Spiritual Disciplines Series: Solitude and Silence

Numbing Our Souls
Probably the last thing anyone wants to hear right now is that solitude is a spiritual discipline. After all, we are all stuck in our homes, in many ways isolated from friends, family, and community. What could we possibly want with more solitude? But the spiritual discipline of solitude is not the same thing as loneliness, nor is it “me-time.”

I discovered this firsthand when I was concurrently teaching and attending seminary. I was very busy. My routine looked a little bit like this: prepare for class, teach class, write papers for seminary, grade papers from my class, take tests for seminary, create tests for class, grade tests for class, read theological textbooks for seminary, sleep a little bit, repeat. It became overwhelming at times, and I often found that I needed to just get some “me-time.” So I would proceed to surf the web or watch funny YouTube videos for a couple of hours. But somehow, I always went back to my work/school more tired than when I left it. Somehow, watching YouTube was not relaxing at all.

The truth is, watching YouTube was a way of numbing my soul, not of refreshing or renewing it. Just as our bodies need frequent cleansing and nourishment, so our souls need regular times of refreshing and renewal. We were not created to be on non-stop high production 24/7. God himself rested on the seventh day of Creation. All throughout Scripture there is a theme of Sabbath rest.1 God set boundaries around the Sabbath for the people of Israel, and even Jesus took the time to celebrate the Sabbath.

Dependent Beings
However, we tend to think that if we stop for a moment, things will spin out of control or fall apart. We think that our well-being is up to us. In their book, Beloved Dust, Jamin Goggin and Kyle Strobel warn that we have a strong belief in our hearts that says, “If I have power and control, then life will go the way I want it to.”2 In short, we believe that we are in charge of how our lives turn out. If we want good things to happen, we’ve got to make them happen; we have to do it all ourselves. However, being the finite beings that we are, this lie will eventually be exposed—sometimes with devastating consequences. The recent outbreak of coronavirus has brought this truth home to all of us. We have seen how utterly powerless we are to control our lives.

We are born into the world as dependent beings. Without the care of others, babies would not last long. So, too, when we become old and our bodies decline, we are dependent on others. The great lie that we have swallowed, particularly in the West, is that in-between birth and death we are on our own. We are independent. And so we scramble about, trying to control and fill up our lives with activity. And when we run out of steam, we collapse in utter exhaustion into a three- or four-hour Netflix binge. And who can blame us?

The truth is that we are utterly dependent on God. Practicing solitude and silence is one of the ways that we acknowledge that we are not our own masters and the world does not revolve around our actions. Author Henri Nouwen called solitude the “furnace of transformation.” “It is,” he says, “the place of conversion, the place where the old self dies and the new self is born, the place where the emergence of the new man and the new woman occurs.”3 In solitude and silence we learn that we are not our own, that we are in need of the Father’s loving care and protection. This is a process of transformation, as we learn to rest in our identity as God’s beloved children.

Practicing Solitude and Silence
So what do we do in solitude and how might we practice it? While this spiritual discipline is easy to describe, it is probably among the most difficult to practice. If you are a parent, solitude and silence may sound like an impossibility. Children are a tremendous gift, but being a parent is no easy task. The constant noise, buzzing activity, and neediness can be overwhelming. And the self-sacrifice that is daily required can drain you. You may not be able to practice this spiritual discipline every day, but remember that this isn’t about your performance.

If you see spiritual discipline as a performance, then solitude and silence will be just another thing on your to-do list. It will become another thing that you just can’t seem to get done. Instead of seeing it as an obligation, try viewing times of solitude and silence as an invitation to meet with your Heavenly Father.

According to Nouwen, solitude is first and foremost about meeting and being alone with our savior. “Our primary task in solitude,” he says, “is to keep the eyes of our mind and heart on him who is our divine savior.”4 Solitude and silence scare us. We want to fill up the silence, but we must recognize that God wants to fill up that silence with himself. He wants to befriend us in these times of solitude and to invite us to share in the loving relationship he already has in the Trinity.

This week, pay attention to the ways in which you find yourself winding down from a long day. Are these ways truly refreshing or are they merely numbing? If you spend two hours every night watching Netflix, maybe try taking 15-30 minutes of that time to just be quiet and open to God in solitude. Or try spending a little time in solitude before bed, taking a moment to reflect on your day. Solitude can also be practiced by taking a walk. If you can, try leaving your phone and other distracting devices at home.

You might find it easier to practice solitude once a week for a longer period instead of short times everyday. If you’re a parent, you may need to coordinate with your spouse on watching the kids. During solitude, you can reflect on a short passage of Scripture, talk to God about your day, or just quiet your mind and pay attention to what’s going on around you. Because God desires a relationship with us, we can be confident that intentional time with the Father will open up new avenues of refreshment in our souls.