Tag Archives: Discipline

Away and Towards: Cultivating Solitude in a time of Isolation

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.

A time to unplug – the discipline of Retreat-taking

The other day my wife introduced me to a new word; Nomophobia.  Nomophobia is the fear of being away from one’s mobile phone.  It is that sense of internal restlessness felt when you find yourself ‘with nothing to do’ and without the comfort of online communication.  I wonder if you have experienced the almost visceral compulsion to pull your phone out of your pocket the second you sit on the couch, or at the dinner table.  Sadly, I have.  This goes far beyond the desire to connect, or record important events of life.  Nomophobia speaks to the way we mediate the matters of life, self, and identity via the small screen we carry in our pockets.

This isn’t just about our schedules, or the call to constant availability/connectivity. We may tell ourselves that we need to be continually within arm’s reach of our phone, because this helps us navigate the contours of our busy lives as expediently as possible, but this doesn’t explain the almost visceral need to pull our phone’s the moment we sit down upon the couch.   Expertly navigating the busyness of our life does not explain the need to live-stream on Facebook or Instagram our dinner plates.  These things speak to something much deeper; a force of distraction from perpetually keeps us away from our true self and our true life.  After all, expertly navigating the connections of life may make us feel more efficient with our time, schedules and relationships, but it still leaves us perpetually busy and distracted.  A filled vessel is still a filled vessel no matter how we arrange those things that fill it.

What can be done about this?  How can we recalibrate our spiritual center, and find ourselves able to withstand the apparent horror of turning our phone’s off?  Well one discipline that cuts against the grain of modern life is that discipline of Retreat-taking.  Retreat-taking demands that we put down all the complexity, connectivity, and inherent busyness that fills up our modern lives.  Everything that defines ‘regular’ life is put aside, so that we can become reminded about the ‘life that truly is life’.

If we wish to remind ourselves of our God-given identity, then we must put down all that clutters both our internal and outer spaces so that we may be open to the Spirit of God in our midst.  Taking a time of retreat, by which we remove ourselves from the regular stuff of life is a powerful way to re-connect with God’s presence around us. Yet to do this we must leave things behind.  We must leave our electronics unplugged, our schedules at home, and our cell-phones off.  Undoubtedly some, even in reading this, will experience a quickness of breath or a wave of anxiety.  Yet does not this speak to your fundamental need to engage in this discipline?  Taking a retreat necessitates that we resist the desire to fill up our time with the trappings of worldly life.  These but tie us to all that clutters our lives. In retreat our time belongs to God alone. We submit to God’s directions and initiatives.

There are many ways to be ‘on retreat.’  One can go on retreat for a month, a week, or a few days.  The length of time will differ based on the retreat you feel God leading you into.  Retreats can be guided by a director, or can be personally administered; they can be done individually, or as a member of a group. Periods of silence often play and important part in taking a retreat.  The discipline of taking a retreat, however, is not dependent on mountain chalet’s and weekends of solitude. One can take ‘mini’ retreats as you go through our daily tasks.  What would it look like end our day by sitting in silence for 5 minutes?  What if we refused to answer any email after dinner?  When our schedule contains a block of time unoccupied, what if we saw this as an opportunity to sit in a nearby park and, as Jesus encourages us, ‘observe the lilies of the field.’

The basis of taking a retreat is hearing the loving invitation of Jesus to ‘come away with me to a quiet place and get some rest.’  Retreats lead us into a time of re-creation.  By turning off the noise of the world around us we give ourselves the opportunity to re-hear God’s messages of love and grace.  It is important, then, to have no expectations about our times of retreat.  Demands regarding ‘how it should be done’, and ‘what we should get out of it’, even ‘how we should feel at the end’ are unhelpful to us; they are undue pressures that remove our soul from the sanctity of our moments away.   To fill up our retreat with preoccupations about the ‘right actions’ the ‘right response’ or the ‘right feeling’ do nothing but diminish our attentiveness to the voice of the Spirit and the presence of Jesus. In the end, after having a time ‘unplugged’, you may not actually feel like things have changed for you.  But that is a lesson itself, for in that feeling we learn that we can step away from the demands of life. The burden of being life’s master does not reside with ourselves; we can put our lives into bigger hands.
Taking a Retreat is a powerful discipline for it forces us to physically live out our internal desire for spiritual vitality.  We physically remove ourselves from the demands and complexities of our lives to enter an intensive and focused time with God.  In this we create the internal space needed to receive nothing but God’s presence and voice in our lives. A retreat calls us to spend our time doing less, even though the world continually bombards us with messages demanding that we do ‘more’.  Retreats call us to stop, even though the world tells us we must always be on the go.  Retreats call us to listen to God’s voice instead of the multiplicity of noises that can too easily fill up our lives.  The Apostle John says ‘there is no fear in love.’  May we all put aside those fears that keep us tethered to busyness of life around us, so that we can be filled with the love and grace of God anew.


Eliminating Hurry

Every Sunday I race the clock. It’s true. We announce the processional hymn, and then move seamlessly until the end. We never pause for any significant length of time. One prayer backs onto another; as soon as the reading is done, we announce the hymn. If the intercessions go on a little too long, or the sermon pushes slides closer to 20 minutes rather than 15, then I know the service will not have a lot of spare time. I sometimes try to convince myself that it must be this way. I must keep a close eye on the time, notice how long the announcements are, and how many 5 verse hymns we have lined up in the service. I must keep my eye on my watch so that I can preside appropriately, making up time where we have lost it.

Of course, I am not the only one focusing on the time, am I? I am sure that other clergy struggle with the same dynamic, and I am willing to bet that those in the pews are also keeping an eye on their watches. But with such a battle with time going on in the midst of our worship services, is it then any wonder why many people struggle with ‘not getting something out of the church?’ I have heard this a lot—maybe you have too. People come and say they are struggling with their spiritual lives, or their place in the church. The service simply doesn’t provide the connection with God that it once had. Sometimes people stick through it, believing in the importance of community; sometimes they leave, looking for a new and fresh community; sometimes they simply stop going to church altogether.

benchThis trend, which is not unique to my community or diocese, places a whole lot of pressure on the leader. How do we reverse this trend? How do we ‘craft’ a worship service that will ‘attract’ people and ‘connect’ them to the presence of God? Like many others, I have gone through the rounds of proposed solutions. Let’s do Alpha, or some other type of education program! A deeper knowledge will help people move through inner struggles. A new praise and worship service! After all, people’s restlessness with not feeling something in church must be rooted in ineffective music right? Then again, maybe the liturgy is the problem… oooh, I know… Messy Church will solve everything!!

I don’t mean to suggest that such programs or ideas are bad in any way. These can be, and in many places are, quite effective ministries in local communities. It matters little what I list here—whether it be mission trips, Fresh Expressions, small groups, or thematic Eucharist services—all these proposed solutions are based on a similar notion, a notion that, personally, I think fails to address the deep heart of restlessness occurring in our world.

The reality is that we, as a people today, are too busy. We have jammed our schedules so much that we long for ‘more hours in the day.’ Just think about that. We have so succumbed to busyness that we seek not to reduce our frenetic activities, but rather wish there were more spaces in life in which we could squeeze in all of life’s demands.

And herein we have the struggle with the sometimes over-focus on new and exciting programs within the church. Each and every one of these responses to people’s spiritual restlessness is rooted in activity. New services, as wonderful as they may be, are often as jam-packed filled with things to do, and they still fight against the same time-restrictions as our regular services. A messy church service can be just as ‘busy’ as our regular services. Educational programs, small groups, mission trips—again all well-intentioned—simply take a lot of energy and effort to get off the ground. Added to this, with volunteers often expressing feelings of burn-out, a people’s schedules so tight that there is never a ‘good night’ to run a program, the idea of something else on the agenda simply seems daunting.

When we live in a world with so much noise and busyness, is the way forward really more activity? Is that what God wants of us? How can one connect with God when one is never given the adequate time to do so, or when their lives are filled with such internal noise? The only way we combat restlessness is by engaging in rest; Adding more activity onto a restless soul will simply keep it from experiencing the quietness in needs for its own restoration.

Perhaps this is why we seem to see a bubbling for of a desire for slowness in the world around us. Just think about the popularity of adult colouring books. At first, it may seem a little odd—men and women alike, in their 3-piece power suits taking a moment to colour swirly flours and garden scenes. Yet what is really going on is a slowing down of the individual – there is a cultivation of an inner disposition of stillness, a stillness that allows the individual to connect their deepest selves. After all, one simply cannot colour hurriedly. To do so is to miss the point.

The first task in our spiritual lives is to be still and uncover the presence of the one who bids us come. Ole Hallesby advises that one should “Let quietude wield its influence upon you… Give your soul time to get released from the many outward things. Give God time to play the prelude to prayer for the benefit of your distracted soul. Let the devotional attitude, the attitude of holy passivity, open all the doors of the soul leading into the realm of eternal things.” Or, as Dallas Willard once said in an interview ‘We must ruthlessly eliminate hurry from our lives.”

What are some ways that we can slow ourselves down in our spiritual lives? Maybe it will involve colouring books, or knitting, or walks in silence. Whatever character our stillness takes, the root focus is the same. We must seek out times of retreat where we can cultivate the ability to be silent before our Lord, to rest in his presence. We must strive to cultivate a spiritual life defined by God’s activity of grace as opposed to our one set upon own activities. God still speaks today. His voice can be heard in those deep places of our lives. If we would but quiet ourselves enough, then perhaps we would uncover that we are not as disconnected as we sometimes feel.

Taking Prayer Seriously

During the 15 months of our parish’s construction project, I constantly felt out of my depth, stretched beyond my own understanding and ability. There were days where I felt I spent more time wearing a hard hat than a clerical collar. It felt like I spoke about glulam beams, requests for information, and change orders more than I did the deep things of our spiritual lives. I often tell people that nothing moves you to prayer more deeply than a church building project. Those who may have walked this road probably understand where I am coming from.

Now that our construction project is completed, people ask me questions about the project all the time. Sometimes people ask, “How were you able to manage the parish during the craziness of construction?” To this question, I often respond, “well, I prayed a lot.” Or, the more financially minded inquire, “What is your plan to repay the loans that you took for the construction costs?” Again, my response is, “well, I’m praying a lot!” Then, there are those who ask me my thoughts about church growth, about building up a strong congregation, about my ‘strategy’ to reach out to the neighbourhood and increase the ‘numbers’ in our church. My response is—you guessed it—“I’m praying a lot.”

Usually, my questioners believe me to be joking. Sometimes they chuckle. Sometimes they look at me with a gaze that says, “please be serious.” But here’s the secret: I am being serious. I know of no other way to be a person of the church than to live from a prayer-filled centre.

As a church community, we are called to be a community of prayer. Prayer is to fill our lungs, and it should inform the very manner in which we approach all areas of our life together. We are called to be a body of people who continually pray for God’s blessing on one other, and on our ministry. Prayer defines who we are.

I have to admit, sometimes I wonder if we take prayer seriously in the church. Can prayer really be a serious answer, solution, and resource in our life of faith? Or do we see prayer as some sort of passive activity, pertaining only to the liturgical life of the church, whereas the ‘real work’ of ministry occurs through the sweat of our efforts and the mastery of our skills? Do we get so caught up in our own efforts and strategies that we end up defining ‘healthy churches’ as congregations whose people try harder, do more, sing louder, and spend less?

It may be a hold over from modernity’s emphasis on progress, or it could be a product of the individualism of this age, but this understanding of the life of the church is only about what we create for ourselves. Rather than sinking deep into, and following, the movement of the Spirit, we skim on the shallow surface of our own abilities; we mistakenly assume that presence of new parishioners is linked to our slick programs or fancy invites; we understand ministry only in terms of what we are called to do; we succumb to the lie that says bigger is always better and blessedness is about having more.

I don’t want to deny that we have a role to play; of course we are all called to be involved with the life and ministry of the church body. Of course there are things we are called to do as the church in this world. Faith without actions, James reminds us, is dead. But what of the spiritual life? What is the foundation of our actions? Where does the power, the inspiration, the motivation for our activity come from?

Before we do anything in the church we should be praying for the church.

We are called to pray for God’s blessing, guidance, and power in all areas of our life—from Sunday school to parish council members, to Altar guild recruits, to our parish finances. The blessing of the church is a spiritual reality, not a strategic one. Strategy is about results. It is about maximizations, efficiencies and increased margins, and more than anything, it is about what we bring to the table. Blessedness is about God’s presence. It is about God’s ability to do that which is beyond what we ask or imagine. Praying for God’s blessing in the church means that we anticipate, experience, and respond to the Spirit of God amidst us. It means we put down any sense of our own control and trust that God will indeed guide us and keep us.

Let us not forget to pray for our church. Let us pray that people experiences the love and grace of Jesus at every single service. Let us pray that God guide our decisions and tasks so that they reflect the presence of the Spirit in our midst, and not just our own smarts. Let us pray that God send us those specific resources our community needs to do the work that God has called us to do. And let us pray for each other. Let us hold one another up before God, asking God’s grace to fill, relieve, empower, and sustain us.

Strategy and effort is shallow business. Sure, it may create big structures, many programs and multitudes of people. but the strength will exist only on the surface. Plumb the depths and what will you find? Prayer, on the other hand, is serious business, for it goes to the heart of who we are called to be and it calls us to long for, and respond to, the blessedness of God’s Spirit in our midst. Perhaps this is why Scripture continually affirms the fundamental identity of the church as a house of prayer. More than anything, that is who we are called to be.