One advantage of visiting doctors' offices is the chance to read magazines I don't otherwise see. This week I found myself perusing the current issue of National Geographic.
There I found stunning photographs by the Australian Murray Fredericks of the remote, vast (3,700 square miles) and salty Lake Eyre. His aim: to take photographs of infinite space.
In what he calls the bleakest, most featureless place on Earth, Fredericks never grew lonely, even though he camped out there for five weeks. Only when he got back to civilization and sat at a quiet bar did he feel lonely.
Many monks in the desert or in the ordinary remoteness of the monastery do not feel loneliness because, I suppose, they have learned to cultivate a solitude through prayer so that they can feel connected to others and to God. So it is possible for the solitary person, alone with his or her thoughts and prayers, to feel content, even happy. Never lonely, like the people looking for connections without success in countless bars around the world.
This brings me back to the topic raised for me by Merton--of solitude as something very different from emotional emptiness, sadness, or despair. Aloneness need not be loneliness. Many people are single either by choice or circumstances but are not leading drab, empty lives like Eleanor Rigby.
This topic is relevant to writers, who spend considerable amounts of time alone. Perhaps for this reason, beginning writers are reluctant to face the blank paper or screen because of some conscious or unconscious fear of isolation. Although lonely feelings can easily intrude when one is alone, the writer's engagement with his or her material (as well as with readers) generally prevents this feeling, just as the person in a truly centered type of prayer can be as alone as the photographer out in the middle of a silent but beautiful nowhere--yet feel fulfilled.
I understand what Merton meant by writing as a form of prayer, even though both of us know that not all writing will be prayerful, just as all solitude will not be rewarding. It all depends on the attitude we choose.