Oh, To Be Alone(!)

A little snippet from my book, The Naked Mystic (available here in the UK). Here’s Chapter 68 where the traditional, romantic image of ‘the solitary’ is skillfully dismantled by the ruthless hands of Harvey.


Solitude can be a pose, he said.

That made sense. I remembered that the Catholic psychoanalyst, Gregory Zilboorg, had once told Thomas Merton that what he really wanted was a hermitage in Times Square with a large sign over it, saying, ‘Hermit.’[i]

It doesn’t just mean being alone, you know.

What does it mean, then? I asked.

True solitude means not borrowing anything. No words. No ideas. No practices. No tribe.


I was getting the idea.

Being alone means giving up on the hope that you’ll be found because you’ve attached yourself to something else.

I had tried, many times.

All the while avoiding the gaze of the One whose eyes search our emptiness.

It was beginning to make sense to me. I had borrowed so many faces over the years.

Cue me as saved. Cue me as born-again, I said.

He smiled, Cue me as sold-out-for-the-Lord.

Cue me as Bible-believing, Bible-loving, Bible-quoting.

We were going back and forth.

Cue me as the Man of God, he said.

Cue me as the Theologian.

And me as Post-Evangelical, he continued.

And Progressive? Contemplative? Monastic?

Cue me as a Fresh Expression![ii] He put a big smile on for this one.

The absurdity of it all made me laugh harder than I remember laughing for a long time.

You? I exclaimed. A Fresh Expression!

We walked happily on for a while. The sun was shining, and it was good to be with him.

I feel good, today, I said.

Me too, he answered.

[i] Gregory Zilboorg (1890–1959) was a Ukrainian psychoanalyst and historian of psychiatry. He was raised as an Orthodox Jew but abandoned his ancestral faith in his 20s. When the Bolsheviks took over, he fled to Holland, then to the United States in 1919. He converted to Catholicism in 1945.

[ii] A Fresh Expression of church is a form of church established primarily for the benefit of people who are not yet members of any church. They are self-consciously different in ethos and style from the church which planted them. So, there are so-called churches in pubs and skateboard parks, artists’ studios, and university student unions.

Ever Ancient, Ever New

The phrase above is one of St Augustine’s, where he describes God as the beauty ever ancient, ever new.

I’ve often found myself trying to capture the simple wonder of things in words.

The love of a dog. A walk by the river. The sight of purple Hosta tips forcing their way up through the Spring soil. The feel of winter sunshine on my skin.

Mostly it can sound corny.

Here, Merton does the opposite. He gives us a glimpse of the sheer staleness of ‘novelty”, against which we get a glimpse of the freshly minted ‘aliveness’ of the moment by moment.

That which is oldest is most young and most new. There is nothing so ancient and so dead as human novelty. The “latest” is always stillborn. It never even manages to arrive. What is really new is what was there all the time. I say, not what has repeated itself all the time; the really “new” is that is that which, at every moment, springs freshly into new existence. This newness never repeats itself. Yet it is so old it goes back to the earliest beginning. It is the very beginning itself, which speaks to us.

Thomas Merton in New Seeds of Contemplation (p. 79)

No Fixed Abode

A little snippet from The Naked Mystic and a taste of what happens after we have ‘left’.

The Enoch story in Genesis Chapter 5 has always fascinated me. Here’s the relevant bit: “Enoch walked with God; then he was no more, because God took him.” (Gen 5.24).

I wonder where the bloke went? There’s something unspeakably wonderful that happens in our absence.

A Stormy Blessing

It’s one of my favourites: Jacob wrestles with an angel and is blessed and wounded as a result (Genesis 32:24-32).

The angel pulls a move that puts Jacob’s hip out of joint but Jacob still won’t submit. Jacob is an awkward customer. I love the bit where the angel pleads with him:  ‘Let me go, for the day is breaking.’ But Jacob said, ‘I will not let you go, unless you bless me.’

So, the angel does exactly that, by conferring a new identity on the tricky, devious Jacob; he becomes Israel, the one who strives with God and prevails.

Everything I’ve said above is dwarfed by the way Rainer Maria Rilke puts in in the poem below. It was sent to me yesterday, by a friend I haven’t seen for a while.

I can see that the storms are coming
by the trees, which out of stale lukewarm days
beat against my anxious windows,
and I can hear the distances say things
one can’t bear without a friend,
can’t love without a sister.

Then the storm swirls, a rearranger,
swirls through the woods and through time,
and everything is as if without age:
the landscape, like a verse in the psalter,
is weight and ardor and eternity.

How small that is, with which we wrestle,
what wrestles with us, how immense;
were we to let ourselves, the way things do,
be conquered thus by the great storm,—
we would become far-reaching and nameless.

What we triumph over is the Small,
and the success itself makes us petty.
The Eternal and Unexampled
will not be bent by us.

Think of the Angel who appeared
to the wrestlers of the Old Testament:
when his opponent’s sinews
in that contest stretch like steel,
he feels them under his fingers
as strings making deep melodies.

Whoever was overcome by this Angel
(who so often declined the fight),
he strides erect and justified
and great out of that hard hand
which, as if sculpting, nestled round him.
Winning does not tempt him.
His growth is: to be the deeply defeated
by ever greater things.

“The Man Watching” by Rainer Maria Rilke, translated by Edward Snow.

More Merton.

Someone once said that he was incapable of writing a dull sentence.

With envy, and with gratitude, I agree.

This little gem is a great example:

“Every one of us is shadowed by an illusory person: a false self… This is the person that I want myself to be but who cannot exist, because God does not know anything about him. And to be unknown of God is altogether too much privacy.”

New Seeds of Contemplation (Ch. 5)

No Hands, No Voice.

The inimitable Thomas Merton, who brought so much to life, for so many of us.

I’m still thrilled by his eloquence more than 30 years after I first came across him by accident in a shabby room in France.

Something wonderful happened back then and when I read Merton I realised I wasn’t alone.

“…contemplation reaches out to the knowledge and even to the experience of the transcendent and inexpressible God. It knows God by seeming to touch Him. Or rather it knows Him as if it had been invisibly touched by Him…. Touched by Him Who has no hands, but Who is pure Reality and the source of all that is real!…. Contemplation is also the response to a call: a call from Him Who has no voice, and yet Who speaks in everything that is, and Who, most of all, speaks in the depths of our own being: for we ourselves are words of His. But we are words that are meant to respond to Him, to answer to Him, to echo Him, and even in some way to contain Him and signify Him. Contemplation is this echo.

New Seeds of Contemplation (Ch. 1)

Bowing my Head

I can’t get enough of this little thing.

Bowl with Human Feet, Predynastic Egypt, Late Naqada l–Naqada II, ca. 3900–3650 BCE. Pottery (red polished ware). Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

I came across it on a favourite blogger’s site this morning – she’s doing a series for Lent. Here’s what she says about it: …“this small anthropomorphized bowl seems to be bending forward in humility. I see in it a reminder of how, on the one hand, we are to bring our selves as an offering to God, pouring out our praises and love; and on the other, how we bring our emptinesses, our lack, to God to fill.

I couldn’t put it better myself so I won’t. Check it out here: https://artandtheology.org/2022/03/04/lent-3/

I do, however, think it’s worth saying that the little praying bowl reminds me of the Orthodox Christian practice of praying the Jesus Prayer (Prayer of the Heart) with ‘the beard laid on the chest’. In other words, with the head bowed. That posture seems to encapsulate something very important about Christian meditation and contemplation that is difficult to put into words but goes something like this: I am not just looking for the inner treasure of the Christ-Self when I practice; I am also acknowledging, and bowing in reverence to, the Holy God, Holy Mighty, Holy Immortal, have mercy on us (to use the Trisagion).

God is both immanent and transcendent and this little bowl puts it beautifully, in a way that makes me smile.

Quaking in my Boots…

I’ve been re-visiting old friends of late. I’m not sure what’s brought that on: maybe I’m getting nostalgic in my maturity; maybe I”ve caught the scent of new fragrances hidden in old bottles.

I first read Thomas Kelly many years ago and I am still struck by his stunning, limpid, luminous prose.

He’s been called the Quaker Brother Lawrence, and for good reason: his ‘method’ – if there really is one – is simplicity itself.

I get the impression, when I read him, that I can hear his distinctive, reassuring voice. It’s like listening to a trusted old friend.

Here’s a snippett from his Testament of Devotion:

Deep within us all there is an amazing inner sanctuary of the soul, a holy place, a Divine Center, a speaking Voice, to which we may continuously return. Eternity is at our hearts, pressing upon our time-torn lives, warming us with intimations of an astounding destiny, calling us home unto Itself.

Yielding to these persuasions, gladly committing ourselves in body and soul, utterly and completely, to the Light Within, is the beginning of true life. It is a dynamic center, a creative Life that presses to birth within us. You who read these words already know this inner Life and Light. For by this very Light within you, is your recognition given.

In this humanistic age we suppose man is the initiator and God is the responder. But the Living Christ within us is the initiator and we are the responders. God the Lover, the accuser, the revealer of light and darkness presses within us. “Behold I stand at the door and knock.” [Rev. 3:20] And all our apparent initiative is already a response, a testimonial to His secret presence and working within us. The basic response of the soul to the Light is internal adoration and joy, thanksgiving and worship, self-surrender and listening.

PS: You can find the full text here: https://archive.org/details/in.ernet.dli.2015.90258

Nyssa on the Night

I haven’t said much for a while but, there’s a time for everything under the sun and so there might, now, be a time to speak.

I’ve been dipping back into Thomas Merton. He was my first love. I was living in a bedsit in Paris shortly after a life-changing religious exerience and the Seven Story Mountain was under the bed.

I’m re-reading his Contemplative Prayer where he writes:

St. Gregory of Nyssa describes the “mystical night” : Night designates the contemplation (theoria) of invisible things after the manner of Moses who entered into the darkness where God was, this God who makes of darkness his hiding place. Surrounded by the divine night the soul seeks him who is hidden in darkness. She possesses indeed the love of him whom she seeks, but the Beloved escapes the grasp of her thoughts.

. . . Therefore abandoning the search she recognizes him whom she desires by the very fact that his knowledge is beyond understanding. Thus she says, “Having left behind all created things and abandoned the aid of the understanding, by faith alone I have found my Beloved. And I will not let him go, holding him with the grip of faith, until he enters into my bedchamber.”

The chamber is the heart, which is capable of the indwelling when it is restored to its primitive state.