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Thoughts in Solitude
By Thomas Merton
Farrar, Straus and GirouxCopyright © 1958 Abbey of Our Lady of Gethsemani
All rights reserved.
ASPECTS OF THE SPIRITUAL LIFE
There is no greater disaster in the spiritual life than to be immersed in unreality, for life is maintained and nourished in us by our vital relation with realities outside and above us. When our life feeds on unreality, it must starve. It must therefore die. There is no greater misery than to mistake this fruitless death for the true, fruitful and sacrificial "death" by which we enter into life.
The death by which we enter into life is not an escape from reality but a complete gift of ourselves which involves a total commitment to reality. It begins by renouncing the illusory reality which created things acquire when they are seen only in their relation to our own selfish interests.
Before we can see that created things (especially material) are unreal, we must see clearly that they are real.
For the "unreality" of material things is only relative to the greater reality of spiritual things.
We begin our renouncement of creatures by standing back from them and looking at them as they are in themselves. In so doing we penetrate their reality, their actuality, their truth, which cannot be discovered until we get them outside ourselves and stand back so that they are seen in perspective. We cannot see things in perspective until we cease to hug them to our own bosom. When we let go of them we begin to appreciate them as they really are. Only then can we begin to see God in them. Not until we find Him in them, can we start on the road of dark contemplation at whose end we shall be able to find them in Him.
The Desert Fathers believed that the wilderness had been created as supremely valuable in the eyes of God precisely because it had no value to men. The wasteland was the land that could never be wasted by men because it offered them nothing. There was nothing to attract them. There was nothing to exploit. The desert was the region in which the Chosen People had wandered for forty years, cared for by God alone. They could have reached the Promised Land in a few months if they had travelled directly to it. God's plan was that they should learn to love Him in the wilderness and that they should always look back upon the time in the desert as the idyllic time of their life with Him alone.
The desert was created simply to be itself, not to be transformed by men into something else. So too the mountain and the sea. The desert is therefore the logical dwelling place for the man who seeks to be nothing but himself — that is to say, a creature solitary and poor and dependent upon no one but God, with no great project standing between himself and his Creator.
This is, at least, the theory. But there is another factor that enters in. First, the desert is the country of madness. Second, it is the refuge of the devil, thrown out into the "wilderness of upper Egypt" to "wander in dry places." Thirst drives man mad, and the devil himself is mad with a kind of thirst for his own lost excellence — lost because he has immured himself in it and closed out everything else.
So the man who wanders into the desert to be himself must take care that he does not go mad and become the servant of the one who dwells there in a sterile paradise of emptiness and rage.
Yet look at the deserts today. What are they? The birthplace of a new and terrible creation, the testing-ground of the power by which man seeks to un-create what God has blessed. Today, in the century of man's greatest technological achievement, the wilderness at last comes into its own. Man no longer needs God, and he can live in the desert on his own resources. He can build there his fantastic, protected cities of withdrawal and experimentation and vice. The glittering towns that spring up overnight in the desert are no longer images of the City of God, coming down from heaven to enlighten the world with the vision of peace. They are not even replicas of the great tower of Babel that once rose up in the desert of Senaar, that man "might make his name famous and reach even unto heaven" (Genesis 11:4). They are brilliant and sordid smiles of the devil upon the face of the wilderness, cities of secrecy where each man spies on his brother, cities through whose veins money runs like artificial blood, and from whose womb will come the last and greatest instrument of destruction.
Can we watch the growth of these cities and not do something to purify our own hearts? When man and his money and machines move out into the desert, and dwell there, not fighting the devil as Christ did, but believing in his promises of power and wealth, and adoring his angelic wisdom, then the desert itself moves everywhere. Everywhere is desert. Everywhere is solitude in which man must do penance and fight the adversary and purify his own heart in the grace of God.
The desert is the home of despair. And despair, now, is everywhere. Let us not think that our interior solitude consists in the acceptance of defeat. We cannot escape anything by consenting tacitly to be defeated. Despair is an abyss without bottom. Do not think to close it by consenting to it and trying to forget you have consented.
This, then, is our desert: to live facing despair, but not to consent. To trample it down under hope in the Cross. To wage war against despair unceasingly. That war is our wilderness. If we wage it courageously, we will find Christ at our side. If we cannot face it, we will never find Him.
Temperament does not predestine one man to sanctity and another to reprobation. All temperaments can serve as the material for ruin or for salvation. We must learn to see that our temperament is a gift of God, a talent with which we must trade until He comes. It does not matter how poor or how difficult a temperament we may be endowed with. 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.
St. Thomas says [I-II, Q.34,a.4] that a man is good when his will takes joy in what is good, evil when his will takes joy in what is evil. He is virtuous when he finds happiness in a virtuous life, sinful when he takes pleasure in a sinful life. Hence the things that we love tell us what we are.
A man is known, then, by his end. He is also known by his beginning. And if you wish to know him as he is at any given moment, find how far he is from his beginning and how near to his end. Hence, too, the man who sins in spite of himself but does not love his sin, is not a sinner in the full sense of the word.
The good man comes from God and returns to Him. He starts with the gift of being and with the capacities God has given him. He reaches the age of reason and begins to make choices. The character of his choices is already to a great extent influenced by what has happened to him in the first years of his life, and by the temperament with which he is born. It will continue to be influenced by the actions of others around him, by the events of the world in which he lives, by the character of his society. Nevertheless it remains fundamentally free.
But human freedom does not act in a moral vacuum. Nor is it necessary to produce such a vacuum in order to guarantee the freedom of our activity. Coercion from outside, strong temperamental inclinations and passions within ourselves, do nothing to affect the essence of our freedom. They simply define its action by imposing certain limits on it. They give it a peculiar character of its own.
A temperamentally angry man may be more inclined to anger than another. But as long as he remains sane he is still free not to be angry. His inclination to anger is simply a force in his character which can be turned to good or evil, according to his desires. If he desires what is evil, his temper will become a weapon of evil against other men and even against his own soul. If he desires what is good his temper can become the controlled instrument for fighting the evil that is in himself and helping other men to overcome the obstacles which they meet in the world. He remains free to desire either good or evil.
It would be absurd to suppose that because emotion sometimes interferes with reason, that it therefore has no place in the spiritual life. Christianity is not stoicism. The Cross does not sanctify us by destroying human feeling. Detachment is not insensibility. Too many ascetics fail to become great saints precisely because their rules and ascetic practices have merely deadened their humanity instead of setting it free to develop richly, in all its capacities, under the influence of grace.
A saint is a perfect man. He is a temple of the Holy Ghost. He reproduces, in his own individual way, something of the balance and perfection and order that we find in the Human character of Jesus. The soul of Jesus, hypostatically united to the Word of God, enjoyed at the same time and without conflict the Clear Vision of God and the most common and simple and intimate of our human emotions — affection, pity and sorrow, happiness, pleasure, or grief; indignation and wonder; weariness, anxiety and fear; consolation and peace.
If we are without human feelings we cannot love God in the way in which we are meant to love Him — as men. If we do not respond to human affection we cannot be loved by God in the way in which He has willed to love us — with the Heart of the Man, Jesus Who is God, the Son of God, and the anointed Christ.
The ascetical life, therefore, must be begun and carried on with a supreme respect for temperament, character, and emotion, and for everything that makes us human. These too are integral elements in personality and therefore in sanctity — because a saint is one whom God's love has fully developed into a person in the likeness of his Creator.
The control of emotion by self-denial tends to mature and perfect our human sensibility. Ascetic discipline does not spare our sensibility: for if it does so, it fails in its duty. If we really deny ourselves, our self-denial will sometimes even deprive us of things we really need. Therefore we will feel the need of them.
We must suffer. But the attack of mortification upon sense, sensibility, imagination, judgment and will is intended to enrich and purify them all. Our five senses are dulled by inordinate pleasure. Penance makes them keen, gives them back their natural vitality, and more. Penance clears the eye of conscience and of reason. It helps us think clearly, judge sanely. It strengthens the action of our will. And Penance also tones up the quality of emotion; it is the lack of self-denial and self-discipline that explains the mediocrity of so much devotional art, so much pious writing, so much sentimental prayer, so many religious lives.
Some men turn away from all this cheap emotion with a kind of heroic despair, and seek God in a desert where the emotions can find nothing to sustain them. But this too can be an error. For if our emotions really die in the desert, our humanity dies with them. 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.
Spiritual life is not mental life. It is not thought alone. Nor is it, of course, a life of sensation, a life of feeting — "feeling" and experiencing the things of the spirit, and the things of God.
Nor does the spiritual life exclude thought and feeling. It needs both. It is not just a life concentrated at the "high point" of the soul, a life from which the mind and the imagination and the body are excluded. If it were so, few people could lead it. And again, if that were the spiritual life, it would not be a life at all. If man is to live, he must be all alive, body, soul, mind, heart, spirit. Everything must be elevated and transformed by the action of God, in love and faith.
Useless to try to meditate merely by "thinking" — still worse to meditate by stringing words together, reviewing an army of platitudes.
A purely mental life may be destructive if it leads us to substitute thought for life and ideas for actions. The activity proper to man is not purely mental because man is not just a disembodied mind. Our destiny is to live out what we think, because unless we live what we know, we do not even know it. It is only by making our knowledge part of ourselves, through action, that we enter into the reality that is signified by our concepts.
To live as a rational animal does not mean to think as a man and to live as an animal. We must both think and live as men. Illusion to try to live as if the two abstract parts of our being (rationality and animality) existed separately in fact as two different concrete realities. We are one, body and soul, and unless we live as a unity we must die.
Living is not thinking. Thought is formed and guided by objective reality outside us. 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.
The phrase self-conquest can come to sound odious because very often it can mean not the conquest of ourselves but a conquest by ourselves. A victory we have won by our own power. Over what? Precisely over what is other than ourself.
Real self-conquest is the conquest of ourselves not by ourselves but by the Holy Spirit. Self-conquest is really self-surrender.
Yet before we can surrender ourselves we must become ourselves. For no one can give up what he does not possess.
More precisely — we have to have enough mastery of ourselves to renounce our own will into the hands of Christ — so that He may conquer what we cannot reach by our own efforts.
In order to gain possession of ourselves, we have to have some confidence, some hope of victory. And in order to keep that hope alive we must usually have some taste of victory. We must know what victory is and like it better than defeat.
There is no hope for the man who struggles to obtain a virtue in the abstract — a quality of which he has no experience. He will never efficaciously prefer the virtue to the opposite vice, no matter how much he may seem to despise the latter.
Everybody has an instinctive desire to do good things and avoid evil. But that desire is sterile as long as we have no experience of what it means to be good.
(The desire for virtue is frustrated in many men of good will by the distaste they instinctively feel for the false virtues of those who are supposed to be holy. Sinners have a very keen eye for false virtues and a very exacting idea of what virtue should be in a good man. If in the men who are supposed to be good they only see a "virtue" which is effectively less vital and less interesting than their own vices they will conclude that virtue has no meaning, and will cling to what they have although they hate it.)
But what if we have no virtue? How can we then experience it? The grace of God, through Christ Our Lord, produces in us a desire for virtue which is an anticipated experience of that virtue. He makes us capable of "liking" virtue before we fully possess it.
Grace, which is charity, contains in itself all virtues in a hidden and potential manner, like the leaves and the branches of the oak hidden in the meat of an acorn. To be an acorn is to have a taste for being an oak tree. Habitual grace brings with it all the Christian virtues in their seed.
Actual graces move us to actualize these hidden powers and to realize what they mean: — Christ acting in us.
The pleasure of a good act is something to be remembered — not in order to feed our complacency but in order to remind us that virtuous actions are not only possible and valuable, but that they can become easier and more delightful and more fruitful than the acts of vice which oppose and frustrate them.
A false humility should not rob us of the pleasure of conquest which is due to us and necessary for our spiritual life, especially in the beginning.
It is true that later on we may be left with faults we cannot conquer — in order that we may have the humility to fight against a seemingly unbeatable opponent, without any of the satisfaction of victory. For we may be asked to renounce even the pleasure we take in doing good things in order to make sure that we do them for something more than pleasure. But before we can renounce that pleasure, we must first acquire it. In the beginning, the pleasure of self-conquest is necessary. Let us not be afraid to desire it.
Laziness and cowardice are two of the greatest enemies of the spiritual life. And they are most dangerous of all when they mask as "discretion." This illusion would not be s fatal if discretion itself were not one of the most important virtues of a spiritual man. Indeed, it is discretion itself that must teach us the difference between cowardice and discretion. If thine eye be simple ... but if the light which is in thee be darkness ...
Discretion tells us what God wants of us and what He does not want of us. In telling us this, it shows us our obligation to correspond with the inspirations of grace and to obey all the other indications of God's will.
Laziness and cowardice put our own present comfort before the love of God. They fear the uncertainty of the future because they place no trust in God.
Discretion warns us against wasted effort: but for the coward all effort is wasted effort. Discretion shows us where effort is wasted and when it is obligatory.
Laziness flies from all risk. Discretion flies from useless risk: but urges us on to take the risks that faith and the grace of God demand of us. For when Jesus said the kingdom of heaven was to be won by violence, He meant that it could only be bought at the price of certain risks.
And sooner or later, if we follow Christ we have to risk everything in order to gain everything. We have to gamble on the invisible and risk all that we can see and taste and feel. But we know the risk is worth it, because there is nothing more insecure than the transient world. For this world as we see it is passing away (1 Corinthians 7:31).
Without courage we can never attain to true simplicity. Cowardice keeps us "double minded" — hesitating between the world and God. In this hesitation, there is no true faith — faith remains an opinion. We are never certain, because we never quite give in to the authority of an invisible God. This hesitation is the death of hope. We never let go of those visible supports which, we well know, must one day surely fail us. And this hesitation makes true prayer impossible — it never quite dares to ask for anything, or if it asks, it is so uncertain of being heard that in the very act of asking, it surreptitiously seeks by human prudence to construct a make-shift answer (cf James 1:5–8).
Excerpted from Thoughts in Solitude by Thomas Merton. Copyright © 1958 Abbey of Our Lady of Gethsemani. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
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