“When society is made up of people who know no interior solitude it can no longer be held together by love: and consequently it is held together by a violent and abusive authority. But when people are violently deprived of the solitude and freedom which are their due, then society in which they live becomes putrid, it festers with servility, resentment and hate.”
Thomas Merton. Thoughts in Solitude
It is difficult to speak or write on silence and solitude without sounding smug and self-righteous and yet, at the same time, anyone who thinks that silence and solitude are the luxury of lazy religious fanatics has never experienced silence or solitude with God – which is a different kind of silence – a different kind of solitude.
What will never cease to amaze me about clergy and other spiritual leaders is that people can tell, in seconds, if what they see in a person is emerging from a life with God or a life with ego. A life with God is a demanding life because God is a demanding God. There is wrestling. There are fights and skirmishes. There are shouting matches and then times for making up which boarder on the erotic. Silence and solitude with God, intentionally with God, deliberately with God; are passionate, tumultuous times even at 3:30 am. Perhaps especially at 3:30 am.
Fake monks are easy to see. Real monks are easy to see. Fake priests are easy to see. Real priests are easy to see. Fake mystics are easy to see. Real mystics are easy to see. And that system of discernment was set up by God in creation so that we would know who to follow. A bully, pretending to be passionate about the church while simply building it in their own ego-image, is easy to see. A saint who is full to the brim with wisdom and courage is easy to see. Kind humor and gentle delight are easy to see. Creepy humor is easy to see.
When Thomas Merton calls for interior solitude, he is calling for it as a bed into which the flowers and bulbs of love are to be planted. Lay a tulip bulb on asphalt and it will wither and die. Plant it in rich soil with water and time to emerge from winter, and it will bloom. Our lives are like that flower bed. Our lives need the nutrients of eucharist, gratitude, interior solitude and discernment in order for any love planted in us by God to flourish, grow and even disperse new seeds of love which drop by wind and bird-poo into other gardens – other lives.
When power is misused or when people are manipulated or when authority is used to control, it is easy to see it unless you are the one on whom the manipulation is being focused, since even that, over time, begins to feel normal.
Waking up at 3:30 or 4:00 to manage a spiritual practice is hard work. It means many nights are short after evening meetings. It means that socializing which so often happens in evenings must be declined. It means that time with friends needs to be carefully curated. But it also means that by the time I start my day I can see what I need to see and do what I need to do. Early mornings are not for everyone. Some people need time mid-day. Some people need to do their spiritual practice at night after kids are off to bed or a loud spouse has finally fallen asleep. For most people, the deprivation of time for interior solitude is self-inflicted. We live in a society whose golden calf is the exhaustion which comes from over-work. That is what we worship. Busy-ness is the new prestige now that the manor houses of Downton Abbey have fallen into history.
But those busy people – me sometimes – are, if they are not careful, depriving themselves of the richness of God and so our rhetoric becomes putrid, our rages is unchecked, our hatred us un-boundaried and our resentments enflamed.
I would not go so far as to say that a Christian is not a Christian if they do not have and maintain a spiritual practice which engages God’s longing to be with us and to form us. But I would say that a Christian who allows a lack of interior solitude and discernment is every bit as dangerous to themselves and to others as a drunk airline pilot.
The Holy Spirit exists. She is moving, but she is polite until she gets inside. At the door, she knocks and if it does not open, she waits, years sometimes. Once inside, there is commotion, drinks get spilled, laughter rises, plans get made. But most people simply grind and grind onward on the treadmill they have set up, unaware that if they stepped off it, they would be in the arms of Jesus. And many do not want anything like that kind of vulnerability.
Deans need to be chosen. Money needs to be pledged. Poverty needs to be seen and engaged. Hands need to be held. Tears need to be wiped away. Spiritual lives need to be formed. These things only happen in a community which has placed a priority on prayer and the interior solitude which plays host to it. What Thomas Merton is saying is not that church is dull when prayer and spiritual depth are not happening. What he is saying is that church is putrid and festers when prayer and spiritual depth are not happening.
So let’s pray. Let’s learn. Let’s make time for the kind of inheritor solitude in which Jesus can show up and be heard. And then, and only then, will we be held together in love. And then, and only then, will we be more than people attending a liturgy weekly. A person is not a Christian because they go to church just as a bicycle is not a car because it is in a garage.