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)

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)

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.

The Word

It is as if the poet could still sense, beneath the words of contemporary speech and in the images that crowd in upon his imagination, the ghostly presence of bygone spiritual worlds, and possessed the capacity to make them come alive again. As
Gerhart Hauptmann says: “Poetry is the art of letting the
primordial word resound through the common word.”

From Carl Jung’s Symbols of Transformation (Collected Works Volume 5)

An Angle on Persecution

From a fairly modern commentary on Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras.

I’ve known what it is, from time to time, to be happy as a pig in shit!

Gets me to thinking about the Parable of the Prodigal Son (Gospel of St Luke Ch 15) and his return from the pig sty to his true identity as a Son of God.

So long as the experiencer is falsely identified with the object
of experience, we cannot know the Atman, our real nature.
We remain in bondage, believing ourselves to be the slaves of

There is a story, writes Swami Vivekananda, that the king of the gods, Indra, once became a pig, wallowing in mire; he had a she-pig, and a lot of baby pigs, and was very happy.

Then some gods saw his plight, and came to him, and told him,
“You are the king of the gods, you have all the gods under your command. Why are you here?” But Indra said, “Never mind; I am all right here; I do not care for heaven, while I have this sow and these little pigs.”

The poor gods were at their wits’ end. After a time, they decided to slay all the pigs, one after another. When all were dead, Indra began to weep and mourn. Then the gods ripped his pig-body open and he came out of it, and began to laugh when he realized what a hideous dream he had had; he, the king of the gods, to have become a pig, and to think that pig-life was the only life! Not only so, but to have wanted the whole universe to come into
the pig-life!

The Atman, when it identifies itself with nature, forgets that it is pure and infinite. The Atman does not love, it is love itself. It does not exist, it is existence itself. The Atman does not know, it is knowledge itself. It is a mistake to say that the Atman loves, exists or knows. Love, existence and knowledge are not the qualities of the Atman, but its essence. When they get reflected upon something, you may call them the qualities of that something. They are not the qualities but the essence of the Atman, the Infinite Being, without birth or death, established in its own glory. It appears to have become so degenerate that if you approach to tell it, “You are not a pig,” it begins to squeal and bite.’

This pig-which-is-not-a-pig can, on occasion, become a
very dangerous animal. The power of tamas in our nature is so
great that we hate to be disturbed. We loathe any new idea,
especially if it implies that we shall have to make some change
in our own lives. And so, when the spiritual teachers come to
tell us that we are not pigs but God, we are quite apt to persecute
and crucify them.

How to Know God: The Yoga Aphorisms of Patanjali – (Translated with a commentary by Prabhavananda and Christopher Isherwood (p. 81-82) Vedanta Press 2007