In Christianity there is a rich history of social distancing as a path of transformation. It is a heritage which helps us make sense of the disciplines we face today.

In voices from desert, cloister and hermitage, we can find new meanings and potentialities in the current restrictions. Moreover, from them we discover that, once we are reconciled to it, solitude is the crucible of prophecy. Isolation brings that critical distance from the purported ‘norms’ of society which enables us to name and dismantle its delusions.

Here you can read excerpts of writings by writers of the last 100 years, particularly Thomas Merton, all of whom stand in a tradition reaching back to the earliest centuries of the Church.

  • Thomas Merton, The power and meaning of love (abbreviated to PML in the excerpts below)
  • Thomas Merton, Solitude and love of the world (SLW)
  • Ephrem Arcement OSB, In the school of prophets (ISP, a biography of Thomas Merton)
  • Ed Patrick Hart and Jonathan Montaldo, The intimate Merton (TIM, a collection of his letters)
  • Henri Nouwen, introduction to Desert Wisdom by Yushi Nomura (DW)
  • Sr Mary Paul Curti OCD, Sounding solitude (SS)
  • Peter-Damian Belisle, The language of silence (LS)

The quotations below are unedited, with apologies for the exclusive language of a former age. The wisdom expressed in it is authentic nonetheless.

Discovering the vocation

The spirit that drew the early monks into the Egyptian desert in the fourth century manifested itself in an exterior response that sought to fulfil two primary spiritual needs. The first need was distance from superficial society and tepid religious life, and the second was the atmosphere of solitude conducive for seeking God. This process of withdrawal and attachment defined the early monastic movement. According to Merton, this process did not mean that the monks lost all concern for the world that they left behind. Rather, they sought a new way of being in the world that, in a certain sense, simultaneously transcended it and made it into what God intended it to be. Going out to seek God apart from society was not a compassionless neglect of social responsibility, leaving the problems burdening humanity to fix themselves. Merton understood the primitive monastic motive more positively. In his book of translations and sayings of the Desert Fathers, The wisdom of the desert, he explained his understanding: “The Desert Fathers did in fact meet ‘the problems of their time’ in the sense that they were among the few who were ahead of their time, and opened the way for the development of a new man and a new society”. Merton argued that what these early monks resisted was the “herd mentality” and the passivity that sucked vitality out of the human spirit. (ISP)

We all need solitude in order to achieve some modicum of personal integrity… Solitude is solidarity with one’s own being; it is oneness as well as aloneness. (LS)

The solitary… is called not to leave society but to transcend it: not to withdraw from the fellowship of other men but to renounce the appearance, the myth of union in diversion in order to attain to union on a higher and more spiritual level – the mystical level of the body of Christ. He renounces that union with his immediate neighbours which is apparently achieved through the medium of the aspirations, fictions and conventions prevalent in our social group. But in doing so he attains to the basic, invisible, mysterious unity which makes all people ‘One Person’ in Christ’s Church, beyond and in spite of natural social groups which, by their special myths and slogans, keep men in a state of division. (PML)

Monastics have traditionally considered John the Baptist their desert ancestor, a monastic saint, if you will. They see in him a monastic prototype: one who entered the desert and faced the trials of life in the wilderness… who moved to that biblical place of preparation and purification where he could devote himself to fasting, penance and prayer. (LS)

The cell as microcosm

There is no peace and no reality in an abstract, discarnate, gnostic solitude. St Peter Damian insists that since the Christian hermit is hidden in Jesus Christ he is therefore most intimately present to all the rest of the Church. His isolation in solitude unites him more closely in love with all the rest of his brothers in the world. (SLW)

Any healthy religious solitude with silence that truly listens to the Word will reach out universally to all people, all life and creation, without bracketing spheres of intolerance or creating psychological ghettos of isolation. Monastic solitude speaks love and peace to the heart of humanity. There are those who say that every human being has a ‘monk within’. Raimundo Panikkar, for example, asserts that the ‘monk’ archetype is part of who we are as human beings trying to integrate our lives around the centre of all being… The deeper the contemplative communion, the wider the embrace in solidarity… This is the great gift that the ‘monk within’ offers the world – human solidarity universally expressed in communion with God. (LS)

Solitude cradles the spirituality of communion and rocks to sleep the divisions among peoples that create a culture of death. Solitude is clearly a culture of life, and therefore an ambience of communion. Life is shared in solitude, cherished unto dying for it – the real life of unbroken spiritual solidarity… In solitude one cannot forget the needs of others any more than one can cease praying, without belying the purpose of solitude. Within solitude, one tastes, by faith, the deepest spirit of communion in the profound gift of compassion… The gift of compassion bursts through every cloud of resistance as it patiently, tenderly, walks the common line of human suffering, shared and endured together. Compassion has the uncanny power to lift and carry away every division among peoples by the sheer gift of love and communion. Compassion enables us in love to endure all the sufferings human beings undergo and, therefore, unites all persons in an inseparable bond of communion. (SS)

Sign of contradiction

The lone man remains in the world as a prophet to whom no-one listens, as a voice in the desert, as a sign of contradiction. The world necessarily rejects him, and in that act, rejects the dreaded solitude of God himself. For that is what the world resents about God: his utter otherness, his absolute incapacity to be absorbed into the context of worldly and practical slogans, his mysterious transcendency which places him infinitely beyond the reach of catchwords, advertisements and politics. (PML)

The mission of the solitary is first the full recovery of man’s human and natural measure… He reminds them of what is theirs to use if they can extricate themselves from the web of myths and fixations which a highly artificial society has put on them. (SLW)

Persevering in the vocation

Perhaps I have an obligation to preserve the stillness, the silence, the poverty, the virginal point of pure nothingness that is at the centre of all other loves. I attempt to cultivate this plant without comment in the middle of the night and water it with psalms and prophecies in silence. It becomes the most rare of all the trees in the garden, at once the primordial paradise tree, the axis mundi, the cosmic axle, and the Cross. ‘No forest produced such a tree.’ There is only one such tree. It cannot be multiplied. It is not interesting. (Day of a stranger, TIM)

It is not simply a question of ‘existing’ alone but of doing, with joy and understanding, ‘the work of the cell’, which is done in silence and not according to one’s own choice or the pressure of necessity but in obedience to God. But the voice of God is not ‘heard’ at every moment, so part of the ‘work of the cell’ is attention so that one may not miss any sound of that Voice. (letter, TIM)

The desert has a double quality: it is wilderness and paradise. It is wilderness because in the desert we struggle with the “wild beasts” that attack us, the demons of boredom, sadness, anger and pride. However it is also paradise, and taste already his peace and joy. Amma Syncletica said: ‘In the beginning there is struggle and a lot of work for those who come near to God. But after that there is indescribable joy. It is just like building a fire: at first it’s smoky and your eyes water, but later you get the desired result. We ought to light the divine fire in ourselves with tears and effort. (DW)

The solitary life should partake of the seriousness and incommunicability of death. Or should it?… It aims not at living death but at a certain fulness of life. But a fulness that comes from honestly and authentically facing death and accepting it without care, i.e. with faith and trust in God. (TIM)

The cell as crucible

“The cell of the hermit is the furnace of Babylon in which the three children found the Son of God, and the pillar of cloud in which God spoke to Moses.” (Apothegm quoted in SLW)

Peter Damian calls the cell ‘paradise’ … But the cell is not only paradise; it forms a crossroads between heaven and earth. Since it is a meeting place, solitude is also a purgatory; a furnace or kiln or workshop wherein the work of perfection is fashioned moulded and brought into being. (LS)

In solitude, one must be willing to taste his or her own inner poverty, to have the courage to feel God touch the sensitivities we have as human beings – limited, weak and sinful – and to know our propensity to spurn God in foolish arrogance. Solitude belies any evasion of reality, and, if we are true to it, solitude will spew before our eyes the hypocrisy by which we live. As a true friend solitude will remind us that the love we have received from God is not earned or deserved. Therefore our receptivity to this saving love must be an act of humility, which renders to God praise and thanksgiving for the gift. (SS)

At one point, solitude itself will be a cross. Stripped of the pleasurable distractions that can dissipate the process of transformation, we must embrace the cross without compromise. There will be days, many perhaps, when solitude will feel less like a heavenly haven and more like the burning sands of utter emptiness, scorching every form of life within us. Some days we may long for the death that will relieve us from the present burden – or so we may think. At this peak of God’s work of transformation in us, when we may want to retreat or abandon the way, God will ask the greatest fidelity. Unknown to us, new life is just around the corner. (SS)

Solitude will fashion us in true humility by reason of the naked absence of gratification for our proud egos. We must be willing to be exposed. Solitude will ask us to yield to the will of one who knows what is best for us. We are no longer number one on centre stage. The dethroned ego has yielded to divine truth. Henceforth the only way forward is into divine truth, no matter what the cost. (SS)