The world of men has forgotten the joys of silence, the peace of solitude which is necessary, to some extent, for the fullness of human living. 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. When that inner voice is not heard, when man cannot attain to the spiritual peace that comes from being perfectly at one with his own true self, his life is always miserable and exhausting. For he cannot go on happily for long unless he is in contact with the springs of spiritual life which are hidden in the depths of his own soul. If man is constantly exiled from his own home, locked out of his own spiritual solitude, he ceases to be a true person. He no longer lives as a man. He becomes a kind of automaton, living without joy because he has lost his spontaneity. He is no longer moved from within, but only from outside himself.
- Thomas Merton, The Silent Life
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If Rilke is the poet of silences, then Merton is his pastor.
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The language betrays us. It reaches for analogies that might help explain ideas that have no physical presence, dimension or direction, but are a truth nonetheless. I might speak of a well of silence that lies within each of us. By implication it suggests depth, perhaps darkness, but also a cool reprieve from the water drawn up and tasted. If not a well, then, as Rilke suggests, a vastness within - not an emptiness, but a vastness, unfathomable to know its borders it is so complete. Always the direction of silence is within. To discover silence always involves a transition from the outer world to the one within. Some travel great distances in order to find silence. Others sit still and listen for it. There is no one way to do any of this. Of course, all of this takes as a given that there is an inherent value in doing so.
30 years ago I'd go on retreat to the Abbey of Our Lady of Gethsemane, Merton's home, twice a year just to have a place where I could be quiet. It is a frightening thing to be shorn of the need to talk with others, to be engaged with others, to have nothing expected of you save that you use your time to be quiet. Terrible things emerge: fear, doubt, longing, a grasping at straws as your vanity evaporates in front of you. And there you sit, metaphorically naked. Then you are left only with yourself and the question emerges, can you stand your own company?
Hesitating here, dwelling on the threshold of that silence is the last obstacle you must overcome if you are to find a way to unfuck what's gotten fucked inside you. There is a doubt that grows that you will not be able to sustain the silence, that you may very well drown in it and not know if what you are doing is the right thing, or if it is just another failed attempt to set things right. Know that this is the great crisis for all who want to hear their own voice, who have come to believe that their voice is to be found in quieting everything else so they can listen for it.
The Buddha had his tests under the bodhi tree, Christ his temptations in the desert. You and I are questioned by the silence we both fear and need.
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It must be immense, this silence, in which sounds and movements have room, and if one thinks that along with all this the presence of the distant sea also resounds, perhaps as the innermost note in this prehistoric harmony, then one can only wish that you are trustingly and patiently letting the magnificent solitude work upon you, this solitude which can no longer be erased from your life; which, in everything that is in store for you to experience and to do, will act an anonymous influence, continuously and gently decisive, rather as the blood of our ancestors incessantly moves in us and combines with our own to form the unique, unrepeatable being that we are at every turning of our life.
Solitude is essential to each of us, yet we do not prioritize it, make it central to our lives. This isn't meditation, though that can be part of it. I am talking about solitude, the aloneness of your being, the separateness of it, the fact of it. We make ourselves overly busy to avoid acknowledging the fact that we are an unrepeatable experience, a singular expression of life and as such, though our bonds of love and kinship are strong, we are, in all essentials alone and must face alone the task of understanding those facts. This thought scares us, for we do not want to be alone. From this fear we hesitate to find out what our voices sound like, what our desires and abilities can do, we hesitate to even name them for fear of being outside the swim of things. I will tell you this, my friends, that the world around you, the world of kinship and family, of loves and rituals, of passing days, of commerce and matriculation, as vast and varied and impossible to know in its fullness is, at its root, the outward expression of all our inner dreams going back through all generations. We once knew this, but are now removed from that knowledge because we are no longer silent.
Finding a space to be quiet, to be still, to be able to listen does not require that you travel to a Trappist monastery, but it does require your care. You have to choose it.
The idea of the Sabbath - sacred because it is set apart - touches upon this, and this, too, was once part of our dreaming. What remains of it might seem like an empty husk, a valueless ritual that belongs only to those too afraid to think for themselves. What is not valueless is the quiet it implies.
And let's say we somehow find a way into our solitude, our silence, the inner sea and there we come to know our name, our voice, the truth about ourselves. So what. It smacks of an unhealthy ego trip all self-absorbed and proud of itself for making the trip. If this happens, if this is your experience, just know you haven't left the threshold. You're still just as fucked and stuck as you were. For this is the capital "T" truth about solitude and silence: when you encounter yourself, when you hear the sound of your own voice unencumbered by others' expectations and demands, when you are at home in your solitariness another door opens in that solitude and you are brought back to the rest of us, only this time the silence has made you kinder and gentler.
For one human being to love another human being: that is perhaps the most difficult task that has been given to us, the ultimate, the final problem and proof, the work for which all other work is merely preparation.
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The function, if that is the right word, of solitude is to teach us to be more patient and forgiving of ourselves and others, that the harm we do to ourselves and others is born of a disconnect between what is external and fleeting and what is internal and thus eternal. Generations wax and wane. Rilke and Merton exist only in the pages of their books, their bodies long turned to dust, but love, our one true genius, does not cease. The journey within always leads you back out to the world where others are struggling and who need the love you have to give. The Buddha got up from under that tree and began to teach, Jesus came back from the desert as well. It is the hero's journey though I know that term is overused and often misunderstood.
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I am told that love is the meeting of two solitudes who protect each other. That seems right to me and if that is so, then to know love you must first be quiet.
I wish you well.