By Dave Hasey
Living in the world of the twenty-first century, we struggle with solitude and silence, for they seem at first glance to be times of non-productivity. Both secular culture and religious subcultures devalue times of being, as opposed to doing, as non-productive.
How often do we find ourselves questioning the frenetic pace of our lives? Do we find ourselves questioning what lies just beneath the surface of our soul, waiting to bubble out?
Do we find ourselves at times longing for more? How do we satisfy a deep longing for God in the midst of much religious activity?
If these questions resonate with us, we are likely in need of solitude and silence. We are like a jar of river water, all shaken up, that will not clear until it sits still so the crud can settle. We will find ourselves most receptive to God’s leading when we experience both the twin dynamics of desperation and desire–desperation opens us to attempt new ideas, while desire to know God more intimately becomes the motivation.
Because solitude and silence are so new to most of us, it is important to set aside a sacred space where we can be alone with God. It is best that it not be a place we commonly use, lest we become distracted. A special time should also be planned for this alone.
In addition, there should be a place in our soul devoted to God alone. Begin with a modest goal time-wise, and increase it. (In the beginning, even 10 minutes may seem like too much.) It is important to remember that regularity is more important than the amount of time.
It is important to remember that regularity is more important than the amount of time.
Unlike Elijah, who in 1 Kings 19 had reached the breaking point, we tend to resist the desire for solitude. Often this is due to fear that in meeting the God we can’t control, we will find the meeting different than what we want.
It is the desire for God that overcomes this fear. (Desire itself can be fearful, if we fear it will get out of control.) It is helpful to remember that even before we desired God, He desired us!
Too often, like Elijah, we find ourselves fighting fatigue with our resources depleted. Ruth Haley Barton in her book Invitation to Solitude and Silence distinguishes between “good tired” (associated with completion of a job well done) and “dangerous tired” (that which occurs over an extended period and can be masked by excessive activity and compulsive overworking).
One of its symptoms is the inability to relax during the few breaks we take, instead filling discretionary time with escapist behaviors (being too tired for anything else). This can easily lead to guilt.
Barton recommends treating our tiredness with compassion, telling God, “This is true about me–what are we going to do about it?”
It is helpful to remember that even before we desired God, He desired us!
Solitude can help us overcome the “dangerous tiredness” of our lives. The needed rest often begins with care for our bodies. Times of physical exercise can be periods of solitude and silence. Barton found that as she cared for her body, her mind was more alert when meeting with God.
She came to realize that we are more than just a soul and spirit, but are “embodied” human beings, with our bodies being the temple of the Holy Spirit, a place God inhabits and where He meets us. Realizing this, we can more easily monitor the times when we let this temple run down, so we are less able to experience the rigors of meeting with the living God.
Although rest for the body is hard, providing rest for the mind is even harder. Our minds tend to focus on fixing things, on being in control. One benefit of solitude is its ability to help us discover the ways in which our minds distract us from meeting with God. Thinking about someone with our minds is not the same thing as being in their presence.
Often the things we most need to know come from listening– listening to the voice of God–rather than thinking. Spiritual discernment comes as God’s gift, in His timing. It is in the stillness, in the silence, that we find we know God.
We need to let the mind center in the heart. It is the heart that encompasses everything about who we are.This is where our longing and desire for God are keenly felt.
We also need rest for our souls. Barton describes how at times the only rest we find is from practically being comatose from all the activity to be “prettied up” for God. It is far better to meet God exactly where we are at the time. The point of solitude is to be with God with what is true about our lives at that particular moment, whether from gratitude or grief.
Despite our fear of it, it is during times of emptiness that God is often able to break into our lives. Like Elijah, until he was alone in the silence of the desert, we often do not hear the voice of God until we reach the point of emptiness. Embracing the emptiness in our lives allows us to keep our hearts turned towards God.
Despite our fear of it, it is during times of emptiness that God is often able to break into our lives.
We live in the tension between the need for what we are waiting for and the impatience with the waiting. But the waiting allows us to become safe enough with God to avoid defending ourselves before Him.
It allows us to honestly answer the question put to Elijah “What are you doing here?” We may find the answer points to inner turmoil in our lives. Just as Elijah waited before God, we also must wait –actively, not passively–waiting for a glimpse of God.
Being in the presence of God helps us to become aware of our need for transformation. The silence which comes after the chaos of our lives is full of the presence of God, the God of love who heals our brokenness. As we become reoriented to the reality of God’s love and goodness, we become receptive to His guidance in our lives.
At times we can experience spiritual starvation. There is a tendency to want to remain in the place where we can be filled, being alone with God. But this is not where life is lived. Barton quotes Bonhoeffer, “Let him who cannot be alone beware of community. Let him who is not in community beware of being alone.”
The goal is to be filled so that we can give to others out of our fullness. The goal is to bring an inner quiet of solitude and silence into our everyday, real lives.
The goal is to be filled so that we can give to others out of our fullness.
Barton concludes, “Without solitude we are dangerous in the human community and in the Christian community, because we are at the mercy of our compulsions, compelled by our inner emptiness into a self-oriented, anxious search for fullness in the next round of activities, accomplishments, or relationships.”
Questions to ponder
- How much solitude and silence do I need to stay grounded in God so His love and wisdom will flow through me?
- To what extent would I characterize my life as frenetic?
- Do I find myself feeling guilty if I am not active? Does this make spending time in solitude and silence before God more difficult?
- Where would I place myself in the continuum between “good tired” and “dangerous tired”?
- Do I find spending time in solitude and silence uncomfortable? Why or why not?
The featured image was used by permission from the photographer, Elisa Schulz. You can find more of Elisa’s work on her FaceBook page, Elisa Schulz Photography. Elisa is a local photographer who enjoys sharing her love of family and God’s creation through her photos.