Sometimes you hear people say “What’s the use of being a solitary contemplative?” How can any of humanity’s problems be resolved by those who withdraw from the world, to live the life of a hermit or a monk? The vital role of the sadhu or holy man is long established in Indian tradition; and renewed interest in monasticism in our society in recent years has focused our attention on The Monastery TV programmes exploring the work of Abbot Christopher Jamison at Worth Abbey in Sussex. His book Finding Sanctuary is one of the finest spiritual books I’ve ever read.
Gifts from the hermitage or monastery or cave may not necessarily come through words. Years ago, I met a sadhu, a Hindu holy man, in the Himalayas. He lived in a cave above Badrinath (the last Indian town of importance before the Tibetan border, and place of Hindu pilgrimage). He was happy to pose for a photo. Thereby he gave me something of great value: the serene, tranquil look in his eyes was one of the most powerful memories I brought back from India; an image which would endure for years.
Imagine receiving wisdom and prophetic insight from a solitary contemplative, whether this be sadhu or monk or sage. Thomas Merton, Trappist Monk (1915-1968) was one of the twentieth century’s greatest spiritual writers, and a prolific correspondent for thousands who wrote to him. Now, reading his Precious Thoughts I feel as if I’m viewing daily posts from his blog. As I read each one I can see clearly the question his correspondent asked him, the problem that person was troubled by.
For example someone had evidently written to him concerned about the suffering that animals experience, and whether God cares, or has anything to do with it (a subject of interest to all animal rights activists). Merton replies: Who is to say that He does not in some way Himself suffer in the animals what they suffer? God cannot simply look on ‘objectively’ while His creatures suffer. To imagine Him doing so is to imagine something quite other than God.
Then there was his reply to a writer who had shared her impatient anxiety (something I know well) about the way things were working out in her life; and Merton wrote: Do not attach too much importance to any individual happening or reaction … you cannot scheme, you cannot figure, you cannot worm your way out of it. Only God can unlock the whole business from the inside, and when He does, then everything will be simple and plain.
Treasure the wise contemplatives of this world. They are indeed precious to humanity.