Spiritual practices for the year: Solitude
by Marion Van Driel
Being alone is uncomfortable. Being alone in total silence can be terrifying. And yet, solitude is considered a spiritual discipline. In his bestselling book, Celebration of Discipline, Richard Foster writes, “Jesus calls us from loneliness to solitude . . . Loneliness is inner emptiness. Solitude is inner fulfillment.”
Our dependence on noise, activity, entertainment – indeed, all manner of stimulation – keeps us in a state of chaos. In his song, “Learn to Be Still”, Don Henley writes:
It’s just another day in paradise
As you stumble to your bed
You’d give anything to silence
Those voices ringing in your head
You thought you could find happiness
Just over that green hill
You thought you would be satisfied
But you never will-
Learn to be still
We are like sheep without a shepherd
We don’t know how to be alone
So we wander ‘round this desert
And wind up following the wrong gods home
But the flock cries out for another
And they keep answering that bell
And one more starry-eyed messiah
Meets a violent farewell-
Learn to be still
Learn to be still
Henley’s lyrics point towards what Foster calls “a deep inner silence” that is a state of mind and heart carried at all times, whether in a crowd or in complete isolation. Foster says, “The purpose of solitude and silence is to be able to see and hear. Control rather than no noise is the key to silence … we learn when to speak and when to refrain from speaking.” But solitude also has an outward component. Jesus himself withdrew from crowds to various places of solitude for various lengths of time, at various pivotal points in his ministry – before choosing his disciples, as a prelude to his ministry, upon hearing of John the Baptist’s death, after teaching and then feeding the multitude of 5,000.
Silencing the voices
As with all practice, small steps may be the best way to start. Foster suggests taking advantage of those little moments in our day when solitude presents itself naturally – upon waking, with a cup of coffee at our desk before interruptions begin, or even during the traffic commute. Some people have a specific chair they sit in, signifying to their family they wish to be alone. When building or renovating a home, Foster suggests including a small room set apart as a sanctuary.
Delta area Chaplain George Keulen practices solitude on his way to and from his work among the ill and elderly. The work is draining; while on public transport, he often closes his eyes and listens to reflective music, in order to shut out the world.
A special place
Another facet of Keulen’s solitude includes identifying a specific place, a threshold, as “a reminder to invite Christ into the work I’m about to do, or on the way home as a way of letting go of what I’ve done, giving it into the arms of Christ.” He walks through the garden ‘gate’ marked by two fir trees leaning together over the pathway on his way to work. Here he consciously leaves everything of his own life behind, and invites “Christ to be present in me as I am present for the residents.” On the way out, he entrusts all the cares, death and suffering to Christ.
In a world growing constantly louder and faster, Keulen views solitude as an exceptional counter-cultural discipline in which we push everything else – family, work, even our very thoughts – to the margins, even for a few hours, so that nothing remains but our attention to the voice of God. He makes the distinction between praying (when we often do much of the talking) and turning our focus on God and just listening – nothing else. This is in essence the ultimate, deep rest or Sabbath of the soul. “There are times when we need to get away so we can be freed from our own little boxes of how we make sense of reality and be open to something completely new,” Keulen shares. “It’s a very intimate time when you’re allowing God to show himself.”
Learning to be alone
Christina Wells, wife, mother of three, high school teacher, tutor, and social media monitor visits a retreat centre at least twice annually for two or three nights to practice solitude. The pieces of so many different roles add to the noise of her life. “Sometimes it can feel jarring,” she admits. “You just get used to this ‘normal’ level. You’re holding this (tension) in your body, but you’re not even aware of it.”
It takes Wells a good day, perhaps more, to calm her mind into the silence she seeks. In her daily life, she’s always thinking about the next thing she should be doing. This even translates into what she should be doing for her silence, she says. “I should be reading this; I should remember to write that down…it’s still a bunch of ‘shoulds’. I have to be aware of that so I can enter into a different kind of grace.” She spends time noticing creation around her, sitting quietly listening for God, sometimes reading short bits and writing what comes from within—questions, desires and hopes. But sometimes she sets aside pen and paper; a refreshing change from the documentation we feel compelled towards in our media-saturated world. “Part of it is just being in the moment,” she muses.
The challenge of being alone
Solitude in complete isolation is a bit off-putting, according to Wells. At a retreat centre, there are others and there is still some activity. It takes fortitude to be completely alone – we are forced to face ourselves. Both Wells and Keulen agree that this is counter-intuitive to human nature. While solitude may mean wrestling with ourselves, and God, Foster also suggests using retreats for a lighter purpose – to name our goals, desires, and dreams. He explains, “Goals are discovered, not made. God delights in showing us exciting new alternatives for the future.”
The fruit of solitude
“The fruit of solitude is increased sensitivity and compassion for others. There comes a new freedom to be with people. There is a new attentiveness to their needs, new responsiveness to their hurts,” writes Foster.
Wells is firmly convinced that times of solitude and silence are beneficial for her marriage, family and individual life. “(Solitude) is a way of turning your attention to something different. Sometimes we need structured help to do that – either in the guided retreat or simply the space to go to.”