Archive for the ‘Meditation’ Category

compassion

resilience

From Templegate Publishers:

‘Robert Lax, (1915-2000), was a poet, hermit, sage, and peacemaker. Thomas Merton said of Lax, “He had a natural, instinctive spirituality, an inborn direction to the living God.” Jack Kerouac called him “a Pilgrim in search of beautiful innocence.”

W3 Lax R

A native of New York, Lax graduated from Columbia University in 1938 with a degree in English Literature. After much wandering he traveled to Greece where he made Patmos, Isle of the Revelation, his spiritual and creative workshop. There he quietly resided for over three decades, writing the “ascetic” and experimental verse that would rank him “Among America’s greatest poets, a true minimalist who can weave awesome poems from remarkably few words” (New York Times Book Review).

In the Beginning Was Love is a unique introduction to Lax as contemplative. These spiritual selections, mostly gathered from his poems and journals, portray Lax as a mystic filled with a deep love for both Creator and creation’.

This new book is edited by a friend – S. T. Georgiou, Ph.D.  He is the author of some very significant publications: The Way of the Dreamcatcher: Spirit-Lessons with Robert Lax, (Templegate), Mystic Street, and The Isle of Monte Cristo. He teaches religion and spirituality in the San Francisco Bay Area.

You can order the book on Templegate Publishers website: www.templegate.com, and it should soon be available via Amazon.com.

I’m looking forward to reading it!

Since today is world poetry day, I thought I would post one of my poems – God In All Things – published in ‘The Other Side of Light’:

The Other Side of Light Front Page

The great dialectic,

Immanent, yet transcendent,

mysterious, yet knowable,

God in all things.

 

God within, God without,

God above us, God before us,

ever about us.

God in all things.

 

Accessible through prayer,

contemplation and meditation,

revealed in Scripture.

God in all things.

 

In the setting of the sun,

In the budding of a flower,

In beauty of new life.

God in all things.

 

In the faces of those we meet,

In forgiveness offered,

or in any act of love.

God in all things.

 

Look,

Listen,

Reflect.

God is in all things.

Viktor Frankl Institute

This is my opening lecture from the ‘Exploring Meaning With Thomas Merton and Viktor Frankl’ workshop held on 31st January 2015 at Bethlehem Abbey, Portglenone, Co. Antrim (and co-facilitated by Dr. Stephen Costello of the Viktor Frankl Institute of Ireland):

We gather here on this beautiful day, from many different places across Ireland, to celebrate the 100th anniversary of a man who was gifted with so many talents and interests. That man, Thomas Merton was born in France, on January 31, 1915 to Owen Merton, a talented New Zealand artist, and Ruth Jenkins, an American Quaker and artist.

Thomas Merton.  Picture used with permission of the Merton Legacy Trust.

Thomas Merton. Picture used with permission of the Merton Legacy Trust.

Merton himself reflected on his birth many years later in the classic ‘Seventh Storey Mountain’ and described it in these words:

“On the last day of January 1915, under the sign of the Water Bearer, in a year of a great war, and down in the shadow of some French mountains on the borders of Spain, I came into the world. Free by nature, in the image of God, I was nevertheless the prisoner of my own violence and my own selfishness, in the image of the world into which I was born. That world was the picture of Hell, full of men like myself, loving God and yet hating Him; born to love Him, living instead in fear and hopeless self-contradictory hungers.”

Powerful words indeed.

Today, and indeed in the run-up to today and for the remainder of 2015, there will be many lectures, retreats and get-togethers across the word celebrating, and reflecting on, the life, work and impact of Thomas Merton. The Thomas Merton Center at Bellarmine University and the International Thomas Merton Society have recently produced a press release which serves as a reminder to the wide-ranging impact Merton still has:

“Events celebrating the Merton centenary will be taking place around the world throughout 2015. A sampling of notable festivities in the United States includes events to be held at Bellarmine University, Columbia University, Pittsburgh Thomas Merton Center, and Burchfield Penney Art Center in Buffalo, NY, and Nazareth College in Rochester, NY. Celebrations and conferences are being planned in Australia, Brazil, Canada, England, Germany, and Ireland”.

Merton’s relatively short life, he died after all in a tragic accident at the age of 53, was one characterised by diversity – he has been, and still is – described variously as a monk, a mystic, a priest, a social activist, a writer, a proponent of non-violence and a poet.  In the latter half of his life in particular, he reached out and engaged in ecumenical and inter-faith dialogue. He counted among his friends Anglicans, Baptists, Presbyterians and many more besides, as well as Muslims, Jews and Buddhists – and even Atheists, whom he reached out to in a spirit of humility and a common desire for understanding.

Today,  Merton reaches out to people who want to understand the contemplative or mystical dimension of life.  Ironically, as the monasteries slowly empty, Merton retains his popularity, and in fact this popularity to continues to grow, impacting on people of all faith backgrounds and none.  Here in Ireland for example, the Merton Fellowship was borne out of a wide-ranging interest in how we apply Merton’s thinking in contemporary society, particularly as it relates to peace-building and contemplation.  And so perhaps it is of no surprise that our events have attracted a wide-range of participants from across the denominations – Moravian, Presbyterian, Anglican, Methodist, Catholic and Non-Denominational, and across the faiths – Buddhist and Baha’i as examples.

In today’s workshop, we’re going to be doing exactly what the International Thomas Merton Society/Thomas Merton Center suggests in their press release: The centenary offers an opportunity to consider how we too might set aside easy answers and wrestle with the urgent questions of our day”.

The questions of our day are many. But let me suggest to you that there is nothing more urgent, compelling and requiring attention than the issue of meaning.  Whether we collectively, and individually, wrestle with questions of ultimate and/or proximate meaning is one of the core questions of our time.  When we lack meaning, we lose focus and drive and our humanity is degraded.

Merton knew all about meaning.  In fact it could be said that the framework around which his own theology and worldview was constructed was rooted in meaning.  For him the ultimate was God and the proximate many; he derived proximate meaning from writing, activism, dialogue and contemplation, as well as those deep interpersonal relationships he cultivated throughout his life.

Merton has much in common with the second man in our workshop title today – Prof. Viktor Frankl.  An extraordinary character, Frankl was a holocaust survivor, psychiatrist, philosopher, neurologist and founder of Logotherapy & Existential Analysis.  And although they never met or conversed, Merton and Frankl understood the centrality of meaning; Indeed, Merton was aware of Frankl and recommended to his students (novices at Gethsemani Abbey) that they read him in order to get a better understanding of the subject.

There are many points of contact between Merton and Frankl, and I’ll leave it to Stephen to talk about those in more detail.  But there are two key issues it seems to me, that merit some thought in the meantime.

Both Merton and Frankl had a common understanding of striving for success, which is often seen as a positive attribute in contemporary society, and recognising and accessing meaning.  Merton said this in ‘Love and Loving’:

“If I had a message to my contemporaries it is surely this: Be anything you like, be madmen, drunks, and bastards of every shape and form, but at all costs avoid one thing: success . . . If you are too obsessed with success, you will forget to live. If you have learned only how to be a success, your life has probably been wasted.”

And likewise, these famous words from Frankl in his seminal publication ‘Man’s Search for Meaning’:

“Don’t aim at success. The more you aim at it and make it a target, the more you are going to miss it. For success, like happiness, cannot be pursued; it must ensue, and it only does so as the unintended side effect of one’s personal dedication to a cause greater than oneself or as the by-product of one’s surrender to a person other than oneself. Happiness must happen, and the same holds for success: you have to let it happen by not caring about it. I want you to listen to what your conscience commands you to do and go on to carry it out to the best of your knowledge. Then you will live to see that in the long-run—in the long-run, I say!—success will follow you precisely because you had forgotten to think about it” 

So both Merton and Frankl are clearly on the same wavelength in this respect.  But there’s something else that links the two men in their thinking that perhaps is a bit more unexpected than their understanding of success and meaning.  And it’s the issue of love.

Merton writes, again in ‘Love and Living’:

“Love is our true destiny. We do not find the meaning of life by ourselves alone – we find it with another.” 

And here’s Frankl, writing beautifully  in ‘Man Search for Meaning’:

“For the first time in my life I saw the truth as it is set into song by so many poets, proclaimed as the final wisdom by so many thinkers. The truth – that Love is the ultimate and highest goal to which man can aspire. Then I grasped the meaning of the greatest secret that human poetry and human thought and belief have to impart: The salvation of man is through love and in love.” 

We could spend the entire day unpacking these statements and exploring them in great detail.  But suffice it to say that these points of contact provide us with a vantage point from which we can see the bigger picture; it’s the bigger picture that Stephen, and to a lesser extent myself, will be looking at and guiding us through in the next few hours.  And it’s our hope that today will be a starting point for that inner dialogue and that we leave here with much to think about and to apply in our daily lives.

Thomas Merton.  Picture used with permission of the Merton Legacy Trust.

Thomas Merton. Picture used with permission of the Merton Legacy Trust.

Some timely, and beautiful words from Thomas Merton:

Into this world, this demented inn, in which there is absolutely no room for Him at all, Christ has come uninvited. But because He cannot be at home in it, because He is out of place in it, His place is with those others for whom there is no room. His place is with those who do not belong, who are rejected by power because they are regarded as weak, those who are discredited, who are denied the status of persons, who are tortured, bombed, and exterminated. With those for whom there is no room, Christ is present in the world. He is mysteriously present in those for whom there seems to be nothing but the world at its worst … With these He conceals Himself, In these He hides Himself, for whom there is no room.

May the spirit of the radical Christ, articulated so well by Merton, be with us all this Christmas and forever more.

Scott

Merton Fellowship Title

To celebrate the 100th Anniversary of Thomas Merton’s Birth, The Viktor Frankl Institute of Ireland and Thomas Merton Fellowship Invite you to a One-Day Workshop:

‘EXPLORING MEANING WITH THOMAS MERTON AND VIKTOR FRANKL’

Facilitators:
Dr Stephen J. Costello, Director, Viktor Frankl Institute of Ireland
Rev. Dr. Scott Peddie, Thomas Merton Fellowship

Thomas Merton was much influenced by Viktor Frankl’s writings on meaning and often cited the latter’s Man’s Search for Meaning. This day will explore our spiritual search for meaning within a logotherapeutic perspective, relating it practically to our personal quest for purpose and values, through lectures, meditations, and reflective and experiential exercises.

Saturday January 31st: 11am-5pm, Bethlehem Abbey, Ballymena Rd., Portglenone, Co. Antrim (Cost: €55 or £50)

Note: this workshop will have different content to the ‘Meaning with Merton Workshop’ previously held in Dublin.

Bookings/Enquiries to scottpeddie@sky.com

Viktor Frankl Institute

About Thomas Merton (1915-1968): Trappist monk, poet, social activist and author of the spiritual classic, The Seven Storey Mountain.

Viktor Frankl (1905-1997): Neurologist, psychiatrist, philosopher, founder of logotherapy and existential analysis, concentration camp survivor and author of Man’s Search for Meaning.

As the Merton Fellowship for Peace and Contemplative Living met this weekend on a day retreat in All Souls Church in Belfast, I found myself reflecting on how far we have come in the four or so years we have been in existence.  Since the first tentative steps were taken in an initial meeting held in University Road Moravian Church, Belfast, we have met in a variety of locations across Ireland.  Indeed, we have found ourselves welcoming new and existing members in locations across Ireland that include the Tobar Mhuire Retreat Centre (Co. Down), Malin Presbyterian Church (Co. Donegal), the Avila Carmelite Centre (Co. Dublin), Drumalis Retreat Centre, Bethlehem Abbey, McQuiston Memorial Presbyterian Church and the Corrymeela Community (all Co. Antrim).

Photo courtesy of Tanya Jones.

Photo courtesy of Tanya Jones.

The topics for our retreats have been as diverse as the backgrounds of those who join us, whether on a regular basis or occasionally.  We have discussed meditation, contemplative prayer, the monastic life, non-violence, faith and meaning among an eclectic mix of people from a range of denominational backgrounds – Catholic, Moravian, Presbyterian, Methodist, Anglican and Non-Denominational.  In that sense our ecumenical journey reflects something of Merton’s thinking as explored in Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander:

 If I can unite in myself, in my own spiritual life, the thought of the East and the West, of the Greek and the Latin Fathers, I will create in myself a reunion of the divided Church, and from that unity in myself can come the exterior and visible unity of the Church. For, if we want to bring together East and West, we cannot do it by imposing one upon the other. We must contain both in ourselves and transcend them both in Christ.

The Merton Fellowship has also been blessed with the presence of friends from the Buddhist and Baha’i communities, all of whom have enhanced our understanding of Merton immeasurably. Together we have explored that false divide between faith and action, sacred and secular, and so much more.

Thomas Merton.  Picture used with permission of the Merton Legacy Trust.

Thomas Merton. Picture used with permission of the Merton Legacy Trust.

Our eclecticism has also been enhanced by the life experience of those we count as Merton Fellows: teachers, lecturers, a novelist, a poet, a neuropathologist, monks (Christian and Buddhist), businessmen & women, activists, ministers, priests, therapists, nurses, physicians, nuns and a plethora of others, have brought their unique life experiences to bear on our discussions and spiritual reflections.

A blessed community indeed……

Learn how to meditate on paper. Drawing and writing are forms of meditation. Learn how to contemplate works of art. Learn how to pray in the streets or in the country. Know how to meditate not only when you have a book in your hand but when you are waiting for a bus or riding in a train.

Thomas Merton

Thomas Merton

The Merton Fellowship for Peace & Contemplative Living in Ireland will be meeting at All Souls Church, Elmwood Avenue, Belfast on Saturday 29th November from 11am-4pm.

The retreat, entitled ‘Merton on Meditation’ will consist of periods of meditation, reflection and discussion.

Our events are ecumenical and are open to all.

There is no need to have any prior knowledge of Merton.

Please contact me (scottpeddie@sky.com) to book your place. There will be a small charge (£10) to cover costs. Please bring along a packed lunch; alternatively there are a number of cafes nearby.

I don’t often post my sermons on this blog, but here is one I shared today with the congregation at All Souls’ in Belfast:

Reflecting on Identity: Frankl, Merton, Assagioli and The Role of Faith

Identity

I often think of the Bible, that collection of widely divergent genres – history, biography, allegory, metaphor and so much more – as an extended meditation on identity and relationships.  The very core of our sacred text -Genesis 1: 24-31- at least as far as I can discern, focuses on these two issues.  Not only that, it can be distilled even further – we can see the Bible, in its entirety, as the outworking of a journey through which humanity struggles to figure out how it fits in to the natural order, and then how it relates to the divine and vice versa.

The spiritual journey that we all undertake has much commonality – we continually question our own identity.  Who am I? How do I fit in to society? Who do I love? Who do I have most in common with? And then there are other, more vexed questions: How do I relate to those I have little in common with? How do I relate to those I dislike…..or those who dislike me? And then we go even deeper in our questioning: and this is the most crucial of all our reflections……how do I relate to God?……and how does God relate to me?

None of this is easy! But it does make sense to mull these questions over in our minds. And days like today, when we celebrate one very specific aspect of personhood – that of fatherhood – it can pay dividends.

No doubt some of us who gather here today have had very positive experiences of parents who were loving, nurturing and inspirational.  And there will be those who could be described as ambivalent towards those who were, for better or worse, the main role models in their lives.  And then…..well then there are those who had a negative experience…….an experience that they may have pushed to the back of their minds and don’t particularly want to revisit.

Perhaps one lesson we learn very quickly as we reflect, is that we are limited in how much influence we can have on those around us.  Trying to change those we love is a difficult enough, if not impossible task, never mind for those we come into conflict with! In that respect, I’m convinced that the Cistercian spiritual writer Thomas Merton got it right when he so perceptively said this: The beginning of love is to let those we love be perfectly themselves, and not to twist them to fit our own image. Otherwise we love only the reflection of ourselves we find in them’.

th_JIMSCOLLECTION001

I like Merton….and I like this quote in particular.  We project elements of our personality on to others more frequently than we think.  But there is something else that we must be aware of – our own image……. Who exactly are we?

I think of myself as an example.  In terms of relationships…well I’m a father, a husband, a brother, a son, a grandson, an uncle……..And in a professional context I’m a marine biologist, a mental health advocate, a blogger, a trainee therapist, a mindfulness teacher, a poet and a Christian Minister. But there’s so much more to me than that….I could quite literally spend hours going through my life and writing down the quite divergent aspects of the image I project to others, whether consciously or sub-consciously.

When you have a moment, do this exercise for yourself; you’ll be surprised as to just how complicated you are as a person and how you’ve changed over the years…..and continue to change. The image you have of yourself at fifteen will be very different to the one you have when you’re forty…or sixty…or eighty.

 

When Things Get Difficult

Sometimes, when we find ourselves in a difficult situation, we become all-consumed with one aspect of the self.  We over-identify with a role that’s been assigned to us and it makes life incredibly difficult and can impinge very negatively on our health and well-being.  How many times have we hear someone saying ‘I’m depressed’ or ‘I’m bipolar’ or something similar? Of course that person may suffer from depression or has been diagnosed with bipolar disorder, but that diagnosis is only a part of who they are. What about the fact that they function as a loving mother, a very valued member of their local community and so on?  We have a tendency to adopt a reductionist viewpoint when it comes to these issues.

Consider what the Psychiatrist and therapist Viktor Frankl had to say about identity in his book ‘Will to Meaning’, this time in relation to Joan of Arc:  “There is no doubt that from the psychiatric point of view, the saint would have had to be diagnosed as a case of schizophrenia; and as long as we confine ourselves to the psychiatric frame of reference, Joan of Arc is ‘nothing but’ a schizophrenic. What she is beyond a schizophrenic is not perceptible within the psychiatric dimension. As soon as we follow her into the noological (spiritual) dimension and observe her theological and historical importance, it turns out that Joan of Arc is more than a schizophrenic. The fact of her being a schizophrenic in the dimension of psychiatry does not in the least detract from her significance in other dimensions.

 There is another psychiatrist who died a number of years ago, who among many other things, just like Frankl, recognised the value of looking at ourselves, our identities, in a holistic manner.  Roberto Assagioli, was the name of the psychiatrist in question; he understood that for all of us, synthesis of the self proceeds with the resolution of those inner conflicts that we wrestle with, followed by the bringing together of diverse personality traits.  The aim? Wholeness and integration.

There are some of us, for a multitude of different reasons, who have more disparate senses of self than others.  And there are others who exist at the other end of the spectrum.

Now, by way of an illustration of someone who in many ways retained and developed a healthy and well-balanced self-image and identity despite the hardest of circumstances, I want to take a few moments to introduce you to someone who has had a positive influence on my own worldview.  I’ve already introduced you to him……and I’m conscious that you may already be familiar with this man through his books and therapeutic work.  I’m talking of course about Viktor Frankl.

Viktor Frankl was a Viennese Neurologist, Psychiatrist and later Philosopher who developed what came to become known as the Third Viennese School of Psychotherapy.  Frankl’s ‘Logotherapy and Existential Analysis’ sat, and continues to sit, alongside Freud’s ‘Psychoanalysis’ and Adler’s ‘Individual Psychology’.

I was first drawn to Frankl many years ago now when I read his best-selling book Man’s Search for Meaning, chronicling his epic struggle to survive the Holocaust. It was in this slim volume that I found myself transfixed by Frankl’s character, will and endurance.  He refused to let his identity be subsumed under the overarching and demeaning moniker of ‘prisoner’.  Although he may well have been nothing but another Jew, or a number, for the Nazi’s who imprisoned him, Frankl continued to work, when he could, as a physician and therapist.  But there were times when he could not live out his vocation – during these periods he was a slave labourer, braving the cold, starvation diet and cruel taskmasters; words cannot begin to describe the utterly sub-human conditions he and his fellow prisoners were subjected to.

Man's Search For Meaning

Despite the Nazi’s callousness, Frankl retained his identity.  He preserved his identity as a son, a husband, brother…..as well as a doctor and academic.  Frankl’s victory over the regime was spawned in his mind and lived out through his unshakeable character.

There is one particular segment of Man’s Search for Meaning that I think of in this respect. “If only our wives could see us now!’” said Frankl’s fellow prisoner as they set off on a pre-dawn march to the site where they would labour for hours on end in atrocious conditions. Frankl continues the story in thoughtful and evocative prose:

 ‘And as we stumbled on for miles, slipping on icy spots, supporting each other time and again, dragging one another upward and onward, nothing was said, but we both knew: each of us was thinking about his wife. Occasionally I looked at the sky, where the stars were fading and the pink light of the morning was beginning to spread behind a dark bank of clouds. But my mind clung to my wife’s image, imagining it with uncanny acuteness. I heard her answering me, saw her smile, her frank and encouraging look . . . . A thought transfixed me: for the first time in my life I saw the truth as it is set into song by so many poets, proclaimed as the final wisdom by so many thinkers. The truth – that love is the highest goal to which man can aspire . . . . I understand how a man who has nothing left in this world may still know bliss . . . . In a position of utter desolation, when man cannot express himself in positive action, when his only achievement may consist in enduring his sufferings in the right way-an honourable way-in such a position man can, through loving contemplation of the image he carries of his beloved, achieve fulfilment. For the first time in my life I was able to under-stand the meaning of the words, “The angels are lost in divine contemplation of an infinite glory.”’

 

The Role of Love

Beautifully insightful words.  Here we find Frankl contemplating his wife Tilly and moving beyond the label of prisoner and fulfilling his personhood in its entirety.  And yes, here we find Frankl living out those words of Thomas Merton that we heard a few moment ago.  But there’s more…….Frankl sees love for what it is: the gel that keeps relationships healthy and vibrant, and the cement that solidifies and enables the relationship between the believer and the divine, and vice versa.  And crucially, Viktor Frankl understood the role of love in understanding identity, and keeping those often disparate elements of our personhood together and operating healthily.  Although he didn’t always articulate it in such bold terms, in my opinion, for what it’s worth, it shone through the therapeutic relationships he developed and his philosophy of personhood.

As people of faith, we know of the centrality of love. Nowhere is that expressed more vibrantly than in 1 Corinthians 13:1-13, where it is written:

‘If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast,[a]but do not have love, I gain nothing.

Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.

Love never ends. But as for prophecies, they will come to an end; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will come to an end. For we know only in part, and we prophesy only in part; 10 but when the complete comes, the partial will come to an end. 11 When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways. 12 For now we see in a mirror, dimly,[b] but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known. 13 And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love’.

 

What Next?

It’s tempting to leave it there….but then again the words of Merton come to the fore, weaving those strands together.  Here we have in a few words, written in his book ‘New Seeds of Contemplation’, the essence of personhood and identity viewed through the lens of faith: “Our vocation is not simply to be, but to work together with God in the creation of our own life, our own identity, our own destiny….To work out our identity in God.”

That, in a nutshell, is our task.

And then once again…..just when we think we’re done, we hear the prophetic voice of Merton asking us to think and reflect even further, when he writes in ‘The Waters of Siloe’: “After all, what is your personal identity? It is what you really are, your real self. None of us is what he thinks he is, or what other people think he is, still less what his passport says he is… And it is fortunate for most of us that we are mistaken. We do not generally know what is good for us. That is because, in St. Bernard’s language, our true personality has been concealed under the ‘disguise’ of a false self, the ego, whom we tend to worship in place of God.”

Wise words indeed.  And so in a few moments of silence, let us reflect on who we are, above and beyond what Merton has identified as the false self. Let us reflect on the issue of identity, not just at the superficial level, but much deeper….at the very core of our being.  Who are we….in the light of God’s loving presence?  Who is God calling us to be…..and how can Assagioli, Merton, Frankl and others accompany us, and inform us, as we walk along that path to enlightenment?

AMEN

“A fine line separates the weary recluse from the fearful hermit. Finer still is the line between hermit and bitter misanthrope.” So wrote Dean Koontz in Velocity.

Koontz’s words carry some weight, especially if they are read in the context of a complex social phenomenon in Japan, known as Hikikomori (meaning “pulling inward, being confined”) which has a disturbingly high prevalence.  Social, economic and educational factors have combined to produce the perfect storm of reclusive, withdrawn adolescents and young (mainly) men in their twenties and beyond. Driven by a desire to ‘escape’ from an increasingly complex and unforgiving society, swathes of highly talented individuals drop off the radar screen, perhaps to emerge later at an unspecified date…….or perhaps not – nobody can predict how each story will unfold.

So the modern-day secular hermit of Japanese culture is widely accepted to be a negative influence – on both the individual and society as a whole.  Youngsters, instead of being drawn towards something positive, are instead retreating from the negative, disengaging and becoming progressively more narcissistic; this introspection is very far removed from the healthy reflection we can all benefit from.

As I watched a documentary on the Hikikomori the other day, I was struck by the sheer desperation that was all-pervasive.  The eremitical life, as lived out in this almost nihilistic context, was certainly not a force for good.  But it got me thinking nonetheless.

These modern-day hermits are very far removed from the faith-driven hermits of Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism and Taoist among others. There is scant comparison between the Hikikomori and the Carthusian, Camaldolese, or some expressions of the Cistercian way of life for example.  That great Cistercian writer and one-time hermit Thomas Merton points towards a positive and constructive expression of solitary living; drawn towards a deeper, more authentic experience of the divine, Merton was a spiritual dynamo whose corpus of work has made an indelible impact on the life of Christians, as well as those of other faiths who understand the value of the contemplative life.

What seems clear, at least to me, is that wider society certainly does need to embrace the best aspects of the eremitical life – selflessness, solitude, reflection and contemplative prayer.  And it needn’t be that this approach to life is an all-or-nothing one; we can incorporate the contemplative in to our daily lives, no matter how hectic they may be.  So yes, we need to take one the mindset of the hermit, but not the Hikikomori.  A difficult task, but spiritually very rewarding nonetheless.

And I’ll leave you with some words from Merton himself, written in New Seeds of Contemplation: “Our vocation is not simply to be, but to work together with God in the creation of our own life, our own identity, our own destiny….To work out our identity in God.”