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Single Living

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.

Why?

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.

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10 Comments

  1. Alicia-481430 October 3, 2010

    Wow.. powerful and beautifully written. Thank you Father Ron :)

  2. Kathy-555815 October 3, 2010

    some people struggle in the moment because they are in constant pain because of war and torture.and feel death approaching. It is not a search for solitude.

    • David-629572 October 5, 2010

      Kathy, if you mean to suggest that restlessness of heart is purely a phenomenon of pampered 21st-century Americans, I would have to disagree. There is a reason why countless writers from widely varying traditions, times, and locations have characterized the condition of humanity as one of infinite longing. No amount of money, fame, sex, drugs, Ben and Jerry’s, or Jersey Shore reruns will quite do the trick. We’re just wired that way.

  3. Robert-564102 October 4, 2010

    Thanks. This was just what I was looking for” am really inspired, send more on the same topic.

  4. Patty-633656 October 4, 2010

    In every experiences there is the wisdom and knowledge to learn and move forward.Life does not go backward.rather forward even though most of time, We reflect the past wether good or bad experiences may brought us to seek God.And in this way, we find ourselves again back to where we will go ahead of our destiny.Darkness, light, sadness, joy, all this makes us balance where the middle is the center point of life with God.

  5. Kathy-555815 October 5, 2010

    a restless heart can also mean atrial fibrillation.

  6. Arnold-327500 October 5, 2010

    Poppycock, Father! (Well, at least in one little aspect, in general your article is great)
    We can know pure joy in an whether in an embrace or a success. Shakespeare also said, “Nothing in itself is evil, but thinking makes it so.” It is an instant later than the joy that we start to with that it last forever by pondering that it was not always there. This ‘spoils’ (or at leasts ends) the moment. I notice this more with simple pleasures like a meal that turns out exactly as hoped for in preparation and more in pleasures where the spirit is connected to activities of the body such as cooking, working (manually) or singing. The ‘trick’ is gratitude to God without grasping the ephemeral, caring without coveting. If we are not worried about how long a gift of joy does or will last, we are then free to experience it ‘in the moment’ without the shadows. It is not until after a moment passes that we long to have it back — if we were in the moment. But we need to learn to patiently trust God for each new moment rather than pining for yesterday’s blessing. As some youths of this age are won’t to say, “that was so 10 minutes ago”. While, when it comes to patience and perseverance, this is not appropriate, some wisdom remains. Jesus said, “Unless you become like a little child, you cannot enter the Kingdom of God.” This remains a challenge especially for those of us who think too much or are scrupulous. Over a decade ago, God told me something very personal, “Don’t be the Holy Spirit (in your own life)” He meant I was trying too hard (and often out of pride) to achieve ‘His’ ends in my life. Ends (and especially) means that I could barely perceive. God’s aims for our eternity-craving hearts are ultimately unfathomable. I was the clay trying to tell the potter how to shape me, or even ignoring the potter and trying to shape myself. (I sometimes still do this, by the by, but much less; please pray for me). He has told others “let go and let God” or spoken to all of us in the Psalms, “Be still and know I am God”. Another translation of Ecclesiastes has, “God has put eternity in the hearts of men but they have not *understood* it”. In the Bible, to ‘understand’ a thing is to have mastery of it. But when it comes human hearts, only Jesus is the true master. We can know ‘pure’ joy in this life even (and particularly) in the basic things such as light, food, warmth, friendship if we receive them from God humbly trusting that he knows what and how much we need. I call this ‘spiritual object constancy’. Psychologists observing small children have noticed in the game of ‘peek-a-boo’ that they don’t know (or believe or understand) the person playing with them is really there when hidden behind a blanket or an opaque object. They giggle with glee when one reappears in their field of vision. For the older person playing the game, the child seems exceptionally happy to see them (compared to an ‘adult’ reaction) every time they poke their head up into view. They’ve never left, but to the child they were truly gone and have suddenly returned. She is so happy to see them again! It is ike this with God. When He smiles on us with his blessings we know he is there but when we don’t see His face, we think he is gone away because we can’t see through the peek-a-boo blanket (existential veil, whatever) but He hasn’t really left us, any more than a good parent leaves a human infant alone. Like small children we first need to experience the Joy of His presence, then without losing the childlike delight in his appearing to see learn that He is always coming back, then indeed that he is always there sunshine and rain. It is not normal or natural to spend the whole time His presence is manifest worrying that he’s going to hide his face again. Infants get quiet when one hides for a moment but most don’t cry right away. As they develop they gain emotional object constancy which is trust that the material world remains in place when they can’t see it. As James writes, “Every good and perfect gift comes from the Father of Lights who does not change like shifting shadow.”

    Abundant Peace to you, Father

  7. Emillia-634914 October 5, 2010

    These writing is powerful demonstration of deep understanding of Christian faith and the purpose of human life. Blessed are those who understood that ” You have made us for yourself, Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.”
    Thank you, father Ron

  8. hmm...? October 13, 2010

    thanks

  9. John-518960 October 25, 2010

    Thomas Merton’s book’s are a favorite for those involved in the Centering Prayer ministry

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