Solitude in a Toolshed

In May of 2019, I took a lovely monastic stroll with Brother Paul Quenon at Gethsemani Abbey, the monastic home of Thomas Merton. We walked to a toolshed on the monastic property where Merton had sought permission to for more solitude beginning in January of 1953, years before his hermitage days. From this shed in 53-54, during a few hours each day, he wrote Thoughts In Solitude (published in 1958) (which hosted the original title of Thirty-Seven Meditations), the book in which we find what is often referenced as “The Merton Prayer” (which you can find at the end of this post).

Upon approval from the Abbot (Dom James), he named the toolshed “St. Anne’s” and declared in his journal, “It is the first time in my life—37 years—that I have had a real conviction of doing what I am really called by God to do. It is the first time I have ‘arrived’—like a river that has a been running through a deep canyon and now has come out in the plains—and is within sight of the ocean.”

While many assume the shed’s name to be after the mother of Mary, and thus the ultimate wisdom, it also seemed to be a name which followed Merton, including the fact that his father and mother were married in St. Anne’s Church in Soho, London.

He wrote about the surrounding landscape of St. Anne’s and how it reminded him of his walks as a youth in Sussex England: “I recognize in myself the child who walked all over Sussex. (I did not know I was looking for this shanty or that I would one day find it.) All the countries of the world are one under this sky: I no longer need to travel… The quiet landscape of St. Anne’s speaks of no other country.”

On February 9th, 1953, amid the feast of St. Scholastica, Merton spent the evening in St. Anne’s writing, “It is a tremendous thing no longer to have to debate in my mind about ‘being a hermit,’ even though I am not one. At least now solitude is something concrete–it is ‘St. Anne’s’–the long view of hills, the empty cornfields in the bottoms, the crows in the trees, and the cedars bunched together on the hillside. And when I am here there is always lots of sky and lots of peace and I don’t have any distraction and everything is serene–except for the rats in the wall. They are my distraction and they are sometimes obstreperous… St. Anne’s is like a rampart between two existences. On one side I know the community to which I must return. And I can return to it with love. But to return seems like a waste. It is a waste I offer to God. On the other side is the great wilderness of silence in which, perhaps, I might never speak to anyone but God again, as long as I live.”

A few days later Merton wrote, “The landscape of St. Anne’s speaks the word ‘longanimity’: going on and on and on: and having nothing.”

Although the hunt for more solitude was a pattern in Merton’s life, the sense of “arrival” was palpable for him in rat-infested toolshed: “It seems to me that St. Anne’s is what I have been waiting for and looking for all my life and now I have stumbled into it quite by accident. Now for the first time, I am aware of what happens to a man who has really found his place in the scheme of things. With tremendous relief I have discovered that I no longer need to pretend. Because when you have not found what you are looking for, you pretend in your eagerness to have found it. You act as if you had found it. You spend your time telling yourself what you have found and yet do not want. I do not have to buy St. Anne’s. I do not have to sell myself to myself here. Everything that was ever real in me has come back to life in this doorway wide open to the sky! I no longer have to trample myself down, cut myself in half, throw part of me out the window, and keep pushing the rest of myself away. In the silence of St. Anne’s everything has come together in unity” (February 16, 1953).

Interestingly, some of these phrases about home and belonging Merton would continue to untangle, writing after lighting the first fire in the hermitage’s hearth in December 1960, “Haec requies mea in saeculum saeculi [This is my resting place forever] – the sense of a journey ended, of wandering at an end. The first time in my life I ever really felt I had come home and that my waiting and looking were ended.”

Cassidy Hall and Brother Paul Quenon
The Inside of St. Anne’s Toolshed

Quotes from:

The Journals of Thomas Merton. A Search for Solitude: Pursuing the Monk’s True Life (Volume 3), 1952-1960

The Journals of Thomas Merton. Turning Toward the World: The Pivotal Years (Volume 4), 1960-1963

“My Lord God,
I have no idea where I am going.
I do not see the road ahead of me.
I cannot know for certain where it will end.
nor do I really know myself,
and the fact that I think I am following your will
does not mean that I am actually doing so.
But I believe that the desire to please you
does in fact please you.
And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing.
I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire.
And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road,
though I may know nothing about it.
Therefore will I trust you always though
I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death.
I will not fear, for you are ever with me,
and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.”

— Thomas Merton, from Thoughts in Solitude

Carl McColman Interviews Cassidy Hall

Read the full interview on Patheos here.

How did you get inspired to create a film about Thomas Merton and his hermitage?

“We live in an age where men manufacture their own truth.” — Thomas Merton, Sermon on The Feast of the Immaculate Conception (Recorded 12/8/1962)

Even aside from politics, our days host an array of their own problems. Many have viewed the life of a monk or hermit to be a departure from the world and its many problems. But I’ve come to see this going away from the world as a way to love it—and its humans—more deeply.

I began reading Thomas Merton’s New Seeds of Contemplation sometime back in 2011. This evolved into a Gethsemani Abbey pilgrimage which led to me traveling to the seventeen Trappist/Cistercian monasteries of the US to talk to monks and nuns about silence, solitude, and contemplative life. Somewhere along the way I became more and more interested in Thomas Merton’s work and hermitage years—why would such a brilliant person who has so much to offer the world go away from the world. The joke was on me until I began to read further into his desires for solitude and how this tension and paradox was another way of expression, another way of showing solidarity with the suffering of the world. 

There’s a tension in the contemplative life—a tension that holds a paradox. This tension is intertwined with the pain of the world while meeting said pain in the silence and solitudes of our everyday lives (a paradox to many). This doesn’t make sense to everyone and the contemplative path is certainly not for everyone, but I do sincerely believe aspects of it can benefit the whole world. 

Day of a Stranger is a title taken from one of Thomas Merton’s most beloved essays (May 1965). The essay was published in Latin America as a response to a journalist’s question about what a typical day in the life was like for Merton in his new hermitage home. Unbeknownst to Merton or the journalist that this would be his final home and “Dia de un Extrano,” (Day of a Stranger) was published in Papeles, a journal from Caracas, Venezuela in July of 1966 (also published in The Hudson Review in the summer of 1967).

Other questions answered:

What has surprised you the most about listening to Merton’s old tape recordings?

You were a co-producer of In Pursuit of SilenceHow did working on that film help to shape your creative process for Day of a Stranger?

Why, a half century after he died, does Thomas Merton remain so popular? What do you think is at the heart of his appeal?

Read the full interview on Patheos here.

 

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Encounters with Silence – Thomas Merton’s Hermitage

*This essay will be featured in the upcoming book, Notes on Silence.  Order at www.notesonsilence.com 

“Questions arrive, assume their actuality, and also disappear. In this hour I shall cease to ask them, and silence shall be my answer.” Thomas Merton, The Sign of Jonas (p. 361)

In May 2016 I was lucky enough to join a group on a brief excursion to Thomas Merton’s former hermitage. In this small cabin set apart from the Abbey of Gethsemani, Merton lived out the final four years of his life and monastic vows from 1964 until his untimely death in 1968. The hermitage may have only been a brief chapter in his life given his entrance into the monastery in 1941, but it’s been known to be the birthplace of some of his most transformative and inspiring writings, particularly those writings pertaining to contemplation, social justice, peace, and his vision of unity.

Since I’d been a Merton fan for years prior to this visit, I’d fantasized about the day I might be able to wander upon this particular cabin door. I always imagined Merton would’ve had mixed feelings about these pilgrimages. The precise place he sought for solitude and space was now being trampled on by onlookers and admirers on a regular basis. Though it had been nearly 50 years since Merton had last been within these walls, embarking on this private space seemed like walking in on someone in the middle of their work. It felt like an interruption. It felt as if I was peering into something.

Something of the mystery. Something of the unknown. Something fossilized in the silence.

Alas, I also knew that it was just a space, just a place, and its sacredness and mystical  tenor came from the spaciousness and intention Merton held within it–an inner stance which we’re all capable of, yet few come to know.

With 20 or so of us trekking up to the hermitage, I worked hard to contain my child-like excitement. Grinning along the way, I took note of the distance from the monastery, envisioned the walks Merton may have taken, and considered the steps that led him home. Our group gathered inside and out to hear stories from our guide, a current monk, and poet, who happened to know Merton from their time together at the monastery. Our thoughtful discussion considered the work and writing he created within the hermitage and the inspiration it had in our own lives. 

When it was time to go, the group began to quickly evaporate into the landscape back towards the Abbey. I sensed an opportunity to spend some time in the back rooms, and wandered into the quietude. After a few minutes had passed, I looked to the window to see the last of the group disappearing in the distance and realized I was entirely alone. Giggling with delight, I felt the hermitage sinking into the hush of emptiness, the tiny cabin seemed to be transforming into a stagnant memory of everything it once held. I sat in the silence.

Somehow, this time alone felt less invasive. I no longer felt like I was intruding but instead felt as if I was communing with something beyond the time and space. I entered each of the rooms in their silence— the chapel, the kitchen, the bedroom— and I spent another hour in the living room by the fireplace, desk, and bookshelves.

In the end, there was no mountaintop experience. It was an inspiring space, no doubt, but it was still just a space. It was only what we brought with us as individuals that made the place spectacular. I surfaced from this hermitage experience pondering the implications of seeking mysticism in such a place. While on this particular day it was more about reverence of space, I couldn’t completely eliminate the hope of getting in touch with that mystical encounter of which we are all so desperate for. And, perhaps I did get in touch with it. Perhaps I didn’t. Undoubtedly, I’ll never know. For the mystical encounter is always as undefinable as it is undeniable. The mystical encounter is always as elusive as it is palpable.

As much as I know that even discussing the idea of attainment only pushes me further from it, I can’t help but consider what it means. To go seeking for something which cannot be sought. To go on looking for something which cannot be found. To attempt to do something which cannot be done.

The only proper response I have to the beauty of such a silent space is… I’ll never know.

“…In this hour I shall cease to ask them, and silence shall be my answer.”

IMG_0777
Thomas Merton’s Hermitage, photo by Cassidy Hall

 

 

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