Silence and Solitude: Desert Fathers and Merton

A Paper I wrote for Bruce Hindmarsh in "The Christian Spirit," a class I took at Regent College in Vancouver, BC.

Thursday, February 08, 2007

Silence and Solitude of the Desert Fathers and Thomas Merton


We are all solitaries even if we do not realize it. It is basic and inevitable to being human, for it fundamentally as an individual that we meet God and it is alone that we die. To be human is to be alone and it is only a state of inner solitude that leads to spiritual maturity and a realization of this actuality. In years gone by, there have been those who went out into the desert places, literally to the demon-possessed wildernesses of Egypt to live as hermits. There is also a metaphorical reality with those who have sought God from wherever their desert may be, perhaps in the quiet of the forest or in the chaos of the city.

To be alone in silence and solitude is to live in poverty and to be empty to all that is important to this world. It is to seek God above all else and also to know one's sinfulness and finally to be reduced to silence in the presence of the living God. It is to come to a place where prayer and contemplation are no longer measured or realized but life is lived when we are liberated by the silence.

The Desert Fathers have led the way and it is their writings that inspired Thomas Merton in his own pursuit of solitude and silence amidst the busyness of monastic life. It is this long tradition of solitude that our generation is now a part of and it is writings and wisdom of those who have gone before us that can speak into our lives today.

It is in silence and the solitude of the desert places that we might know God and it is where we can know ourselves. It is where we are able to escape the decadence of the world around us and even within the Church itself. It is where we might find emptiness and in doing so, find fullness in Christ. It is from the desert that we might speak prophetically to a society that desperately needs to hear the voice of the solitary. In this paper, these four themes will be explored further both in the works and lives of the Desert Fathers from the fourth and fifth century and then later in the 20th century works and life of Thomas Merton.

Knowing Ourselves and Knowing God

The Desert Fathers came to the desert in order to be themselves. It is the decadent world around them that divided their wills, their lives and took them away from seeking after the things of God's Kingdom. For the Fathers, there is no other valid reason for going to the desert and seeking solitude then to forget the world that seeks to divide them. The goal of solitude is purity of heart in which one can see the true state of their own affairs apart from the toxic influence of the culture of the day. The desert is where it becomes readily apparent whether or not one is anchored in, or lost to Christ.[1] The silence is where we are able to listen to the depths of our own being.[2]

However, this solitude and forgetfulness of the world is paradoxically not an exclusion of outside reality but instead a way in which to love it. It is in accepting oneself in poverty and despair that one might truly love because unless one really knows themselves in light of Christ, they have nothing to offer the world.[3]

It is in this state of poverty and solitude that one is able to deal with a sinful heart. This is often in opposition to those who remain in society and who deal instead with the sins of the world around them. To be a solitary means to seek after the redemption of Christ, whether in the deserts of Egypt or the hills and mountains of the USA.[4] In solitude, the incomprehensible uncertainties of life, of one's own existence are faced instead of ignored.[5] However, this path to redemption through solitude and silence in the desert places has no place for the rebellious that looks at the world around them with condemnation. It is only when the hermit withdraws and is first of all hard on them self, that they might have anything to offer to the world from which they have withdrawn and by which God might be known.[6] Solitude is the means by which we are able to be truly human.[7]

The purpose of knowing one self is not to transcend reality or have some sort of supernatural power over the world around us but it is to know God. The result of knowing one self in the silence and solitude is salvation. Salvation is a state in which God is nearer, not through words or images or the Church but His very presence is unmistakable. The desert Fathers are silent because they want to hear God in the silence.[8] Thomas Merton seeks solitude in order to die to the created things of the world, for it is these things that remind him of his distance from God. Solitude and silence is precisely what can show us this gulf and bring us closer to the one in whom we live and breathe and have our being.[9]

To know ourselves and to know God is to have unity in the one who created us. It is in the solitude that we are able to face the presence of the invisible God and somehow the mystery of our darkness and the mystery of the unknowable God merges and becomes one reality.[10] True solitude will lift us up to God.[11] This intimate unity is beyond words or understanding and it is the work of God's spirit working in our own. It is in solitude that we can know ourselves through which we can know God and finally hope to recover the light which is the presence of God.[12] The challenge is to be as faithful to this solitude as one would be faithful to God.[13]

Escape From Decadence

It is not among the noise and busyness of common society that we might know ourselves or know God. The state, with its social conventions, economic and political demands is not conducive to depth of spirit and mystical unity with Christ. Because of this, the Desert Fathers and those solitaries who follow in their path seek solitude.[14] The Fathers in the desert did not want to compromise and they knew that for them to seek God among the doctors and the politicians of the day would be futile.[15] The Desert Fathers seek refuge from the meaningless confusion around them; it is easy for them to forget who they are in the meaningless talk and useless activity.[16] To be in society means to be guided and ruled by it to a certain extent no matter how conscious one is of not being so. Some degree of external solitude is needed in order to find inner solitude. To be in society is to be consumed with the noise of the world and not be silent, emptied of self and united with God.[17] Although the Desert Fathers and Thomas Merton left society, their goal is not to escape completely but to transcend it.[18] Not only did the Desert Fathers escape and transcend the decadence of the world and the activities of the state but they left the decadence and rituals of the Church behind as well.

It is only natural to be obsessed with the communal forms of Christianity which most often focus exclusively on the active. Participate in worship, take communion, and serve the poor the Church tells us. In doing so, we are active in the world and might forget that it is not this world that we are a part of. The Desert Fathers renounced this life within the Church as a means to true and deep spirituality and the mystery of it is that they still are full of the charity of Christ, perhaps in an even greater way than the bishops and Church leaders of the day. It is the stories of silence, of solitude, of sacrifice from the desert that history remembers and not those of the bishops.[19]

Just as the Desert Fathers are silent and humble, men of few words who do not care about the world's opinion of them,[20] so too are many of the monks who follow in the Father's footsteps. The monastic journey, such as the one undertaken by Thomas Merton comes when one is tired of keeping up the pretences involved in social living. It is to be sick of falsity and it is in the silence of the monastery that one might be true to self and to God.[21] The world is full of false freedom and the solitary is one who leaves these behind along with the illusions of a spirituality that is purely human.[22] To be silent and still in the desolation of the desert or the hills and mountains of North America is to renounce the world and its values; it is to live a life that often can seem contrary to what society values as important. And yet it is in this escape, this fleeing that one can truly be empty and in this state have something to offer back to the world. Because of solitude, the self if known and it is this emptied self that is offered back to the world.[23]

Emptying of Self

The hermit in the desert is called to a life of death, poverty and suffering. It is a life of impracticality and uselessness according to the standards of the world.[24] The solitary is inferior on all levels, even the spiritual and yet it is precisely in this state of emptiness and inferiority that the ultimate goal of unity with God is achieved. For when one ceases to strive for the things of this world, to honor the social conventions of society, to be reduced to nothing in the eyes of the world around them and to choose silence and solitude that the point of the hermit's life is actualized. In poverty so great and deep, one is surrounded by God in a way that the affluent are not. To cease to regard self as poverty stricken is to simply exist in a way that is authentic. In nakedness and hunger, one is a stranger to this world, a wanderer in the desert and yet this is perhaps a more authentic and honest condition of the human soul than to remain in the world and be engaged actively in community. The spirituality of the desert, with its doubts reduces the hermit to silence and it is in this state that God is ever-present despite uncertainty and nothingness.[25] [26]

This emptiness and nothingness that is found in solitary places is not without purpose. To escape into the silence is not selfish but is actually the very opposite in that it is a death of self, a forgetfulness of striving. It is a death of our very person and identity. This death is to die to self and to live for Christ alone.[27] To be a solitary is to be a brother of the martyr.[28] One does not become a solitary in order to heighten self-consciousness or to find pleasure in self but it is the opposite.[29] It is possible to turn our backs on society without hating it and perhaps it is even a greater form of love for it than remaining in it would be.[30] Without this emptiness and death of self found in the silence we are unable to love because we will not possess a self that is deep and realized, empty and without motives or strivings of our own. This is the only gift that we are able to offer someone in love.[31] Without solitude, it is hard to know the love of God and how can we truly give love unless we receive much more than we have ever had before?[32] It is through solitude that we are aware of God's transforming divine mercy, by which we can experience emptiness and also God's perfect love through which we can love others.[33]

It is in this state of emptiness realized in solitude that the Desert Fathers are able to act as prophets to their contemporaries and to the generations that will follow. It is this emptiness that Thomas Merton seeks after and at times finds. It is empty people that our society so desperately needs today to speak with a prophetic voice, calling society away from the noise, the confusion and the sickening desire that seeks to find fulfillment in passing pleasures and in self.

A Prophetic Voice from the Silence

There is a need today to communicate with something greater than this world, for the world is fleeting, illusionary and will one day pass away. Solitude, almost by its very nature offers deeper communication with the self as the countless contradictions within our life can finally be reconciled. It is in silence that we know of something deeper, the presence and self-emptying nature of God.[34] This knowing of God and self, the emptying nature of solitude and the escape from a decadent state is a sign of contradiction to the world. The solitary is like John the Baptist, one crying in the wilderness with a message that few will embrace but that many will reject. The solitary is a prophet who speaks a message that the world does not want to hear because it has nothing in common with the one who is truly alone and not part of this world. But in this act of dying to the world and being rejected by it, the silent solitary perhaps speaks more loudly than any words could. For it is this person who knows the true nature of God, His transcendence, His otherness and a nature that is beyond catchphrase or slogan and that it is why the world hates the solitary for the same reasons they hate God. It is impossible to make this transcendent God into our own image and the solitary is a harsh reminder of this.[35]

Merton calls silence the symbol of his time in that people are looking to contemplation and meditation in order to find meaning in life. Just at the Desert Fathers left society to live in the wilderness, so too have generations that followed looked to solitude in order to have greater understanding and clarity. The same is true in our society today as there is a revived interest in Eastern meditative religion, such as Buddhism which seeks meaning through the emptying of oneself.[36] A solitary is one who is able to speak out of the silent places in life and communicate from this level than most never reach. Someone who lives in the wildernesses of life is able to keep the practice of silence alive for our society when so few are doing it.[37] To break free from the spiritual chains that so easily entangle and to find freedom from compulsions that are alien to being truly alive is to offer hope to a world that is desperately searching for something deeper, something that transcends the reality in which they live.[38]

In the eyes of society a solitary is one who has failed because they do not live up to societal expectations of production and consumption; the solitary fails to conform to the norms that serve to order our lives. However, their significance is great in that they alone can speak from the depths to a world that has degraded humanity. For it is the one who has encountered their own humanity and become empty of it and is finally united with God that can speak of the value and dignity of each person. It is the one who is alone that has respect for the loneliness of life which everyone experiences but that not everyone acknowledges.[39] The one who lives in solitude and silence is able to speak words that have meaning and significance to our busy world that speaks with incessant compulsion. Perhaps it is more loving to the world to leave it than to accept the harmful myths and fictions of the world in which we live.[40]

Christians are called to be in the world but not of the world. The Desert Fathers and the Martyrs before them stand in stark contrast to the world, as they live here on Earth but are clearly not of this world. However, today it seems that many Christians do not really appear to be any different from the world around them. There is a need for those who live a solitary, silent life because they can serve as a reminder to Christians today who can often forget how they are to live in the world.[41] Perhaps it is in the very act of with drawl that God is able to use the solitary to heal the wounds of the entire world.[42]


The Desert Fathers escaped into the desert, seeking God and self-understanding, fleeing from the compulsions and conventions of the day and emptying themselves in order that they might be united with God. Their writings live on, prophetically speaking to us today in a society just as consumed with decadence as the world which the Desert Fathers left. Thomas Merton, in his own journey of monasticism looks to the Desert Fathers and their lives of silence and solitude in order to understand his own. Merton, by his life and writing also speaks to us prophetically reminding us of the importance of the solitary in the contemporary situation.

Works Cited

Abe, Masao. "Kenotic God and Dynamic Sunyata." Pages 3-65 in The Emptying God. New York: Maryknoll (1990).

Merton, Thomas. A Search for Solitude. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco (1996).

Merton, Thomas. Disputed Questions. New York: Farrar, Stratus and Cudahy (1953).

Merton, Thomas. The Monastic Journey. New York: Image Books, (1978).

Merton, Thomas. The Seven Storey Mountain. San Diego: Harvest/ HBJ Books (1948).

Merton, Thomas. The Silent Life. New York: Farrar, Strauss & Giroux (1957).

Merton, Thomas. The Springs of Contemplation. New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux (1992).

Merton, Thomas. The Wisdom of the Desert. New York: New Directions Books (1960).

Merton, Thomas. Thoughts in Solitude, New York: Image Books (1958).

Waddell, Helen. The Desert Fathers. Great Britain: Collins (1936).

Ward, Benidicta. The Desert Fathers. London: London: Penguin Books (2003).

[1] Merton, Thomas. The Wisdom of the Desert. New York: New Directions Books (1960), 23.

[2] Merton, Thomas. The Springs of Contemplation. New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux (1992), 15.

[3] Merton, Thomas. The Silent Life. New York: Farrar, Strauss & Giroux (1957), 222.

[4] Ward, Benidicta. The Desert Fathers. London: London: Penguin Books (2003), xviii

[5] Merton, Thomas. Disputed Questions. New York: Farrar, Stratus and Cudahy (1953), 180.

[6] Merton, Thomas. The Monastic Journey. New York: Image Books, (1978), 199.

[7] Merton, Thomas. A Search for Solitude. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco (1996), 25.

[8] Ward, Benidicta. The Desert Fathers, xviii.

[9] Merton, Thomas. The Seven Storey Mountain. San Diego: Harvest/ HBJ Books (1948), 421.

[10] Merton, Thomas. Disputed Questions, 180.

[11] Merton, Thomas. A Search for Solitude, 14.

[12] Merton, Thomas. The Silent Life, 223.

[13] Merton, Thomas. Disputed Questions, 190.

[14] Ward, Benidicta. The Desert Fathers, ix.

[15] Waddell, Helen. The Desert Fathers. Great Britain: Collins (1936), 34.

[16] Merton, Thomas. The Monastic Journey, 220.

[17] Merton, Thomas. The Wisdom of the Desert, 5.

[18] Merton, Thomas. Disputed Questions, 182.

[19] Merton, Thomas. Disputed Questions, 191.

[20] Merton, Thomas. The Wisdom of the Desert, 10-13.

[21] Merton, Thomas. The Monastic Journey, 200.

[22] Merton, Thomas. The Silent Life, 25.

[23] Merton, Thomas. Thoughts in Solitude, New York: Image Books (1958), 99.

[24] Merton, Thomas. The Monastic Journey, 203.

[25] Merton, Thomas. The Monastic Journey, 205-206.

[26] Merton, Thomas. Disputed Questions, 198.

[27] Merton, Thomas. Disputed Questions, 206.

[28] Merton, Thomas. Thoughts in Solitude, 91.

[29] Merton, Thomas. Disputed Questions, 185.

[30] Merton, Thomas. Disputed Questions, 192.

[31] Merton, Thomas. Disputed Questions, 206.

[32] Merton, Thomas. A Search for Solitude, 28.

[33] Merton, Thomas. The Monastic Journey,198.

[34] Merton, Thomas. Thoughts in Solitude, 82-83.

[35] Merton, Thomas. The Monastic Journey, 208.

[36] Abe, Masao. "Kenotic God and Dynamic Sunyata." Pages 3-65 in The Emptying God. New York: Maryknoll (1990), 10-17.

[37] Merton, Thomas. The Springs of Contemplation, 6.

[38] Merton, Thomas. The Wisdom of the Desert,24.

[39] Merton, Thomas. Disputed Questions, 199.

[40] Merton, Thomas. The Monastic Journey, 198.

[41] Merton, Thomas. The Monastic Journey, 197.

[42] Merton, Thomas. The Monastic Journey, 200.


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