are as follows, with representative book titles and their year of publication, considering that the time from manuscript to to printing date could vary months or even years.

  1. 1948-51.
    Traditional defense of monasticism in the modern world.
    Seven Storey Mountain (1948), Seeds of Contemplation (1949), The Waters of Siloe (1949), Ascent to Truth (1951), The Sign of Jonas (1953), No Man is an Island (1955).
  2. 1951-1959.
    From tradition defense to using the vocabulary and concepts of existentialism and personalism; strong advocacy of eremiticism.
    The Silent Life (1956); Basic Principles of Monastic Spirituality (1957); Thoughts in Solitude (1958); Disputed Questions (1960).
  3. 1960-1965.
    Social and political concerns; confidence in philosophical defense of solitude.
    Wisdom of the Desert (1960); The New Man (1962); New Seeds of Contemplation (1962); Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander (1965); Contemplation in a World of Action (1965); Raids on the Unspeakable (1965).
  4. 1965-68.
    Emphasis on essays versus books; wide variety of subjects, especially mysticism, transcendence, and Eastern thought.
    The Way of Chuang-Tzu (1965); Mystics and Zen Masters (1967); Zen and the Birds of Appetite (1968).

PHASE ONE (1948-51)

During what we have called his first phase (1948-51), Merton was strongly influenced by Thomist scholasticism, and defended the Catholic Church's historical context for monasticism. Merton presented monasticism in an original and contemporary lights, as an alternative to the modern materialistic cultures of post-World War II: capitalism and communism. Here he followed figures such as Etienne Gilson and Jacques Maritain in maintaining a benign optimism.

Even in his early years of conversion and the decision to enter monastic life, Merton expressed an interest in the Carthusian order, which has an official status for hermits. Because he became a monk in 1941, access to the Carthusian order headquartered in France, was impossible, though in 1953, Merton was to float the suggestion of transfer to his abbot but was to be politely turned back. Hence even in these earliest years, Merton was strongly attracted to eremiticism and solitude. In part his was a reaction of disappointment. Merton had found monastery at Gethsemani overcrowded, busy, highly ritualized, and noisy -- the opposite of an atmosphere conducive to contemplation.

With publication of Seven Storey Mountain and ordination to priesthood, Merton was afforded a reclusive corner of the monastery library for writing. But despite the popularity of his first books, some critics viewed them as a romanticized portrait of monastic life. By 1951, when he became Master of Scholastics at Gethsemani, and the criticism of his Ascent to Truth, Merton realized that his scholastic definitions of contemplation and spirituality were abstract and even cold, not serving to resolve his new sensibilities nor effectively communication to his popular audience. This set the stage for the second phase.

PHASE TWO (1951-59)

Merton was strongly impressed by an issue of the French journal La vie spirituelle (October 1952) dedicated to "Blessed Solitude" and by Max Picard's The World of Silence, Merton's introduction to Christian existentialism and a resource for the rest of his life. In 1953-54, Merton composed Thoughts in Solitude (not published until 1958), and a preface to Jean Leclerq's  book on the Renaissance hermit Paul Giustiniani. This preface signaled Merton's definitive defense of hermits in the monastic tradition.

The true reason for the persistence of hermits even in ages which are most hostile to the solitary ideal is that the exigencies of Christian life demand that there be hermits. The kingdom of God would be incomplete without them,. for they are men who seek God alone with the most absolute and underrated and uncompromising singleness of heart.

In 1955, Merton wrote Dans la desert de Dieu, a work on solitude privately printed only in French and Italian. About this time, several religious authorities supported Merton's position on solitude and his newest petition to transfer to the Camaldolese -- Jean Leclerq being the most prominent -- but the Abbot Visitor of the Order cracked down on what he considered an eremitic mentality at Gethsemani. The abbot James Fox gave Merton the alternative (to his petition) of manning the nearby State Forestry Department watchtower. But Merton, like the biblical Jonas, wavered, and when the Master of Novices post opened, he accepted it quietly. A few days later, a letter from the Sacred Congregation for Religious (in the Vatican) arrived with denial for his request to transfer to the Camaldolese.

In his second period, Merton's experience in contemporary monasticism had revealed the weakness of its modern-day spirituality, and he begins developing the theme of solitude not only as a basis for monks to separate from society (as in phase one) but for the spiritual development of individual monks for whom eremiticism can be an option.

As long as the solitary life is systematically played down, discouraged, and even forbidden, I do not think that even the cenobitic [sic] life will bear its proper fruit.

Towards the end of this period, Merton makes the shift from solitude for monks to solitude for laity.

Not all men are called to be hermits, but all men need enough silence and solitude in their lives to enable the deep inner voice of their own true self to be heard at least occasionally. ... For he cannot go on happily for long, unless he is in contact with the springs of spiritual ilife which are hidden in the depths of this own true soul.

It was in the middle of this period that Merton made his request to transfer to the Camaldolese, but also the period during which he evolved a precise defense of eremiticism and solitude.

Where the writings of the first phase were a traditional defense of monasticism against the world, the writings of this second phase incorporate a greater compassion for "the world" and the plight of people. Merton is clearly familiar with a range of writings echoed in his new vocabulary: alienation, the absurd, the "stranger," mass man, and the need for psychological integration.

Note that the word 'alienation' is used by non-existentialists to support the fictions of collective life. For them the 'alienated' man is the one who is not at peace in the general myth. He is the non-conformist; the oddball who does not agree with everybody else and who disturbs the pleasant sense of collective rightness. For the existentialist, the alienated man is the one who, though 'adjusted' to society, is alienated from himself. The inner life of the mass man, alienated and leveled in the existential sense, is a dull collective routine of popular fantasies maintained in existence by the collective dreams that goes on , without interruption, in the mass media.

Merton distinguishes the individual from the person, and criticizes socialization into materialism and hostility towards solitude. The compassion for suffering humanity is joined by the prescription of solitude, unmasking of the false self built up by the contrivances of society against the true self. The true self is discovered only in the solitude of self and the solitude of God.

The real wilderness of the hermit is the wilderness of the human spirit which is at once his and everyone else's. What he seeks in that wilderness is not himself, not human company, and consolation, but God.

Man's loneliness is, in fact, the loneliness of God. This is why it is such a great thing for a man to discover his solitude and learn to live in it. For there he finds that he and God are one: that God is aloneness as he himself is alone. That God wills to be alone in man.

Though he was afforded intervals of solitude on the quarters of the monastery, Merton petitioned the Congregation for Religious for exclaustration in 1959, hoping to go to Mexico as a hermit near a Benedictine monastery. When this plan failed, Merton cast his eye on a free-standing block building planned for conference guests. This he dubbed "St. Anne's Hermitage." Here he was destined to enjoy his dwelling, first for hours at a time, then days, then, in 1965, indefinitely.

Merton's Notes for a Philosophy of Solitude published in the book Disputed Questions, is undoubtedly his best essay on solitude. The core of the work was written as Dans le desert de Dieu referred to earlier (and never published in English), such an explicit praise of eremiticism that Merton had anticipated the reaction of the censors by not even trying to present it for publication. This essay, with the contents of  The Solitary Life, was expanded into Notes, initially refused by the censors who forced Merton through three revisions before permitting its inclusion in Disputed Questions.

In fact, the revisions of Notes broadened the theme for readers of every station in life, eliminating the words "monk" and "hermit" for "solitary," and calling upon readers to recognize their unique personhood outside of any institutional framework. In solitude the person discovers the commonality of all people and the solitude of God. This was the new focus for the next phase.

Ours is certainly a time for solitaries and hermits. But merely to reproduce the simplicity, austerity, and prayer of these primitive souls is not a complete or satisfactory answer. We must transcend them ...

PHASE THREE (1960-65)

Merton's productivity accelerated. He took the trajectory of his second phase to new treatments of spiritual life, applying contemplation as a tool to be combined with practical life. This everyday life meant experiencing the reality of people in society, hence Merton's addressing social and political issues such as war, racism, poverty, and violence. Part of this new phase was an increase in articles and essays versus books, more timely and critical in perspective than a leisurely and reflective monograph. His increasing respites of solitude helped.

In a 1964 meeting of North and South American Cistercian abbots at Gethsemani, Merton circulated an essay urging consideration of greater provision for solitude in monasteries, even as hermitages of lauras attached to monasteries. The essay was not just self-serving, though born of practical experience. Merton followed up with detailed mechanics of how such lauras would function.

Shortly afterwards, Merton received permission to stay at St. Anne's as its hermit.

PHASE FOUR (1965-68)

In a letter to Dorothy Day in 1965, Merton wrote that he could not be both an activist for social and political issues and a hermit. He preferred the latter, and the fourth phase shows this direction definitively

You will never find interior solitude unless you make some conscious effort to deliver yourself from the desires and the cares and the attachments of an existence in time and in the world.

In the solitude of his new hermitage, Merton continued the pace of writing, but with a new emphasis on the historical Christian mystics and on Taoist and Buddhist thought, seeing solitude in the context of enlightenment. The correspondence with a variety of spiritual figures and scholars from Sufism to Zen was invaluable.

As an example referring to Christian mysticism but reflecting his use of Eastern thought, Merton writes:

This dynamic of emptying and of transcendence accurately defines the transformation of the Christian consciousness in Christ. It is a kenotic transformation, an emptying of all the contents of the ego-consciousness in order to become a void in which the light of God or the glory of God, the full radiation of the infinite reality of His Being and Love are manifested.

Two issues not directly related to publishing had an impact on his life: the apparent indifference and occasional hostility of the Gethesemani monks towards eremiticism, and the growing lack of privacy surrounding Merton's daily life. Merton was sensitive to and hurt by the former, but ambivalent about the latter, thriving on personal contacts but regretting the disruptions to his solitude. In 1968, he considered relocating to a Trappist monastery in California, or even, Alaska, being given permission for the first time to travel.

That spring, Merton gave lectures at the Our Lady of the Redwoods in California, finding the experience invigorating. That fall, he pursued the invitation to speak at a conference of Asian monastic leaders in Bangkok, Thailand. He considered this an opportunity to explore other venues for solitude as much as a chance to deepen his concept of the monastic life. We know from his posthumous journals, for example, that he was enthusiastic about the Dalai Lama's advice to read the metaphysics of the Vajrayana school. Merton died in Bangkok, accidentally electrocuted by a faulty fan in his room.


The trajectory of Merton's thoughts on solitude may be summarized thusly: It begins in a withdrawal from the world (as a religious) in order to witness against the corruption and materialism the world embodies. It is first a physical solitude. The trajectory then returns to the world with compassion for those who suffer society's oppression and alienation, and constructs a defense of the person who is unable to withdraw from the world, an assertion of personhood and the true self. This phase culminates in a radical critique of the society that has perpetrated its oppressive values on the person. But in order to safeguard solitude, the trajectory rediscovers its spiritual fruits, and transcends the world in order to pursue for wisdom and enlightenment.

In a frontispiece poem to The Solitary Life, Merton wrote:

Follow my ways and I will lead you
To golden-haired suns,
Logos and music, blameless joys,
Innocent of questions
And beyond answers.
For I, Solitude, am thine own Self:
I, Nothingness, am thy All.
I, Silence, am thy Amen.


This essay is indebted to Richard Anthony Cashen's Solitude in the Thought of Thomas Merton. Kalamazoo: Mich., Cistercian Publications, 1981.