Advice Not Just for
My spiritual director recently recommended that I read a book now about twenty-five years old. It is a biographical work by John Howard Griffin, author of "Black Like Me", first published in 1961. It is the well-known record of his experiment living as a Black man in the United States in the 50s.
The book I am reading, Follow the Ecstasy - The Hermitage Years of Thomas Merton, was published in 1983. It is only one Thomas Merton & John Griffin part of an official full biography which Griffin was never able to complete. Merton's hermitage years began in 1963 when he was finally relieved of his position as Master of Novices and therefore able to live full-time in his small cinder block cabin on the grounds of Trappist Gethsemani Abbey outside of Louisville, Kentucky. For those who do not know Merton, he became famous when his autobiography The Seven Storey Mountain was published in 1949 and became an immediate bestseller. He was only thirty-five years old and and a monk for just seven years.
Merton consistently sought the ambiance of solitude, believing it to be the most conducive to conversion, especially his own conversatio morem or the conversion of manners, one of the Trappist vows. This is a two-fold conversion; both a shift to charity in love for his brother monks in community and all humankind, as well as, the gradual achievement of total abandonment to the will of God. This conversion is marked by the lack of struggle in the face of what is, the realities of everyday life.
As I read Follow the Ecstasy, which covers the years 1963-66, I am also reading Merton's own journal of the period 1947 to 1952 entitled The Sign of Jonas. This record begins just before Merton's profession of solemn vows. I t is interesting to see how the desire for greater solitude grown from the believe that silence would be the greatest help in his spiritual growth was with him so early in his religious life. It took sixteen years for his desire to live alone in a hermitage to be fully realized, only five short years before his death.
In relation to myself, I am not living alone in a hermitage but in a contemplative monastic community which cultivates silence and reveres the solitude provided by ones cell, thus, it can be said, we live together alone. The way we live re-enforces the enclosure of the heart, the enclosure in which one gradually sheds so many things and very gradually acquires the abandonment to God's will which Merton experiences in the silence of his holy hermit residence. This is the self-abandonment, the shedding of ego gratification and determination in which can be born, by the grace of God, that incredible lightness of being which is the freedom of the children of God. As St. Romuald says in the first line of his simple rule for Camaldolese monks, "Sit in your cell and your cell will teach you everything."