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  • Writer's pictureMaggie Winfrey

Reflection: Two Thomases Hermitage

"Contemplation brings the treasure of happiness in God that is available to us right here, right now, without our having to run away. "

(Note: Quotes have been changed to gender-neutral language in brackets. I use many names for God, including Beloved and Source, to name a few.)


Friends have asked me about my Two Thomases Hermitage, named after my trusty guides Merton and Keating. I’m still trying to figure that out. I hope this gives you a quick selfie. As the pandemic plunged us into isolation and we looked out at the quietened world, I began to take an extended retreat, grateful it was possible for me, retired and single. As it lengthened, the tremendous gifts emerging clarified that this was how I wanted to live. Some would call it being a hermit. I don’t know what to call it. It’s very ordinary. Whatever it is, it has made all the difference for my spiritual journey. Will going off the grid help us grow closer to God? Thomas Merton explains that the desert Fathers and Mothers of the 4th century CE regarded their society

“as a shipwreck from which each individual… had to swim for his [or her] life… that to let oneself drift along, passively accepting the tenets and values of what they knew as society, was purely and simply a disaster.” [1]

They trusted that isolating and following stringent rules would get them closer to God. Their hard-earned wisdom guides us to reach transformation in our present age with contemplation. The best definition I know for that is silently connecting to God in our center in love. Centering Prayer is one method we use. Contemplation brings the treasure of happiness in God that is available to us right here, right now, without our having to run away. I don’t mean a glorified monastery existence, just a simple life where we link more deeply with our Beloved Source with fewer distractions. Thomas Merton describes his:

“This is not a hermitage—it is a house. What I wear is pants. What I do is live. How I pray is breathe… Up here in the woods is seen the New Testament: that is to say, the wind comes through the trees and you breathe it. Is it supposed to be clear? … That is none of my business.” [2]

Here in my little three bedroom condo, I wear clothes, live, and breathe. Nothing spectacular and very ordinary. In the stillness of a regular life comes a deep wisdom knowing that love is here. I don’t know how to describe it. I just know it deep in my bones. How does it work? No sitting in a closet in the dark here! I rarely leave. Groceries and supplies are delivered. Centering Prayer starts my day before my morning shake. I write pieces like this, work by email, phone, and Zoom to manage Contemplative Outreach Atlanta and our Centering Prayer groups, and read valued sages. Every few hours I sit on my meditation chair for a Centering Prayer session. I walk and exercise to reinvigorate my day. I phone my dear ones, bake bread, dig in the garden, sew newborn blankets, and paint flowers. After dinner, I watch mysteries.

"Thomas Merton prays in solitude, “I have no idea where I am going.” Me too. "

My focus is connecting on a deeper consciousness level within to our Beloved (one of my many names for God.) Everything flows from that and reveals sacred meaning. There is no need to seek outside stimulation, entertainment, or approval. These guidelines keep me on track: Like the airlines tell us to put on our oxygen mask first, the most important thing for me to do first is to access our life-source as vital as oxygen: practicing Centering Prayer often throughout the day. Everything changes when we reach deeper consciousness and become aware of our unity with God. Second, as I leave my centering chair, awareness of connection with God follows me into my activities. United in spirit, each task reveals sacredness in the present moment. Working for accomplishment loses its appeal to me. Attending completely to the work centers me. Third, I edit inputs and outputs. We can remove harmful influences like the desert Fathers and Mothers did without going to the desert. I cut media sources that provoke and enflame viewers to increase their audiences. Blocked are advertising messages that tell us we are incomplete without buying things, making ourselves look younger, or demanding medicines from our doctors. Instead of news doom-scrolling, I hold and pray for the world’s suffering in my heart. Attending valuable sessions on Zoom like the South African Tutu Lenten Series fills, inspires, and guides me. The mystics are my go-tos. Increased contemplative time is influencing my outputs to be more thoughtful before acting. Centering Prayer lovingly reveals my flawed attitudes long repressed since childhood, such as my reactionary biases or motivations to control. Without pressure, it becomes easier to pause and reflect before hitting the send button, and how to handle what’s essential. Thomas Keating says,

“Love alone can change people. This is the great confrontation that no one can resist. It offers others space in which to change no matter what they do…[God] simply keeps inviting us to let go of conduct that is self-destructive and to come back to [God’s] love.” [3]

Fourth, instead of being isolated, I am nearer than ever to my sons, family, and dear ones. We have grown closer in more meaningful ways. I’ve made more friends near and far than I ever would have imagined. There is no separation, as we connect so quickly by phone, email, and Zoom. Some of our new Zoom groups have never met in-person but are bonded on a very deep level. God’s presence flows among us. Instead of feeling lonely, I am feeling more linked than ever with my fellow humans around the world. Injustices like racism, poverty, and war become more obvious, and I am moved to speak against them. Fifth, I hope to stay on the path. The Anonymous community’s mantra “It works when you work it” keeps me focused on my intentions. Consistent, measured, non-tangential steps lead to my destination. We may go all over the world looking for treasure and return to find it has been in us the whole time. Every day gifts keep emerging. New possibilities open as the Holy Spirit pours in, teaching and guiding. Old lifeless ways of living aren’t interesting anymore. Grace reveals itself everywhere: watching hummingbirds hover in my garden, seeing my first-ever orchid bloom in my kitchen, and connecting heart-to-heart with friends in our Centering Prayer groups. Gratitude is my song. Thomas Merton prays in solitude, “I have no idea where I am going.” Me too. He continues,

“You will lead me by the right road though I know nothing about it...and will never leave me to face my perils alone.” [4] Not alone, together, we follow this path to life. So, while things are opening up, people are unmasking, more are gathering in person, I plan to continue this presence-ing to Beloved’s call within. Not afraid of going out, I am embracing what I have found within: the pearl of great price. My eggs are going in this basket. I’m not going back. I’m going on ahead. Many of us are pursuing a more secluded lifestyle. What are your experiences? We would love to hear from you who are hermiting too. ______________________________ [1] Thomas Merton, Wisdom of the Desert, New York: New Directions, 1960, 3 [2] Thomas Merton, Day of a Stranger, Salt Lake City: Gibbs M. Smith, 1981, 41 [3] Thomas Keating, Awakenings, New York: Crossroad, 1996, 78 [4] Thomas Merton, Thoughts in Solitude, New York: Farrar, Strauss, Giroux, 1956, 79

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