Fr. Louis OCSO (Merton) on Alternative Living and Hermits

“The hermit remains in the world as an unheard prophet, like a voice shouting in the desert, as a sign of contradiction”.

Tommaso Merton
Tommaso Merton O.C.S.O.


If there is such a man as a Christian hermit, then he must be a man with a special function within the mystical body of Christ: a concealed and spiritual function, and perhaps more vital than any other because it is more concealed.  There must be men who have completely renounced the world: men who are not even in the world, in addition to not being of the world.

« Perhaps, the less we are aware of ourselves as monks, the more authentic monks we can be » Thomas Merton to Peter Minard  Jan 1965.

Contemplation is the goal of solitary life. But not contemplation in a pagan sense, of an intellectual, esoteric illumination, achieved through an ascetic technique. The contemplation of the Christian solitary is to have their eyes wide open on the divine mercy which transforms and elevates its emptiness and converts it into the concreteness of a perfect love, in perfect fullness.

A call to perfect solitude is a call to suffering, darkness and annihilation.

Yet, when a man is called, he prefers it to any other earthly paradise.

Even those who consider themselves contemplative, often harbour a secret disdain for the hermit. Because in the contemplative life of the hermit there is nothing of that noble security, of that intellectual depth, of that artistic finesse that the professional contemplative seeks within his quiet community.

In this way he is released from that burden of necessity in having to admitting that the highest form of contemplative life is a life without any purpose and the least usefulness.

The hermit remains there to demonstrate, his lack of practical utility and the apparent sterility of his vocation, that the monks themselves should be of little importance or even of no importance at all within the world.

His poverty is spiritual. Pervading his soul and body completely, so that in the end the only inheritance he will receive is insecurity. Experiencing the pain, spiritual and intellectual pauperism of those who are really impoverished. This is precisely the eremitical vocation, a vocation of inferiority on every level, even the spiritual. It is certainly a little element of madness to it.

And this doubt which finally leads him to silence, it a silence where one ceases to submit questions and receives the only certainty he knows: the presence of God in the heart of uncertainty and nothingness, as the only reality, but as a reality that cannot be «localised»  nor identified.

His poverty is so great that he does not even see God; so immense is his wealth that is lost in God and lost to himself.

The hermit remains in the world as a prophet who no one listens to, like a voice crying in the wilderness, as a sign of contradiction. The world does not want him because he has nothing in him that appertains to the world, and he no longer understands the world.

Not even the world understands him. But this is his mission, to be refused by a world which, with that gesture, rejects the fearful solitude of God himself.

gesuLike every other aspect of Christian life, the vocation to solitude can be understood only in the perspective of God’s mercy towards man, realised in the incarnation of Christ. If there is such a man as a Christian hermit, then he must be a man with a special function within the mystical body of Christ: a concealed and spiritual function, and perhaps more vital than any other because it is more concealed. But we cannot, in any way, allow this hermit’s social function, precisely because it has to be invisible, at the expense of his genuinely solitary character. On the contrary, his oxymoronic function within the Christian community is that of living ostensibly separate from his community. And this, whether he is aware of it or not, is a testament to the completely transcendent character of the Christian mystery of our unity in Christ.

The hermit is there to warn us against our natural inclination towards the visible, social and community forms of Christian life that sometimes tend to be excessively active and profoundly involved in the life of a non-Christian secular society. Every Christian is in the world but not of the world. Yet in the likely event that we forget this — or, even worse, that we have never been aware — there must be men who have completely renounced the world: men who are not even in the world, as well as not being of the world. Nowadays, where the « world » has encroached everywhere, even, and perhaps especially, into the desert, the hermit retains his unique and mysterious role. But will fulfil them perhaps in a paradoxical manner.

Wherever he acts, even if not seen (as he should not be considered a visible witness), he bears witness to the bond of essentially mystical unity that binds Christians together in the Holy Spirit. Whether seen or not, he bears witness to the unity of Christ, having in himself the fullness of Christian charity. In fact, the first Christians who went into the desert to see the solitaries at Nitria and Scete, admired not so much their radical asceticism as their charity and discernment. The miracle of the desert fathers was precisely this: that a man could live completely separated from the visible Christian community — with its normal liturgical functions — and still be filled with the love of Christ. It could only be such because he had completely emptied himself .

The vocation to loneliness is therefore, at the same time, a vocation to silence, poverty and of emptying oneself. But the emptying is in view of the fullness: the scope of solitary life is, if you will, contemplation. But not contemplation in a pagan sense, of an intellectual, esoteric illumination, achieved through an ascetic technique. The contemplation of the Christian solitary is to have their eyes wide open on the divine mercy which transforms and elevates its emptiness and converts it into the concreteness of a perfect love, in perfect fullness.

Therefore a Christian can turn his back on society even toward the society of his Christian brothers — without necessarily hating society. Leaving the company of others and living alone can be, in him, a sign of love towards others. This withdrawal should not be considered as a rejection of other men; but may very well be a silent, and perhaps almost desperate, refusal to accept the myths and pretence that society is full of, today more than ever. But losing hope in the face of the lies that man surrounds himself with does not mean we should give up hope for mankind. On the contrary, it is perhaps a sign of hope. Is not our involvement in deceits, above all the political and demagogic, is not perhaps an implicit acknowledgement of spiritual hopelessness?

Christian hope in God and in the « world to come » is something drastically spiritual and pure, that jealously clings to its particular invisibility. It is clear that it must assume visible and symbolic forms, in order to communicate its message. But when these symbolic forms, one after the other, are incorporated into other secular symbols and when the Christian message is mixed with worldly hopes, then faith itself tends to be corrupted by these human fictions with which it has been confused.At that point, some men will seek clarity in isolation and silence, not because they think they know more than others, but because they want to look at life from a perspective that is altogether different. They want to withdraw from the Babel of confusion in order to listen more attentively to the voice of their conscience and of the Holy Spirit. And with their prayers and their faithfulness they will invisibly renew the whole church. This renewal will be communicated to those who remain « in the world » it will also help them to have a clearer vision, to appreciate in a more precise and uncompromising way the Christian truth. These people will dedicate themselves to apostolic activity to a new level of seriousness and faith, and will be able to do away with gestures of false zeal and instead work with humility and patience.

So, whereas in our day where the whole world seems to have become an immense and moronic fantasy, and while the virus of falsity infiltrates every vein and organ of the societal body, it would be abnormal and immoral if there where no reaction. It is even healthy that the reaction must sometimes take the form of an explicit protest, provided we remember that where Christian obedience is at stake, not even obvious errors on the part of hierarchical authority justify rebellion and disobedience, the observations made by the brothers must never lack respect for their superiors, or submission to their authority as such. In other words, solitude is not a refuge for the rebel. And if there is an element of protest within the vocation of solitude, that protest must be something that remains strictly spiritual. It must be profound and interior, and intimately personal, so that the hermit is one who must, first of all, be critical of himself. Otherwise he will delude himself with a fiction worse than that of others, becoming more unbalanced and obstinate than the worst of liars, not deceiving anyone but himself. Solitude is not for rebels of this variety, who quickly rejects it. The desert is for those who have felt a beneficial desperation of the values accepted as normal, to hope for mercy and to be in turn men of mercy towards those to whom such mercy is promised. Solitaries of this kind know the evils that are in other men because they have first experience them in themselves.

Men of this kind, full of compassion for the universe, of loyalty to humanity and without a spirit of bitterness or resentment, withdraw into the curative silence of the desert, or poverty, or obscurity and not to preach to others, but to cure within themselves the wounds of the whole world.

The message of God’s mercy towards man must be predicated. The word of truth must be proclaimed. Nobody can deny it. But there are many who begin to feel the futility of adding other words to the constant deluge of multiloquence which is, without meaning, it cascades  upon everyone, everywhere, from morning to night. In order for language to have significance, there have to be intervals of silence somewhere in the conversation so as to separate word from word, expression from expression. One who withdraws into silence does not necessarily hate language. Perhaps it is precisely love and respect for the language that impose silence upon it. Because the mercy of God cannot be grasped in words, unless you listen to it in silence, somewhat before and after the words have been uttered.

There have always been, and always will be, hermits who are alone among men without knowing the reason. They are condemned to their strange isolation by temperament or circumstance, and are accustomed to it. We are not speaking about these type of hermits, but of those who, having led a busy and multifaceted existence in the world of men, leave behind their former life, to go into the desert.

Such a vocation, in general, is not for young people. It cannot only flow from a ferment of idealism or from adolescent rebellion, from a simple disgust of conventional attitudes and ways of living. But there comes a time when one is just tired of perpetuating the falsehoods unavoidably present in social life. He understands this and is no longer able to participate in the illusion.

Naturally, anyone with common sense sees, from time to time, during moments of clarity, the folly and the superficiality of our conventional attitudes. People everywhere can dream of freedom. But to assume the disarmed austerity of living in complete honesty, without conventionality, and therefore without support, is quite another thing. That’s why there are communities of artists, esoteric thinkers, followers of sects, religious hermits linked by votes. The break with the large group is offset by the inclusion in the small group. This is not yet the desert. But maybe it’s a step in the right direction, if the small group is honest enough.

And in demanding honesty to the hermit, we try not to be too falsely demanding. He too can have his eccentricities. He may heavily rely on imperfect solutions to problems which his human weakness may not allow him to fully cope with. We do not condemn him because he cannot solve certain types of problems especially ones that we have never dared to face ourselves.

Nevertheless, it is significant that the religious hermit is once again officially recognised within the church. They always have been. Now this recognition is more comprehensive, having canonical status in their own right. The eremitical orders have always been the object of veneration or envy by those who have truly understood the claustral life. But now we begin to find orders, like the Benedictines, willing to give some of their members permission to live as solitaires, out of a love for contemplation. In addition to the Carmelites are reopening their « desert » communities, where they can interrupting their active apostolate for a year and retreat into solitude.

Despite that, solitary life is an arid, harsh purification of the heart. Jerome and Eucherius of Lyon wrote epic poems on the blooming desert, but Jerome was the busiest hermit that ever existed and Eucherius was bishop of Lérins who admired the community of hermit only from afar. The hermit cultores, the farmers of the desert sand, had less to say about this experience. They have been dried up by drought and their burnt lips are tired of words.

If a solitary should one day find his particular path, by the grace and mercy of God, in a deserted place where he is not known, and if he were granted divine mercy to live there, and remain unknown, he may perhaps do more than good for humanity as solitary than he could ever do while remaining a prisoner of the society in which he previously lived. Because anyone who breaks the chains of falsehood and strives, even if without success, to be authentic before God and his deepest self, he will do more for the world than even a saint could do within politics (assuming that such a miracle, as a saint in politics can be realised in this age).

Physical solitude sometimes takes on the semblance of bitter defeat. It is an earthly paradise only in the inventiveness of those who find their solitude in the crowded city, or those who are only hermits for a few hours, a days and no more. But the call to perfect solitude is a call to suffering, darkness and annihilation. Though when a person is called to it, they will prefer it to any other earthly paradise.

The solitary who no longer communicates with other men except for the basic necessities of life, is a man with a difficult and very particular vocation. For the rest of the world he immediately loses all value. And yet that value is great. The hermit has a very significant role in a world like ours, which has demeaned and devalued human individuals and has lost all respect for solitude.

But in such a world the vocation of the hermit is more abhorrent than ever; Through the eyes of our world, the hermit is nothing but a failure. He must be a failure: we have no need of him, there is no place for him. And is exterior to all of our schemes, schedules, manoeuvres and gatherings. We can tolerate him as long as he remains a figment of the imagination or a dream. As soon as he becomes real, we are disgusted by his insignificance, his poverty, his threadbareness. Even those who consider themselves contemplative often nurture a secret contempt for the hermit. Because in the contemplative life of the hermit there is nothing of that noble security, of that intellectual depth, of that artistic refinement that the professional contemplative seeks in his quiet community.

And yet the hermit must always remain a true model of a monk. The man who wears the warm, well-ironed cassock should remember that what he himself is trying to be, bears some resemblance to the chafed hands of a solitaire, who works like a madman outside his shack in the woods, or is perhaps devoted to occupations without honour and utility. It is the lack of usefulness of the hermit which is a great scandal. He is without efficacy, without certainties: in a certain sense, indolent. He looks too much like a vagrant. And there is undoubtedly something that makes him want to be such. He seems to have a strange inner need to be a vagrant. In this, do we not consider it to be a pathological case? Yet one should suppose that the windows of the monastery are open not upon the world but onto the desert, in which this useless creature lives without a discipline that is too respectable. Unfortunately, it is more likely that the cenobite monk has as his ideal a hermit that is purely abstract, and this abstraction allows him, with the quiet conscience, to turn his mind more easily toward the world than toward the desert. In this way he is relieved from the vital prerequisite of admitting that the highest form of contemplative life is a life without the least usefulness or purpose. Nor should we presume that he is useful. One of the things that most impresses the visitor of a « good » monastery, is the usefulness of what is accomplished there. There is a lot of zeal and hard work. Its apparatus functions. « Much  is » accomplished; in an estimable manner. But, in reality, usefulness in monastic life, should enter only as a concession for human weakness. Nowhere has it ever been nor should it become a fundamental part of the genuine monastic ideal.

It has never been useful nor advantageous to leave everything and follow Christ. Yet it is sagacious on a spiritual level. Practical utility and supernatural wisdom at times oppose each other in a marked manner, like the prudence of the flesh and the wisdom of the spirit. Not that the spirit could never afford to do anything in a useful, temporal way. But it does not have uniquely temporal ends. Its fulfilment belongs to a higher and additional spiritual order which, as a direct consequence is naturally, hidden. Practical usefulness has its roots in present life. Supernatural wisdom lives for the world to come. It ponders everything on an  eternal scale. Spiritual things have no weight for the « utilitarian » man. Solitary life is something that cannot in any way move or alter its scale of values. It is « nothing », a non-entity. Yet St. Paul says: « 27But the foolish things of the world hath God chosen, that he may confound the wise; and the weak things of the world hath God chosen, that he may confound the strong. 28And the base things of the world, and the things that are contemptible, hath God chosen, and things that are not, that he might bring to nought things that are: » (1 Corinthians 1:27-28).   And why is this « That no flesh should glory in His sight. » (1Corinthians 1:29).

It is invisible glory which is real. The empty horizons of solitary life enable us to grow accustomed to a light that cannot be descried where the delusion of secular occupations enchant us and deceive our sight.

The monks must legitimately provide for their own livelihood and sell what they produce. Hopefully this will be achieved without turning them into businessmen. Their efforts of squaring the circle are more than enough to keep them serene and away from harmful woes. Therefore, and with all good reasons, practical utility enters the cenobitic life as a servant of supernatural wisdom. However, when practical utility becomes more important than monastic poverty and becomes an end in itself, it destroys supernatural wisdom, embeds the monk into secular life, renders him a prisoner of his own efforts and robs him of his freedom to fly unhindered towards eternity.

The hermit remains there to demonstrate, with his lack of practical utility and the apparent sterility of his vocation, that the monks themselves should have little importance in the world, or even none at all. They are, in the spirit of their vows, dead to the world, they should no longer appear in it. And the world is dead to them. They are pilgrims, hidden witnesses of another kingdom. This, of course, is the price they pay for universal compassion, for a solidarity that everyone achieves. The monk is therefore capable of compassion, simply due to the fact that, he is less involved, and less successful, in practical matters, because the efforts used to succeed within our competitive society leaves no time at all for compassion and is mostly frowned upon or ridiculed.

The hermit has a particular role in our world because he does not have a specific status. The monk has not been exiled sufficiently. And that is why there is an essential need for hermits. The monk can be understood and appreciated.

As soon as the monastery is likened to a « prayer conduit », the world is ready to recognise them, even if somewhat reluctantly, a positive respect. A conduit will produces something.

And so it would seem, that the prayers of the monks produce a type of spiritual energy. Or, at the very least, they take care of their needs and earn a little money. They are like a comforting presence.

The presence of the hermit, when one knows it well, is not pleasing; troubles. He does not even look like a good person. He does not produce anything.

One of the most widespread criticisms of the hermit may even be that even in his prayer life he is less “productive”. One would think that in his solitude he should quickly reach the level of visions, mystical marriages, or at least something sensational. Instead it may well be that he is poorer than the cenobite even in his life of prayer. His is a fragile and precarious existence: he has more worries, he is more unstable, he has to fight to protect himself from a whole series of troubles, and he is often prey to it. His poverty is spiritual. Pervade entirely his soul and his body, so that in the end all his heritage is insecurity. Experience the pain and spiritual and intellectual indigence of those who are really poor. This is exactly the eremitical vocation, a vocation to inferiority on every level, even the spiritual one. It is certain that there is a bit of madness in it. Otherwise it is not what it should be, a life of direct dependence on God, in obscurity, in insecurity and in pure faith. The life of the hermit is a life of material and physical poverty without visible support.

Obviously we must not exaggerate or be too absolute in this. Absolutisation in itself can become a kind of « luck » and « honour ». We must also bear in mind the fact that the average man is incapable of a life in which austerity is without compromise. There is a limit beyond which human weakness cannot go and where the same mitigation enters as a subtle form of poverty. It may happen that, without fault, the hermit gets an ulcer just like normal man. And you must drink large quantities of milk and maybe even take medicine. This definitely gets rid of all hope of becoming a legendary figure. He worries too. Perhaps she worries even more than others, because only in the minds of those who do not know anything about solitary life does she appear as a life without worries. We must remember that Robinson Crusoe was one of the great myths of the middle-classes, of the commercial civilisation of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries: the myth of not an eremitical solitude but of pragmatic individualism. Crusoe is a symbolic figure in an era in which every man’s house was a castle in the trees, but only because every man was a very prudent and ingenious citizen, who knew how to make the most out of every situation to bring a bargain to his advantage with any competitor, even with life itself. The worry-free Crusoe was happy because he had an answer for everything. The true hermit is not so certain that he has an answer to everything.

In truth, the hermit should not be a person who completely unprepared. He should have something of Crusoe’s manual ability, so as to be self-sufficient at least to some extent. But there is a limit to self-sufficiency. And even in the spiritual arena, the eremitical life is not totally independent. The hermit is not subjected to the complexity of religious institutionalism and their vanities, but sometimes he needs someone to guide him, and if he does not have this, his life is vulnerable and becomes completely absurd and uncertain (furthermore, regarding this confusion, if it is not born of someone’s fault, God will show its meaning and its place within His design).

If being a hermit means being a hero, we could, after all, respect such a vocation. If it only means to be a vagrant, even then it could be accepted to the extent that it suggests the idea, for example, of one who preaches to birds.

So what happens, at the end, if our hermit does not even turn out to be a contemplative, in the usual sense of the term? It could be that he may not have « a high level of prayer ». Even worse, he may not aspire you. He may not wish to be enlightened. He may have the cynical, silent, hopeless idea that if there is any possibility for him to be enlightened, this consists in keeping as far away as possible from any proposed enlightenment sought too much.

Of course, his life must be a life of prayer and meditation, if he is an authentic hermit.

Because the hermit in our age is uniquely and only a man of God. This should be clear. But which a prayer! Which meditation! Nothing more than bread and water is his interior prayer! Radical poverty. Often an inability to pray, to look, to hope. Not the sweet passivity that books exalt, but a bitter, arid struggle to go forward in a blinding sandstorm. The hermit, day and night, bashes his head against a wall of doubt. This is his contemplation. Do not misunderstand me. It is not a question of intellectual doubt, an analytical research of theological truths, philosophies or subjects of another kind. It is something else, a sort of non-knowledge of one’s own self, a sort of doubt that questions the deepest roots of his life, a doubt which undermines the very reasons for his existence and of what he is doing. It is this doubt which leads him definitively toward silence, and a silence in which he ceases to ask questions he receives the only certainty he knows: the presence of God in the heart of uncertainty and nothingness, as the only reality, but as a reality that cannot be « localised »  or identified. That’s why the hermit does not speak. He does his work and is patient (or perhaps impatient, I do not really know), but generally he has peace. It is not the same as world peace. He is happy, but he never enjoys himself.

He knows where he is going, but he is not sure of his path, he will know it only by going there.

He does not see his path in advance and when he arrives, he arrives. Normally his arrivals are departures from everything that resembles a path. This is his way. He cannot understand it. And neither can we.

Beyond all this and in all of this, he possesses his solitude, the riches of his emptiness, his inner poverty: but, obviously, it is not a possession. It’s a given fact. It is there. It is assured. In fact, it is inevitable. It’s everything, it’s his entire life. It contains God, it envelops him with God, immerses him in God. His poverty is so great that he does not even see God; so great is his wealth that he is lost in God and lost to himself.

He is never far enough from God to look at him in perspective, or as an object. He is absorbed in Him, and therefore, so to speak, he never really sees Him.

All we can say of this indigence of the true hermit must not make us forget that he is happy in his solitude, but particularly because he has ceased to consider himself as a solitary person in contrast to others who are not solitary. He simply is. And if he has been rendered poor and set aside by the will of God, this is not a distinction but a given fact.

His loneliness is something frightening, sometimes it is a heavy burden, and yet it is more precious to him than anything else simply because it is God’s will for him. Not a « thing »  desired by God, not an object decreed by a distant power, but the push, upon his life, of that simple reality which is the will of God, the reality of reality.

His solitude is, for him, the discernible reality. He could not get away from this will even if he had wanted to. Being a prisoner of this love is being free, he is almost in paradise. Therefore the physical life of solitude is a life of love without consolation, a life that bears fruit because it is crushed by the will of God and proceeds with it: and all that this will causes within it is charged with meaning, even when it seems as though he has none.

That which frightens us of solitary life is the immediacy with which the will of God pushes upon our soul. It is far easier, sweet and safe to receive within us « the will of God » calmly filtered through society, the decrees of men, the orders of others. Accepting this will in a direct way, in all its incomprehensibility, disconcerting mystery, is not possible to those who are not secretly protected and guided by the Holy Spirit, and no one should seek to do so, unless he has the unshaken confidence that he has really been called by God to do so. One has to be born into solitude prudently, patiently and after a long deferral, outside the womb of society.

The hermit remains in the world as an unheard prophet, like a voice shouting in the desert, as a sign of contradiction. The world does not want him because he has nothing within him that belongs to the world, and he no longer understands the world. The world does not understand him either. But this is his mission, to be rejected by the world which, with that gesture, rejects the dreadful solitude of God himself.

Because that’s what the whole world is suffering from with regard to God: of his complete otherness, of the inability to absolutely absorb His being into a mundane context of worldly and utilitarian slogans, of his mysterious transcendence that places him infinitely beyond the reach of the mottoes, of posters and political slogans. It is easier for the world to recreate a god in their own image, a god who will justify their slogans when there are no solitaries in the streets to remind mankind of the solitude of God: a God who cannot become a member of a purely human company. Nevertheless this solitary God has called men to another company, with him, through the passion and resurrection of Christ, through the solitude of Gethsemane and Calvary, through the mystery of Easter and the solitude of the Ascension: all that which precedes the great communion of Pentecost.

Fear is close to love. Even those who fear the solitary, however, allow themselves to be fascinated by him, because his profound uselessness does not cease to proclaim that he has, in spite of everything, some incomprehensible function within our world. It is this function that must exist in the world in a solitary form, poor and unacceptable, just as God himself is in the souls of so many men. The solitary is there to tell them, in a way that they can hardly comprehend, that if they were able to discover and appreciate their own inner solitude, they would immediately find God and they would discover, from his talk to them, that they are truly people.

The usual argument of those who protest against exterior solitude suggesting that it is dangerous, as well as being completely and utterly useless. Useless because what really matters is inner solitude, or so they say. And this « can be obtained without physical isolation ». There is in this affirmation a more terrible truth than those that can be imagined by those who so easily assert this, to justify their life without solitude, without silence or without prayer.

There are those who equate the solitary life with selfishness and praise solitude within a community as more charitable. But, in reality, this praised solitude within a community tends to become a comfortable and secure life, made possible by the sacrifices and efforts of others. It makes contemplation easier thanks to the charity of others, and as long as the contemplative is supported by them, he « delights in his solitude ». As soon as he becomes insecure, he abandons his solitude for something else and look for support elsewhere. This, in case his solitude has been a sham.

But there is a terrible irony regarding solitude within a community: if you are called by God to solitude, even if you live within a community, you will not be able to escape it. Even if you are surrounded by all the comforts and help of others, the bonds that unite you on a superficial level, break up one by one, so that you are no longer supported by them, i.e., you are no longer supported by the instinctive mechanisms, automatic, of a collective life. All their words, their enthusiasm become meaningless. And yet you do not scorn or reject them. On the contrary, you will try to see if there is perhaps still some method in order to understand them and continue to live together. Then you discover that in such a situation words have absolutely no value. The only thing that can help you is a deep, silent communion of genuine love.

At this moment it is a great relief to be put in touch with others through some simple activity, some function of the ministry. You meet them not with words, nor with theirs, but with the words and the sacramental gestures of God. The word of God acquires an ineffable purity and strength when it is seen as the only way in which a solitary can really achieve the solitude of others, solitude that others are unaware of. He will then understand that he loves them more than ever, perhaps its first time that he has really loved them until  now.

Made humble by his solitude, grateful for the work that puts him in contact with others, he continues to be solitary. There is no greater solitude than that of an instrument of God who understands that his words and his ministry, even if they are the words of God, can do nothing to change his solitude. However, these words, beyond any distinction between what is from one and what is from the other, render him one with every person he meets.

This solitude is the solitude of God himself within man; the solitude of the hidden and unknown God who has « emptied himself » and identified himself with man, in which he is forgotten, ignored and infinitely poor. Sharing such a solitude, such poverty, is a joy beyond any possible comments or appreciation on the part of mankind.

Nothing appropriate can be said about such a joy. Only silence can express it with dignity. It has its own logic that is beyond rational thought. Words would reduce this logic into absurdity.

Translated and Edited excerpt from Thomas Merton’s, Un vivere alternativo.

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