Tag Archives: Silence

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.

Are you Quiet or Silent?

By mere definition, to engage in a retreat is to take a specific time away from the stresses and busyness of regular life, in order to attend more deeply to God’s presence and voice. To do this, many retreats employ some element of silence. We put down our schedules. We close our emails. We turn off the noise.

Or, at least, we turn the sound off.

Silence in one discipline I have often struggled with. Every year, the clergy of the diocese are required to go on a retreat, a large portion of which is spent in silence. I would often plan for these silent times, arriving at the retreat with a suitcase of ways to fill up the time: projects to complete, music to listen to, or movies to watch. My phone was ever in my pocket, always providing the relief of emails, texts, and social media. It’s still ok to answer emails if your phone is on mute, right? Through these tactics, my observance of the discipline of silence became very easy. I could sit in my room, watching Die Hard, confident that all unwanted noise was being mediated through my headphones. Who wouldn’t love a silent retreat like that?

Recently, I read a book called ‘Invitation to Silence and Solitude’, written by Ruth Haley Barton. In this book, Barton writes that through silence we “take seriously the need to quiet the noise of our lives… in order to give God our undivided attention.” These words spoke powerfully to me. My times of silence were not spent in undivided attention to the Lord. And Die Hard isn’t the most theologically dense film.

As I rdie-hardeflected on that, I noticed how I had grown accustomed to the sounds that encompassed my life: the blaring of the stereo, the flashes of the TV screen, the chirps and whistles of the apps on my phone. It was as if I depended on those noises to take up the acoustic space within me. What is more, my engagement with projects, social media, or various forms of entertainment re-created the very dynamics I was to be stepping away from. In my desire to fill the silence (or worse yet, make the silent times ‘productive,’) I was actually removing myself from the very retreat I was to be on; I observed external quietness, yet knew nothing of an internal discipline of silence. It’s hard to give God our undivided attention when we’re watching Bruce Willis jump off a building.

Being quiet simply refers to a reduction in external noise. It is more of a description of an external atmosphere rather than an internal disposition. The fact is, one is able enjoy quietness, mediated through headphones or the cessation from talking, and still be filled with the noises of modern life. Even within a quiet atmosphere, the direction of our souls may remain fixed upon the frantic activities of life around us.

The discipline of silence is different than quietness because silence describes an inner quality of the soul. In silence we open ourselves to the presence of God, laying down the noise produced by our own striving and inward compulsions. Silence involves closing ourselves to that which whirls around us, and (possibly more importantly) within us. By quieting our environment, we labour to still our inner chatter. Like Elijah before the still small voice, in silence we willingly allow the presence of God to confront us. Quietness means I can put on my headphones and continue to watch action movies. Silence means I must necessarily lay down those distractions, and turn my inner self to the one who waits to commune with me.

This is the power of silence. Beyond all else, the discipline of silence is grounded upon the availability of God’s presence. Silence creates the necessary space for us to interact with God’s presence, unhindered by the clutter of familiar distractions. “The point of solitude,” writes Barton, “is to be with God with what is true about me right now—whatever that is. Silence, then, allows me to simply give God access to the reality of myself.” As we push through the feelings of discomfort, we find ourselves entering that silence that is defined, not by the absence of noise, but by the mighty presence of God.