The Desert Fathers and Mothers have been a continuous wealth of spiritual knowledge and insight, their teachings passed down in various volumes and compendiums. One lesson has been particularly popularized. As the story goes; a monastic brother went to Abba Moses and asked for a word of advice regarding the cultivation of a robust spiritual life. Abba Moses responded famously: “Go sit in your cell and your cell will teach you everything.” The encouragement to “sit in your cell” points the spiritual seeker to the necessity of solitude in the spiritual life. One must step away from all that obstructs progress in the spiritual life. Make no mistake, this advice is not to be confused with an urge to passivity. Solitude isn’t the same as aloneness. Sitting in one’s cell, for the desert monastics, took an active form. The cell was a place of struggle, even battle. As much as solitude involved a retreat from the frenzied distractions of the city, the desert fathers and mothers saw solitude as a way to grasp the presence of Jesus more intently. Solitude was about creating the internal space needed to step toward the Lord, and embrace the Spirit’s movement in their lives.
Solitude doesn’t merely have a strong place in desert ascetical tradition. Like all legitimate disciplines of the Christian life we see this discipline modeled in the life of Jesus. The opening pages of Mark’s gospel contains a humorous scene wherein the disciples waken to find that Jesus has wondered off to a solitary place for prayer (Mark 1:35). Similarly, after the feeding of the five-thousand, Jesus dismisses both the crowds and the disciples in order to spend some time in solitude (Mark 6:46). It seems that Jesus frequently cultivated times in which he physically removed himself from the pressing demands of crowded life.
This discipline, however, is not merely one that Jesus cultivated for himself. He instructed his disciples to engage in solitude as well. In one instructive periscope, the disciples return from their missionary journey filled with zeal and excitement. They long to tell Jesus all they had experienced. This desire is thwarted by crowds of people who descend upon the scene. As Mark records it, the picture is so chaotic that the disciples do not even have time to eat. Then, from somewhere within this frenzy, Jesus turns to his disciples and instructs: “Come away with me by yourself to a quiet place” (Mark 6:31). Herein is the definition of Solitude. Solitude is a stepping away from the frenzied chaos of life, with its noise and clamour, in order to step towards the abiding and life-giving embrace of Jesus.
This dual stepping of solitude, stepping away in order to step towards, mirrors the external and internal nature of the discipline. Externally, solitude calls us to strip away that which blocks the flow of the Spirit in our lives. Christian literature often pairs solitude with the disciplines of simplicity and silence for this reason. Necessary to the cultivation of solitude is the need to physically remove one’s self from the noisy distractions of our lives. As much as we are capable, we intentionally, and possibly forcefully, separate ourselves from all that might distract our time with the Lord. We silence the radio. We turn off the TV. We step away from the computer. We physically remove ourselves from others.
Of course, we never live our lives in a vacuum. It is impossible to fully remove the noise of life from our lives, or the existence of other people for that matter. Furthermore, in this time of isolation, it may be hard to step away from people in your own home. Importantly, spiritual disciplines are meant to be lived out in the cluttered tapestry of our lives, whatever that might look like. God’s grace is sufficient for our labours. We should not make the mistake of believing that experiencing solitude, or any discipline for that matter, is contingent upon a perfect environment. We engage the spiritual discipline in whatever manner it is best cultivated.
They to the external reality of solitude is to match, as best we can, our external environment to the inner solitude we are attempting to enter. Externally we cultivate an environment of quietness or stillness so that we might realize an internal stillness. Solitude is more of an internal work than an external work. We do a disservice to this discipline if it we believe it is just about stepping away. We must step towards. In solitude we humbly lay our lives before Christ. Like two lovers who wish to steal away together, in a solitude we give the lover our souls our undivided attention. Internally, we provide space for the Spirit to do a transforming work within us. Solitude is about resting in our soul’s longing for Jesus and reaching out towards him.
So how might we experiment with solitude? Ruth Haley Barton provides a simple and easy practice in her book Invitation to Silence and Solitude. Barton reflects on Elijah’s experience at Horeb wherein God approaches Elijah, not in grand chaotic activity, but in stillness and quiet. In this moment, Elijah is approached with a penetrating question: “What are you doing here Elijah.” This question serves as an invitation for Elijah to disclose his inward self, and the chaos he carries within. Similarly, Barton suggests, we may, in solitude, answer this same question. As we sit in our time of external quietness and stillness, we may imagine the Lord asking us: “What are you doing here James?”, “What are you doing here Lisa?” As we sit with this question, never forcing a resolution, we may find that an answer begins to emerge from deep within. Like Elijah, in solitude we may then disclose to this internal reality to the Lord, who longs to hear from us.
Whereas solitude is not the same as isolation, we may, if we be so bold, turn periods of isolation into a times of solitude. It need not take much time. Like training for a marathon, we don’t launch into Olympic endeavors. We simply start with where we are; five minutes here, five minutes there. It may not be long, however, before we begin to see that these simple moments of solitude begin to remain with us throughout the day. Richard Foster observes that there is a ‘solitude of the heart that can be maintained in any circumstance” (Foster: Celebration of Discipline). Solitude can be a powerful practice because it stands against the whirlwind of activity that defines most of our lives. With the current pandemic, much of life’s activity has come to a fast and violent halt. For this reason solitude may be the very discipline wherein we may hear the Lord speak powerful to our souls.