When the Trappist monk Thomas Merton died in December of 1968, his monastery invited Griffin, an accomplished writer himself as well as a good friend of Merton's, to write the official biography. Griffin began right away and for several years, he spent one or two weeks nearly every month living in Merton's hermitage at the monastery of Gethsemani, going over Merton's journals and papers, interviewing the monks with whom he had lived, and writing. Being in Merton's hermitage let Griffin experience the solitude that had been so important to Merton and The Hermitage Journals are Griffin's record of this time and experience.
I read this this book in the first place because somewhere in my internet wandering I came across a statement that Griffin expressed his experience of solitude extraordinarily well. That and the connection with Thomas Merton drew me in. In some ways it's a simple book, full of the small details of each day - coffee and a boiled egg for breakfast, sweeping the hermitage, washing clothes, and hours of writing, work on the biography itself as well as his own journal entries. Some of the monks came up to the hermitage each day, bringing supplies, staying to celebrate mass, and join Griffin for a meal afterwards. And there were the hours alone - here is one entry:
Later - afternoon - 2:15 and nothing much gets done because I sit here in this magnificent silence and watch the sun move tree shadows across the snow, interrupting this only to go into the chapel and stay with the blessed Sacrament. Just sit there and watch the white, reflected light against the white-washed stone walls of that tiny room. I did go out for awhile and photograph at close range the snow, the deer tracks, the bits of golden weed stems that pop up in isolated little patches through the snow, smelling the pines, smelling the wood smoke from my fireplace. I spent a long, long time, until finally my feet were frozen. [p 72]
Griffin's health was not good - among other things, he was diabetic and was still suffering the effects of injuries received in WWII. As his work on the biography progressed, Griffin's health declined, until he could not continue. Sometime after 1972 he stopped work on it and the responsibility was then given to Michael Mott, who in 1993 published The Seven Mountains of Thomas Merton. A balanced and you might say objective portrait of Merton, this was a very different book from what Griffin would have produced.
Reading these journals over the past couple of weeks I've encountered someone extraordinary.