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Food for Thought - Spiritual Formation



To the one whom Jesus loves,

Two of the most significant and powerful of the spiritual disciplines are silence and solitude
. Although they can be practiced separately, the magnitude of their power is only fully experienced as they are fused together as a unit.

Before exploring solitude and silence it should be noted that these disciplines are difficult for many people to embrace. This is a by-product of living in a consumer driven society, a place of domination and manipulation which values production and doing above being. However, besides these, the external realities of our own personality type can also hamper us. For those who are driven by doing (type As) these disciplines will feel like a waste of time. Those who are extroverts (people who get energy from being with people) will tend to fight against making these a part of their lives. And for those who are introverts (people who get energy from being alone) you probably already have these disciplines in your life.

A word of caution before embracing these disciplines: be mindful of where you currently are emotionally. If you are at a fragile and vulnerable place, now may not be the time for you to explore solitude and silence. These disciplines can be very demanding and challenging, so beware.

With all that said, let us turn our attention to solitude. Henri Nouwen writes: without solitude it is virtually impossible to live the Christian life.” The general understanding of solitude is not the same as it is biblically. When the word solitude is used, what often comes to mind is withdrawing to a place of isolation and beauty, a place where one goes to be alone, to be recharged, healed, a place where one can be in charge, a place to do what one wants and think what one wants to think. However, as we find examples of solitude in the Bible it involves a withdrawing to connect with God. Solitude is not a means to get something from God, but a total gift of oneself to God. Dallas Willard writes: “of all the disciplines of abstinence, solitude is generally the most fundamental in the beginning of the spiritual life and must be returned to again and again as that life develops.”

Solitude frees us from the world and ourselves. Solitude helps us to escape the networks of domination and manipulation that can easily entangle us and cause us to lose our way. Solitude helps us to discover and come to grips with who we are and what there is within us that hinders us from loving God and others as Christ teaches. Solitude helps us to listen and to see with greater clarity what needs to be released and received in our lives as we grow into Christ likeness. Solitude brings a keener awareness of God and ourselves. However, when we first enter into solitude, the voice of God will not be the only voice we hear, and it may not even be the clearest voice we hear. As we begin the process we will hear the voice of the world probably more loudly and clearly than the voice of God. If we remain consistent in this discipline the voice of our Lord will grow stronger and clearer with time and the voice of the world will lose its intensity and power over us.

As we practice solitude over time, solitude begins to be transformed. Solitude ceases to be solely a place and begins to also be an inner quality of our lives, our hearts. Solitude becomes an attitude we carry within us regardless of the circumstances or location. In order to develop and maintain this inner solitude it is necessary to make ‘going away’ (external solitude) a part of the ongoing process of our life. This physically going away is extremely important at the beginning and remains so throughout our Christian life.

As powerfully transforming as solitude can be, one of the most compelling reasons for this practice is the example of Jesus. Throughout Jesus’ ministry we find him withdrawing from the crowds, the city, even his own disciples, to be alone and connect with God.

Regarding Jesus and solitude the scriptures record in Matthew 14:23 “When Jesus heard what happened, he withdrew by boat to a solitary place,” and in Mark 1:35 “Very early in the morning while it was still dark Jesus got up, left the house and went off to a solitary place to pray.” In Mark 6:45-46, we see Jesus take control of a situation so He can be alone with God. Mark writes: “Immediately Jesus made His disciples get into the boat and go ahead of Him to Bethsaida while He dismissed the crowd. After leaving them, He went up to a mountain to pray.”

Jesus got up early, used a boat, and sent people away all so He could be alone with God. If Jesus made solitude a part of His life with God how much more do we need to make it a part of our life with God? This is especially true when seen in light of the short duration of His ministry on earth. Jesus, while under a time crunch, still embraced solitude, so our excuse of lack of time is effectively removed by Jesus’ example. Another note of interest is that the practice of solitude bookends the ministry of Jesus. At the beginning of His ministry the Holy Spirit leads Him to the wilderness, and at the end we find Jesus alone in the garden with God, each time facing the onslaught of temptations.

Solitude was a critical component in the life of Jesus, but, as seen above, it was not always a haven – often times it was a battlefield. In solitude, we frequently are brought face to face with ourselves. In solitude the stuff of ourselves that is drowned out by our busyness now can surface and show itself for what it is. This can be very disquieting, to say the least. In solitude we leave the props, badges, …behind and are alone with ourselves and alone with God. Henri Nouwen writes: ”in solitude I get rid of my scaffolding, no friends to talk to, no telephone calls to make, no meetings to attend, no music to entertain, no books to distract, just naked, vulnerable, weak, sinful, deprived – broken.”

In solitude we confront ourselves, realizing our inner feelings, our false self, conflicts, wayward emotions, and thoughts. The things to which everyday life blinds us now rush forward with surprising energy and power. Thus solitude is a terrible trial, for it serves to crack open and burst apart the shell of our superficial securities and facades. It opens up to us the unknown and unexplored abyss that we all carry deep within us. But the good news is that once it is exposed to the light, God can and will begin to bring healing, wholeness and redemption out of the stuff of our life which surfaces. Solitude, though a place of temptation, vulnerability, and weakness, is also the place of purification and great transforming power.

And it is this aspect of solitude which enables solitude to not only be about self but also about the community. For as God deals with the stuff of our lives, bringing healing and wholeness through solitude, we are equipped to re-enter the world to better be able to love our neighbor as ourselves. It is in solitude that we are able to recognize and acknowledge the chains, which imprison us away from the love of God and others, in order to be freed from those chains and embrace the life of loving God and others.

In solitude we begin to realize there exists solidarity between us and everyone else on this planet
. We realize that we are as human as everyone else is. We come to experience the seeds of conflict: injustice, hatred, jealousy, and envy buried deep within us. We come to more deeply understand the role God’s grace has played and is still playing in our own lives. In solitude we come to know ourselves as sinners continually enjoying the benefits of grace. As we recognize the depth of that grace, forgiveness, and mercy, we are challenged to be channels of these realities to others. As a result, we come to be agents of grace and forgiveness to others, living out Paul’s words in Ephesians 4:32: “Be kind and tender hearted forgiving each other as Christ has forgiven you.”

Solitude helps free us from ourselves and our neediness and empowers us to love and be compassionate to others. Thomas Merton observed: “it is in deep solitude that I find the gentleness with which I can truly love my brothers. The more solitary I am the more affection I have for them.” And Bonhoeffer reminds us that solitude and community belong together. Solitude without community leads us to loneliness and despair; but community without solitude hurls us into a “void of words and feelings.”

A word of warning and advice: as incredibly important and powerful as solitude is for developing Christlikeness, it will not happen automatically. There are too many reasons and opportunities for not being alone – even alone with God. Therefore, to make solitude a part of the rhythm of our lives with God we must begin with careful planning. The best way to start is by taking advantage of solitude which already exists in your everyday comings and goings. This could be your daily commute, exercise routine, daily walk, taking the dog out, time in the shower, washing dishes…

Remember this is a beginning and will be difficult, but the longer you practice (starting small and building) solitude the easier it will be. God-focused solitude will bring us to a place where God will mold us and transform us from the inside out. There is nothing magical about solitude that makes God suddenly appear. God is everywhere all the time. It is just most of the time we are so busy with everything else that we do not notice God. By practicing solitude we create space in our lives where God can and will be with us. As this takes place we will come to discover that solitude helps us to:

Know ourselves better
Know God better
Know God’s purpose for us better
Know how to love God, others, and ourselves better

Without some sort of solitude, there can be no maturity. For it is only as we confront ourselves in solitude, when we can be at ease in solitude with ourselves, that we have truly begun to live. This, as Merton was so insistent, is not escapist or self-indulgent. To spend time alone, time to find the ground of my being, is going to help me to become a whole person and to make relationships of wholeness with those around me. We have thinking to do and work to do which demands a certain silence and aloneness. We need time to do our job of meditation and creation. This is related to the natural cycle of the need for rest and for leisure, which are fundamental to well being. I need time to break away, to recollect and reflect, to refresh powers, simply to reunite myself with my own center.

Solitude is not withdrawal from ordinary life. It is not apart from, above, or better than ordinary life. On the contrary, solitude is the very ground of that life; a simple, unpretentious, fully human activity by which we quietly earn our daily living and share our experiences with a few intimate friends. But we must learn to know and accept the ground of our being. To most people, though it is always there, it is unthinkable and unknown. Consequently their life has no center and no foundation.

What do we do in solitude? Henri Nouwen answers this for us he writes: “The first answer is nothing. Just be present to the One who wants your attention and listen! It is precisely in this useless presence to God that we can gradually die to our illusions of power and control and give ear to the voice of love hidden in the center of our being. But doing nothing, being useless, is not as passive as it sounds. In fact it requires effort and great attentiveness. It call us to an active listening in which we make ourselves available to God’s healing presence and can be made new.” With these words of Henri Nouwen in mind I encourage you to work through a variety of exercises/suggestions which follow.


1. Schedule solitude on your calendar. Make it a set appointment with God each day/week. People will understand if you have an appointment set. When possible, schedule your day more loosely. It can be wonderfully freeing to enjoy fifteen – minute “spacers” between tasks or appointments. You can use this time to reconnect with God’s presence in the midst of a busy day, as well as gather yourself for the next meeting or task. I have found that I never miss those few minutes and that my awareness of God’s presence is much greater.

2. Embrace little solitudes:

Take a drive
Take a walk
Get up early
Rent a boat
Stay up late
Wash dishes by hand (when I do this everyone disappears)
Soak in the tub, Jacuzzi
Work in the yard

3. Go to a retreat center for a day/over night

4. Develop a place for solitude, a place in you house (convert part of a closet) or a place outside (park, mountains, lake…) where you can be alone.

5. Take a coffee break, lunch or picnic with the intention of being quiet and alone with God. Rather than lunch with your co-worker, slip off alone to the quiet solitude of a picnic in the park, even if the kids are along.

6. Stay up a little later or get up a little earlier to find a few moments of solitude. Possibly a husband and a wife could arrange to give each other “time off” to be alone with Christ in silence.

7. Slow down. Often the pace of our lives pulls us away from the Lord. Walk more slowly. Drive more slowly. Eat more slowly. Notice. Pause. Listen. God is here. Slow down. When you do, you can carry a sanctuary in your heart throughout the day.

8. Use times of physical exercise for solitude. Enjoy the sounds of creation as you run or walk. Let the song of the birds remind you that you are of more value than the sparrows. Invite the Lord to run or walk with you and be conscious of His presence.

So now it is up to you. God desires to communicate His love, grace, and peace to us, but sometimes we move too fast to receive them. In solitude we extend the empty hands of faith to receive these gifts from Him. Take some time and plan how you can make solitude a part of your life.

May the God of love, grace and mercy meet you as you withdraw in order to connect with the lover and passionate pursuer of your soul.

together on the journey,

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