During the last years of his life, Thomas Merton lived in a hermitage in an attempt to find more solitude in his life. But solitude is a very elusive thing, and he found that it was continually escaping him.
One morning, however, he sensed that, for the moment at least, he had found it. But what he experienced was somewhat of a surprise to him. Solitude, it turns out, is not some altered state of consciousness or even some heightened sense of God or the transcendent in our lives.
Solitude, as he experienced it, was being fully inside his own skin, inside the present moment, gratefully aware of the immense richness that is contained inside of ordinary human experience. Solitude consists in being enough inside of your own life to actually experience what is there.
But that’s not easy. It’s rare that we find ourselves truly inside of the present moment.
Because of the way we are built. We are overcharged for this world. When God put us into this world, as the author of the book of Ecclesiastes tells us, he put “timelessness” into our hearts and because of that we don’t make easy peace with our lives.
We read this in the famous passage about the rhythm of the seasons in the book of Ecclesiastes. There is a time and a season for everything, we are told: A time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to gather in what is planted; a time to kill, and a time to heal … so the text goes on. But after listing this natural rhythm of time and the seasons, the author ends with these words: God has made everything suitable for its own time but has put timelessness into the human heart so that human beings are out of sync with the rhythms of this world from beginning to end.
The Hebrew word used to express “timelessness” is Ha olam, a word suggesting “eternity” and “transcendence.” Some English translations put it this way: God has put a sense of past and future into our hearts. Perhaps that captures it best, at least in terms of how we generally experience this in our lives.
We know from experience how difficult it is to be inside the present moment because the past and the future won’t leave us alone. They are forever coloring the present. The past haunts us with half-forgotten lullabies and melodies that trigger memories, with loves that have been found and lost, with wounds that have never healed, and with inchoate feelings of nostalgia, regret, and wanting to cling to something that once was. The past is forever sowing restlessness into the present moment.
And the future impales itself into the present as well, looming as promise and threat, forever asking for our attention, forever sowing anxiety into our lives, and forever stripping us of the capacity to simply drink in the present. The present is forever being colored by obsessions, heartaches, headaches, and anxieties that have little to do with people we are now sitting with at the table.
Philosophers and poets have had various names for this: Plato called it “a madness that comes from the gods”; Hindu poets have called it “a nostalgia for the infinite”; Shakespeare speaks of “immortal longings”; and Augustine, in perhaps the most famous naming of them all, called it an incurable restlessness that God has put into the human heart to keep it from finding a home in something that is less than infinite and eternal: You have made us for yourself, Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.
And so it is very difficult to be peacefully present to our own lives, restful inside of our own skins. But this “torment,” as T.S. Eliot once named it, has its purpose. Henri Nouwen, in a remarkable passage that both names the struggle and suggests what it is ultimately for, puts it this way: Our life is a short time in expectation, a time in which sadness and joy kiss each other at every moment. There is a quality of sadness that pervades all the moments of our life.
It seems that there is no such thing as a clear-cut pure joy, but that even in the most happy moments of our existence we sense a tinge of sadness. In every satisfaction there is an awareness of limitations. In every success there is the fear of jealousy. Behind every smile there is a tear. In every embrace there is loneliness. In every friendship, distance. And in all forms of light, there is the knowledge of surrounding darkness.
But this intimate experience in which every bit of life is touched by a bit of death can point us beyond the limits of our existence. It can do so by making us look forward in expectation to that day when our hearts will be filled with perfect joy, a joy that no one shall take away from us.