Tag Archives: solitude

Breathe God’s air

Keep your eyes clean and your ears quiet and your mind serene. Breathe God’s air.

Work, if you can, under God’s sky.

But if you have to live in a city and live among machines and ride in the subways and eat in a place where the radio makes you deaf with spurious news and where the food destroys your life and the sentiments of those around you poison your heart with boredom, do not be impatient, but accept it as the love of God and as a seed of solitude planted in your soul.

If you are appalled by those things, you will keep your appetite for the healing silence of recollection. But meanwhile—keep your sense of compassion for the people who have forgotten the very concept of solitude.

You, at least, know that it exists, and that it is the source of peace and joy.

You can still hope for such joy. They do not even hope for it anymore.

–Excerpt from New Seeds of Contemplation, by Thomas Merton.

*(changed “His” to “God’s” and “men” to “people” to make language more gender-inclusive)


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Who am I?

Who am I? They often tell me
I emerge from my cell
serene and cheerful and poised,
like a noble from his manor.

Who am I? They often tell me
I speak with my guards
freely, friendly, and clearly,
as though I were the one in charge.

Who am I? They also tell me
I bear days of misfortune
with composure, smiling and regal,
like one accustomed to victory.

Am I really what others say of me?
Or am I only what I know of myself?
Disquieted, yearning, sick, caged like a bird,
fighting for breath itself, as the hands of a strangler,
craving colors, flowers, birdsong,
thirsting for kind words, human closeness,
shaking with rage at tyranny, the pettiest offense,
tossed about in anticipation of great events,
helpless in worry for friends endless distances away,
tired, with nothing left for praying, thinking, working,
weary and ready to take leave of it all?

Who am I? This one or the other?
Am I one today and another tomorrow?
Am I both at the same time? Before others a hypocrite
and in my own eyes a contemptibly self-pitying weakling?
Or does what remains in me resemble a defeated army,
retreating in disorder before victory already won?

Who am I? It mocks me, this lonely probing of mine.
Whoever I am, you know me: O God, I am yours!

–Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945)

Original German:

Wer bin ich? Sie sagen mir oft,
ich träte aus meiner Zelle
gelassen und heiter und fest
wie ein Gutsherr aus seinem Schloß

Wer bin ich? Sie sagen mir oft,
ich spräche mit meinen Bewachern
frei und freundlich und klar,
als hätte ich zu gebieten.

Wer bin ich? Sie sagen mir auch,
ich trüge die Tage des Unglücks
gleichmütig, lächelnd und stolz,
wie einer, der Siegen gewohnt ist.

Bin ich das wirklich, was andere von mir sagen?
Oder bin ich nur das, was ich selbst von mir weiß?
Unruhig, sehnsüchtig, krank, wie ein Vogel im Käfig,
ringend nach Lebensatem, als würgte mir einer die Kehle,
hungernd nach Farben, nach Blumen, nach Vogelstimmen,
dürstend nach guten Worten, nach menschlicher Nähe,
zitternd vor Zorn über Willkür und kleinlichste Kränkung,
umgetrieben vom Warten auf große Dinge,
ohnmächtig bangend um Freunde in endloser Ferne,
müde und leer zum Beten, zum Denken, zum Schaffen,
matt und bereit, von allem Abschied zu nehmen?

Wer bin ich? Der oder jener?
Bin ich denn heute dieser und morgen ein andrer?
Bin ich beides zugleich? Vor Menschen ein Heuchler und vor mir selbst ein verächtlich wehleidiger Schwächling?
Oder gleicht, was in mir noch ist, dem geschlagenen Heer,
das in Unordnung weicht vor schon gewonnenem Sieg?

Wer bin ich? Einsames Fragen treibt mit mir Spott.
Wer ich auch bin, Du kennst mich, Dein bin ich, o Gott!

Bonhoeffer wrote this poem while imprisoned by the Nazis in 1944.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer


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Letters to a Young Poet – Six

Think, dear sir, of the world you carry within you, and call this thinking what you will; whether it be remembering your own childhood or yearning towards your own future—only be attentive to that which rises up in you and set it above everything that you observe about you. What goes on in your innermost being is worthy of your whole love; you must somehow keep working at it and not lose too much time and too much courage in clarifying your attitude toward people. Who tells you that you have one anyway?—I know, your profession is hard and full of contradiction of yourself, and I foresaw your complaint and knew that it would come. Now that it has come, I cannot comfort you, I can only advise you to consider whether all professions are not like that, full of demands, full of enmity against the individual, saturated as it were with the hatred of those who have found themselves mute and sullen and a humdrum duty. The situation in which you now have to live is no more heavily laden with conventions, prejudices and mistakes than all the other situations, and if there are some that feign a greater freedom, still there is none that is in itself broad and spacious and in contact with the big things of which real living consists. Only the individual who is solitary is like a thing placed under profound laws, and when he goes out into the morning that is just beginning, or looks out into the evening that is full of happening, and if he feels what is going on there, then all status drops from him as from a dead man, though he stands in the midst of sheer life. What you, dear Mr. Kappus, must now experience as an officer, you would have felt just the same in any of the established professions; yes, even if, outside of any position, you had merely sought some light and independent contact with society, this feeling of constraint would not have been spared you.—It is so everywhere; but that is no reason for fear or sorrow; if there is nothing in common between you and other people, try being close to things, they will not desert you; there are the nights still and the winds that go through the trees and across many lands; among things and with the animals every thing is still full of happening, in which you may participate; and children are still the way you were as a child, sad like that and happy,—and if you think of your childhood you live among them again, among the solitary children, and the grownups are nothing, and their dignity has no value.

And if it worries and torments you to think of your childhood and of the simplicity and quiet that goes with it, because you cannot believe anymore in God, who appears everywhere in it, then ask yourself, dear Mr. Kappus, whether you really have lost God? Is it not rather, that you have never yet possessed him? For when should that have been? Do you believe that a child can hold him, him whom men bear only with effort and whose weight compresses the old? Do you believe that anyone who really has him could lose him like a little stone, or do you not think rather that who ever had him could only be lost by him?—But if you know he was not in your childhood, and not before, if you suspect that Christ was diluted by his longing and Mohammed betrayed by his pride—and if you are terrified to feel that even now he’s not, in this hour when we speak of him—what then justifies you in missing him, who never was, like one who has passed away, and in seeking him as though he had been lost?

Why do you not think of him as the coming one, imminent from all eternity, the future one, the final fruit of the tree whose leaves we are? What keeps you from projecting his birth into times that are in process of becoming, and living your life like a painful and beautiful day in the history of the great gestation, for do you not see how everything that happens keeps on being a beginning, and could not be His beginning, since beginning is in itself always so beautiful? If he is the most perfect, must not the lesser be before him, so that he can choose himself out of fullness and overflow?—Must he not be the last, in order to encompass everything within himself, and what meaning would we have if he, whom we long for, had already been?

As the bees bring in the honey, so do we fetch the sweetest out of everything and build Him. With the trivial even, with the insignificant (if it but happens out of love) we make a start, with work and with rest after it, with a silence or with a small solitary Joy, with everything that we do alone, without supporters and participants, we begin him whom we shall not live to know, even as our forebears could not live to know us. And yet they, who are long gone, are in us, as predisposition, as burden upon our destiny, as blood that pulsates, and as gesture that rises up out of the depths of time.

Is there anything that can take from you the hope of thus someday being in him, the farthest, the ultimate?

Celebrate Christmas, dear Mr. Kappus, in this devout feeling, that perhaps He needs this very fear of life from you in order to begin; these very days of your transition are perhaps the time when everything in you was working at him, as you have already once, in childhood, breathlessly worked at him. Be patient and without resentment and think that the least we can do is to make his becoming not more difficult for him than the earth makes it for the spring when it wants to come.

And be glad and confident.

Rainer Maria Rilke

–Letter six, excerpt from Letters to a Young Poet by Rainer Maria Rilke.

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Dear Lord and Father of Mankind

Thanks to my friend Jason for sharing this beautiful hymn with me. It is words like those in this hymn that remind us that God speaks to us in a myriad of ways, likely not in ways that we would expect God to speak to us. Let us tune our hearts to the sound of sheer silence, through which God may be speaking to us. The lyrics of this hymn are inspired by 1 Kings 19:11-12.

(The italicized lyrics below are not sung in this version)

Dear Lord and Father of mankind,
Forgive our foolish ways!
Reclothe us in our rightful mind,
In purer lives Thy service find,
In deeper reverence, praise.

In simple trust like theirs who heard
Beside the Syrian sea
The gracious calling of the Lord,
Let us, like them, without a word
Rise up and follow Thee.

O Sabbath rest by Galilee!
O calm of hills above,
Where Jesus knelt to share with Thee
The silence of eternity
Interpreted by love!

With that deep hush subduing all
Our words and works that drown
The tender whisper of Thy call,
As noiseless let Thy blessing fall
As fell Thy manna down.

Drop Thy still dews of quietness,
Till all our strivings cease;
Take from our souls the strain and stress,
And let our ordered lives confess
The beauty of Thy peace.

Breathe through the heats of our desire
Thy coolness and Thy balm;
Let sense be dumb, let flesh retire;
Speak through the earthquake, wind, and fire,
O still, small voice of calm!

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Where have I been sleeping?

O Lord, my God, where have I been sleeping? What have I been doing? How slowly I awaken once again to the barrenness of my life and its confusion. You will forgive me if it is often that way—I do not mean it to be. How little faith there has been in me—how inert have been my hours of solitude, how my time has been wasted. You will forgive me if next week, too, my time is all wasted and I am once again in confusion. But at least this afternoon, sitting on a boulder among the birches, I thought with compunction of Your love and Your kingdom. And again tonight, by the gatehouse, I thought of the hope You have planted in our hearts and the Kingdom of Heaven that I have done so little to gain for myself and for others.

Forgive me, O Lord, by Your Cross and Passion and Resurrection. Teach me to see what it means that I am saved by Your Church. Teach me how, as a priest, I am to bring others to the knowledge of You and of the Kingdom and to salvation. Teach me to live in You with care for the purity of faith, with the zeal of true hope, and with true and objective charity for my brothers, for the glory of the Father, Amen.

–Excerpt from A Search for Solitude by Thomas Merton, pp. 61-62.

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From “Thoughts in Solitude”

MY LORD GOD, I have no idea where I am going.
I do not see the road ahead of me.
I cannot know for certain where it will end.
Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think that I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so.
But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you.
And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing.
I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire.
And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road though I may know nothing about it.
Therefore will I trust you always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death.
I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.

-From Thoughts in Solitude by Thomas Merton.

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