March 26, 2017
I thought on this great feast of the Annunciation we would look at Mary as our model of both solitude and communion. I noticed last week that there was mention in our refectory book of Thomas Merton’s preface to the Japanese translation of his book, “Thoughts in Solitude,” and then I found this very preface under the title “Love and Solitude.” While I read some passages from it, think of Mary in that incomparable moment of history, Mary hearing the Word, Mary surrendering to the Word, Mary conceiving the Word.
Merton begins, “These pages do not pretend to do the reader’s thinking for him. On the contrary, they invite him to listen for himself. They do not merely speak to him, they remind him that he is a Hearer…The proper climate for Hearing is solitude. If you imagine the solitary as one who has numerically isolated himself from many others, who has simply gone out of the crowd to hang up his individual number on a rock in the desert, and there to receive messages denied to the many, you have a false and demonic solitude. It is the false unity of separateness in which the individual affirms himself by saying, ‘Count me out.’ The true unity of the solitary life is the one in which there is no possible division. The true solitary does not seek himself, but loses himself…He is attuned to all the Hearing in the world, since he lives in silence. He does not listen to the ground of being, but he identifies himself with that ground in which all being hears and knows itself. Therefore he no longer has a thought for himself. What is this ground, this unity? It is Love. The paradox of solitude is that its true ground is universal love---and true solitude is the undivided unity of love…Is each person a separate solitude of his own? No. There is One Solitude in which all persons are at once together and alone.”
I find this a beautiful description of Mary, she who was the Hearer of a Word that has never been uttered before or since. She is alone in this Divine Solitude in which God reveals to her his plan and her place in it. She truly attends to it and surrenders to it. But this Word heard in the depths of her soul, in her solitude with God, does not separate her from others precisely because God’s plan is a plan for others, a plan in which she must be responsible for others, a plan of communion and of universal love. The Word made Flesh in the depths of her being seizes her heart and soul and makes her, as Guerric of Igny says, “pregnant with inexhaustible tenderness.” And we too, each of us, each person, is called to hear from the depths of silence and solitude his or her own unique part in God’s plan of love. Yes, as Merton says, all persons are at once together and alone.
Jean Vanier in his book, “Community and Growth,” will say the same in a very simple way. “Solitude does not separate me from others; it helps me love them more tenderly, realistically and attentively. I begin to distinguish, too, between the false solitude which is a flight from others to be alone with egoism, sadness or a bruised sensitivity, and the true solitude which is communion with God and others.” Tenderly, realistically and attentively. Jean Vanier speaks from long experience of community in Christ and I love particularly his word “realistically.” A true solitude in which we are not escaping from people but rather resting in God, the very ground of our being, will teach us not only to love attentively and tenderly but also realistically, that is, in a way that does not place unreal expectations on others. It takes a long time to be transformed into Christ, so much so that Benedict quoting Paul will even have to remind us to bear with false brethren. I have always taken those words to mean this, that all of us are not completely the true selves we will be when we are fully purified and transformed; that until that day there will be something false in each of us. Therefore I like to say, “to bear with what is false in the sisters—and may they also bear with what is false in me!” In all of this it helps so much to look at Mary, our model for both solitude and communion. She helps us to see the beautiful persons we are capable of becoming with the grace of God.