Saturday, August 28, 2010

Solitude and the Desert

I have just completed a long article on the role of the desert in Thomas Merton's spirituality, and in the process of reading happened to find this aphorism by the 17th century French writer La Bruyere: "All of our unhappiness comes from our inability to be alone."

Like so many aphorisms, this one must be taken with a few grains of salt. Nor is La Bruyere especially original: he is no doubt borrowing from Pascal the notion that man's unhappiness is due to his inability to stay in his room: "man" is always planning a future that does not exist, Pascal famously wrote, or is thinking of an equally unreal past instead of being fully present in the now.

It is a struggle to be a contemplative in a busy life; and, as social creatures, it is a challenge to be physically alone, without human company, in any kind of desert. Yet the desert within, when we are alone with our thoughts, can be a fruitful place, and it is not hard to retreat there, in wordless silence, even when people are around. It gives us access to much needed peace.

There can also be fear in the desert and pain and emptiness. To live in the desert, Merton wrote from his hermitage, is to "wage war against despair unceasingly." But the desert, with its long biblical tradition, can also be a site of transformation.

I began to think about the metaphor of the desert, and to explore its implications, thanks to my friend John, who, loving the geographical desert of the American west, found by accident a remarkable memoir, "The Bread of Angels," by Stephanie Saldana, which he gave me. The result was not only my review of this book (recently published in America July 19-26) but a new understanding of the power of desert places.

Although it will embarrass him for me to say so publicly, my friend John is uniquely talented, a sort of Renaissance man who is both artist and craftsman, a builder who supervises the construction of residences as well as a sculptor and painter and skillful reader; he is also a writer and, in his spare time, is a baseball coach for his son's Little League team and a generous neighbor, among many other things. He is one of those many remarkable and talented people who know a lot and do a lot of wonderful things but don't know how remarkable they are.

Anyway, as he would say to end one of his typically interesting and revealing digressions, I can see why he would be attracted to Saldana's book, being as he is deeply spiritual and able to express many of the depths of the inner life.

He understands that the desert can bloom after we confront the pain and the struggle. It did so for Ms. Saldana. It did so for Thomas Merton. It will do so for my unique friend John.

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