“But what’s the point?”
I had just spent a few minutes trying to explain to this long-time friend of mine the importance of solitude as a crucial and irreplaceable discipline of the spiritual life. He wasn’t buying it. He is a man of high integrity and authenticity, so he wasn’t going to give me the “smile-and-nod” treatment. He had tried solitude; it didn’t work.
“Kent, I have a lot going on in my life. My days are pretty tightly scheduled. There’s not a lot of margin. If I’m going to give a couple hours—let alone a couple days—to solitude, it has to have a huge payoff. But it just feels like wasted time to me. Nothing gets done. I don’t see the point.”
In our pragmatic and frenetic world, where most everything is evaluated by easily measurable results, solitude can seem like the inflatable vest under your seat on an airplane; you know it’s there if you need it, but you’re not going to really need it.
And yet . . .
Solitude was regularly practiced and encouraged by Jesus. Exile and time alone in the desert and the wilderness is a common theme found in scripture. Stillness, quietness, and silence are all described in scripture as ways in which we are to be with God. Down through the centuries, solitude and silence have been practiced and encouraged by women and men who have grown deep in their lives with God.
Henri Nouwen says it this way:
In solitude, I get rid of my scaffolding: no friends to talk with, no telephone calls to make, no meetings to attend, no music to entertain, no books to distract, just me—naked, vulnerable, weak, sinful, deprived, broken—nothing. It is this nothingness that I have to face in my solitude, a nothingness so dreadful that everything in me wants to run to my friends, my work, and my distractions so that I can forget my nothingness and make myself believe that I am worth something. But that is not all. As soon as I decide to stay in my solitude, confusing ideas, disturbing images, wild fantasies, and weird associations jump around in my mind like monkeys in a banana tree. Anger and greed begin to show their ugly faces. I give long, hostile speeches to my enemies and dream lustful dreams in which I am wealthy, influential, and very attractive—or poor, ugly, and in need of immediate consolation. Thus I try again to run from the dark abyss of my nothingness and restore my false self in all its vainglory. The task is to stay in my solitude, to stay in my cell until all my seductive visitors get tired of pounding on my door and leave me alone.
Solitude is an activity where we are confronted with the messiness and unformed-ness of our inner world. It is an experience of exposure and transformation. In solitude and in silence we kick out all the props in our life that we use to justify our existence. Here we are stuck with just ourselves and God, and often, as Henri Nouwen explains, a sense of our own nothingness apart from God.
Many, if not most, people find the first adventures of solitude and silence to be difficult, perhaps even tremendously unsettling. Sometimes even unraveling. We may find ourselves having trouble keeping our mind from wandering. We may experience it as a waste of time and not worth the effort. We may even find ourselves having angry or lustful fantasies. What we must understand here is that the solitude did not cause this; the solitude simply created space in our souls to expose what was already there.
When I pursue solitude, I often, at least at the beginning, experience a profound loneliness. Once again, we must realize that the solitude does not cause this; it simply exposes it. There is an aloneness that many of us live with, but which exists, often unknowingly, just below the surface of our hurried lives. In addition, many of our sinful habits—whether it is anger or lust or worry or selfishness—are often simply surface habits. We’ve learned to instinctively respond to the surface stimuli in our lives in a habitual and often spiritually harmful way. Solitude and silence expose all this, and if we are diligent in attending to it all and trusting in God’s grace, solitude and silence will create space for God to bring His healing and transformation.
Just a few moments of reflection will demonstrate to the listening and attentive person just how much of our life is spent justifying ourselves and managing people’s impressions of us. Solitude and silence force us to be alone with God and we can begin to develop the extraordinary capacity to do nothing.
It was the Christian philosopher Blaise Pascal who said, “I have discovered that all the unhappiness of men arises from one single fact, that they are unable to stay quietly in their own room.”
I have a little eight-by-sixteen-foot prayer shack on my property and I frequently will spend hours alone in that room, or on the deck outside, sometimes studying for a message, sometimes listening to music, and often just sitting in the silence and not doing anything. After a while, at those times when I am alone outside on the deck, it is almost as though the nature around me forgets I’m there. It’s often an extraordinary experience for me. The birds come out and perch themselves very close; the rabbits start hopping out of the manzanita bushes. I feel like I’m Snow White and half expect the seven dwarfs to come whistling out of the woods at any moment.
In my times of solitude and silence at this shack and other places, I have also experienced extreme and painful loneliness, while at the same time experiencing God’s friendship. I have often broken down and cried, while at other times I have laughed out loud and experienced the presence of God in ways that are beyond description.
One of the major things to come out of solitude for me, and this may sound weird to some, is that I have learned that I truly exist, that I have a soul, that there really is somebody here, that I am a specific creation of God, and He adores me. I think without solitude and silence people sometimes forget that they have a soul. They forget that there is something miraculous about them and that they are precious to God.
There are times in my solitude and silence that I have this almost tangible sense of how this world is overflowing with God’s goodness. I find this increasing capacity for seeing this goodness in people, even people who aren’t very nice, and I find myself desiring less to control things. It is easier to simply enjoy God’s goodness.
If any of this stirs up any desire in you (even if it is slightly terrifying), I have a little suggestion as to a pattern or rhythm to pursue over this next year. This works especially well if you are a pastor who has the privilege—and it is a great privilege—of having the space and time to pursue this with greater excellence. Others will have to get creative or adapt this in whatever way they can.
At least once a week, spend an hour alone with God. Two if you can. No books. No screens. Simply be alone in God’s presence without any agenda, without anything to do, without any expectations, without any need for results. If it helps, keep a notebook with you to write down some of the thoughts and emotions and worries that keep coming to mind. Write them down as a way to give them over to God. Simply stay at this. See what happens.
Once a month spend a huge chunk of one day alone with God. Find a little retreat spot that is free to the public. Go for a walk. Let the worries and fears and loneliness come and don’t run from them. Remember that the solitude did not cause this; it only exposed it.
Once a year go on a three- to five-day solitude and silence retreat. This extended period of time creates enough time and space to break through all our defenses, as well as our external and internal distractions, in order for us to be raw and real and vulnerable and broken before God. In these extended retreats we can come to learn in deeper ways how greatly we need God and desperately need to be saved. These extended retreats have been some of the most unravelling, as well as some of the most transformative experiences in my life.
These adventures into solitude and silence are not for the faint of heart, but they are absolutely crucial places of transformation for the spiritually hungry soul. If I can be of service to you along the journey, please do not hesitate to contact me. It would be fun to walk this road together.