- Merton's Hermitage:Bachelard, Domestic Space, and Spiritual Transformation
"Whatever a house is to the heart and body of man—refuge, comfort, luxury—surely it is as much or more to the spirit. Think how often our dreams take place inside the houses of our imagination."—Mary Oliver1
The stereotype of the hermit is more or less fixed in the popular mind. Hermits are crazy old fools, secluded in their lonely huts, communing with nature, and caring little what other people think of them. Ryokan, the eighteenth-century Zen Master, was a classic example. He spent thirty years of his life in a hermitage delightfully surrounded by "a thousand peaks, ten thousand mountain paths, yet no sign of human beings."2 He called himself "the Great Fool" and on those rare occasions when he was seen at all, people usually found him playing games in the dirt with children. At the age of 68 he fell in love with a young Buddhist nun who was less than half his age.3
The parallels to Thomas Merton are curious, but incomplete. He, too, delighted in the quiet setting of his hermitage. "I belong in these woods," he said, living in intimate familiarity with the fifteen pairs of birds he observed nesting nearby.4 He also took joy in the alleged eccentricities of the solitary life. In a letter to Bob Lax, he laughed, "Well now I got to take Rex for a run round the clock, and fire off the steam engines, and lay open the thermostats to dry out in the weather, and fly a kite and put out the cat and bathe the canary and punish the children and sell the estate and wheel Uncle Ray back into his closet."5 And yes, he fell in love with a young nurse half his age.
But it was not the case that Thomas Merton couldn't care less what other people thought of him. He struggled much of his life with a need for the approval of others. In fact, it was not until he yielded fully to the discipline of the hermitage that he was able finally to realize the deconstruction (and reconstruction) of self that were necessary for his personal wholeness.
French philosopher Gaston Bachelard spoke of the hermit's hut as symbolizing "the tap-root of the function of inhabiting." The image of the lamp-lit hermitage in the distance, with its solitary figure keeping vigil, reduces our [End Page 123] confused notions of dwelling to a basic simplicity. The power of the archetype of the hermitage, he says, derives "from the intensity of its essence, which is the essence of the verb 'to inhabit.'" This is not a romanticized image of a picturesque hut deep in the forest. Rather, it strips the human experience of domestic living to a centralized solitude where joy is discovered in relinquishing everything except what is most important. Finding that "felicity of intense poverty," according to Bachelard, comes from occupying one's house most simply and imaginatively.6
As Abba Moses reminded the other desert fathers in the fourth century, "Go, sit in your cell, and your cell will teach you everything."7 Heidegger argued that language is the house of being and it is just as true that our house speaks a language evoking and constituting our existence. Figuratively entering the hermit's abode, then, means giving up all that is unnecessary, abandoning external constructions of meaning, and reducing life to its bare essentials. As Bachelard put it, "The hermit is alone before God. His hut, therefore, is just the opposite of the monastery."8 In the hermitage he embraces the loss of companionship, setting aside the protective masks he might have worn in the past and coming face to face with God.
The insights of Gaston Bachelard are particularly helpful in analyzing the role that the hermitage played as a symbolic space in Thomas Merton's experience. My focus in this essay will be on the important events of Merton's interior and exterior life through the tumultuous year of 1965-1966, his first year of living full time in the hermitage north of...