Catholic priest speaks on solitude during Merton conference


Roman Catholic priest Ronald Rolheiser served as the keynote speaker at a general meeting of the International Thomas Merton Society at Sacred Heart.

Described as a rock star among clergymen, Roman Catholic priest Ronald Rolheiser gave a keynote address of the 13th general meeting of the International Thomas Merton Society at Sacred Heart University June 13 through 16. His presentation was given before a full house of society members, Sacred Heart faculty and friends at the university’s Chapel of the Holy Spirit on June 15.

Rolheiser’s talk was titled “Merton, Solitude and Difficulties in Being Present to the Now” and also served as Sacred Heart’s third annual Henri Nouwen Lecture on Contemporary Spirituality, one of the many events commemorating the 50th anniversary of the founding of Sacred Heart.

Merton was a writer, Trappist monk and the author of more than 50 books, mostly on spirituality, social justice and quiet pacifism. The society that bears his name was founded in 1987 at Bellarmine University in Louisville, Ky., to study his works and sponsor conferences.

Rolheiser is a member of the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate and president of the Oblate School of Theology in San Antonio, Texas. He is a community-builder, lecturer and writer. His books are popular across the globe, and his weekly column is carried by more than 90 newspapers worldwide.

Rolheiser said society has a deep longing for solitude, but that the pace of our lives has become an obstacle to reaching it.

“Electronic communication is a wonderful thing, but starts to knock out all sense of solitude,” he said. “The faster our lives get, the more we intensely long for solitude.”

After much personal struggle, Merton found solitude, Rolheiser said.

“For him, it was enough to be inside the moment,” he said. “On the other hand, we’re often waiting for something to happen rather than having what Merton called a fully pregnant moment — wanting to be nowhere else but the here and now.”

Rolheiser pointed to narcissism, pragmatism, hurry and restlessness as the roadblocks to solitude.

“We have become very practical, but our other muscles have atrophied, affecting our ability to pray,” he said. “We take our value from what we do instead of what we are. When we stop achieving, we feel useless and not good about ourselves. Deep prayer is perceived as a non-pragmatic, useless activity. Our families are breaking up from the pressure of surviving. We rush out to relax and hurry back. In this life, there is no finished symphony. We are finite spirits in an infinite world.”

Rolheiser offered a simple prescription: “Practice the Sabbath, taking time to rest and stop all the activity; centered prayer and patience.”

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