"If we had a keen vision of all that is ordinary in human life, it would be like hearing the grass grow or the squirrel's hearbeat, and we should die of that roar which is the other side of silence."
-George Elliot from Middlemarch
When I was growing up, the legend of the Hermit of the Uwharries fascinated me. Sometimes, hiking the trails around Morrow Mountain and along the Yadkin River, I’d pass a mossy bank and imagine that hermit, tucked away on some sacred spot up the hill. It still happens, now and then, when I wander the Smokies, finding my way back home.
Funny thing how a rat-race society, dedicated to the destruction of everything beautiful and alive, would greet a hermit with derision, seeing him as a useless person hopelessly out of touch with all that matters. Thomas Merton, the contemplative Trappist, danced the awkward dance between engagement and isolation. In 1953 he wrote,
"There is one thing I must do here at my woodshed hermitage, St. Anne's, and that is to prepare for my death. But that means a preparation in gentleness. A gentleness, a silence, a humility that I have never had before - which seems impossible in the community, where even my compassion is tinged with force and strain."
Fifteen years later, Merton was simultaneously engaged in the struggle against the Vietnam War while he continued to explore the experience of solitude. In March of 1968, just six months before his death, with his worldly fame well established, he said,
"Almost every day I have to write a letter to someone refusing an invitation to attend a conference, or a workshop, or to give talks on the contemplative life, or poetry, etc. I can see more and more clearly how for me this would be a sheer waste, a Pascalian diversion, participation in the common delusion.... For me what matters is silence, meditation - and writing: but writing is secondary. To willingly and deliberately abandon this to go out and talk would be stupidity - for me. And for others, retirement into my kind of solitude would be equally stupid. They could not do it - and I could not do what they do."
It is hard to imagine a Thomas Merton achieving worldly fame in 2007. I’m glad to see that Paul and Karen Fredette, of Hot Springs, NC, are still publishing Raven's Bread, Food for Those in Solitude, “a quarterly newsletter for hermits and those interested in the eremitical life.” It opens the door to a welcome place.
Richard Simonelli, writing in the May 2006 edition, shared these thoughts on the dance, the challenging and frustrating and most difficult of dances,
"The individual and the community are in constant relationship. Energies flow back and forth between them in a way that is necessary and good. The laws of interplay between the individual and the community must be honored and obeyed so that both can live in harmony. To focus on the individual in isolation is to tell an untrue story. To think of the community as the highest good is also untrue. We must be individuals within the community as well as finding community within ourselves."
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