Merton and the desert fathers and mothers: Our pandemic opportunity to savor less society

by Bob Schwartz

Thomas Merton Hermitage

Around the fourth century, a number of Christian contemplatives left society and went into the desert to be alone, quite alone or in small groups. They didn’t stay forever, but while they did they left behind writings about their experience, known generally as the sayings and wisdom of the desert fathers and mothers.

In the 20th century, Thomas Merton left society, of which he had been a brilliant and creative member, joined a Christian order that mostly observed silence, became world famous for, ironically, writing the first of many books about his experience, built a hermitage on the Kentucky monastery grounds to somewhat escape society again, and along the way, not surprisingly, wrote a book about the desert contemplatives.

Academics have probably developed measures of how social we are at any time. The non-expert conclusion is that up until the pandemic we had grown massively social, especially but not only with the predominance of digital media. The pandemic changed that quite a bit, though social media filled in many gaps.

Almost universally, and often not inappropriately, this retreat from society was viewed as a detriment to be remedied as soon as possible. But we shouldn’t be too quick.

Those who are by nature, need, practice or joy social miss the company, and should pursue and embrace it. But give a thought to the desert fathers and mothers, and to Merton.

Merton spent his life struggling with the tension between the unique value of removing from society and the unique value of being in it with your whole body, heart and mind. The pandemic has offered an opportunity to contemplate—to live—that tension. It is easy to ignore, rushing to fill the social void as much and as soon as possible. Still there is still something in the hermitage, in the desert or in Kentucky or in your life, to commend a little alone.


The Wisdom of the Desert by Thomas Merton

The Desert Fathers: Sayings of the Early Christian Monks by Benedicta Ward

Desert Fathers and Mothers: Early Christian Wisdom Sayings by Christine Valters Paintner  

The Wisdom of the Desert Fathers and Mothers by Henry L. Carrigan