Jan Johnson rightly says that Silence and Solitude are disciplines of absence. 1 Silence is the practice of quieting every inner and outer voice to be attentive to God. (Scazzero). In Silence we are still before the Lord in wordless prayer. 2
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Solitude is to be unreachable, at least to anyone other than God, and present to oneself. It is the practice of being absent from other people and things to be attentive to God. (Scazzero) “Solitude is the furnace of transformation. 3 A solitary place is a place without distraction. It’s to be present to one’s own soul, in undistracted ways, and to be present with one’s creator.
These two disciplines are the most challenging and least practiced by Christians today says Peter Scazzero.
Henri Nouwen also says “solitude is the place of the great struggle and the great encounter – the struggle against the false self, and the compulsions of the false self, and the encounter with the loving God who offers himself as the substance of the new self…In solitude I get rid of my scaffolding: no friends to talk with, no telephone calls to make….The task is to persevere in my solitude, to stay in my cell until all my seductive visitors get tired of pounding on my door and leave me alone.”
Another description of solitude is as follows: “Solitude is not a practice just for ourselves but a practice to cultivate within each of us a greater capacity for living in communion with the world. In solitude, we can listen more intimately for the whispers of the divine alive in each moment. We also have the space needed to wrestle with our own internal voices and become clearer about which ones we want to respond to. 4
Silence provides for us an opportunity to be still and to wait for the divine and to listen for holy invitations. Silence and Solitude assume that God WANTS to be present with us and to commune with us. When was the last time you were still, undistracted, and alone long enough to hear the holy invitation of God? The sound of your breath or to even notice you’re breathing? Silence, friends, is a sacred space.
So, how might one start with these practices? As with all things I suggest, slowly. We should not think that we will become expert practitioners overnight, that’s just foolish!
So here are a few suggestions:
- Figure out what details need to be taken care of for you to be alone for the time frame you’ve selected. Then take care of those things so they won’t be bugging you and on your mind.
- Select a place where you can sit, alone and undistracted. Go to that place and discipline yourself you to be there for a set time. Maybe it’s 2 or 5 or 20 or 30 minutes today, whatever you can do. Build up your capacity from there. If you’re a person who already spends a lot of time alone, but not for the purposes of Silence & Solitude, then go somewhere else so you can be intentional with your practice.
- Once you find your place, then consider your how of presence. Why not try sitting up straight, feet on the ground, hands with palms turned up, gently resting on your thighs. Or maybe you want to lay prostrate on the ground (this is my preferred position when in the Stillness Chapel at Queen’s House) or lay on your back, with your eyes closed and arms out at your sides. Or maybe you want to start by reading a small passage of Scripture to center yourself.
- If you’re new to these disciplines, chances are your mind is going to wander. Be kind to yourself. Notice your thought(s) and let it/them pass, bring yourself gently back to attentiveness to God. Your worries can wait until later. Your tasks can wait until later. You’ve carved this particular time out.
- As you are waiting in God, you may want to ask the Lord: What do I need to know? Hear from you? Then be quiet and still.
- Perhaps you are wanting to start by merely weaning yourself from distractions. If so, then start small. Turn off the TV or the radio. Find a peaceful place and stop. Stop. Breathe. Be aware.
- It’s okay to journal your thoughts and experiences of your Silence & Solitude journey. It is neat to be able to look back and see how we encountered God and were present to ourselves.
Important note for us all: we must be patient with these practices. “Stability and patience call us to stay with our experience, to be fully present to whatever is happening within us. Moving about from place to place can be a form of distraction, redirecting our energies outside of us. If the cell represents the place where we encounter God, patience speaks to the time within which our encounter will happen. God’s time is different than ours and the work of the cell is slow.” 5
A cell is to be understood as the place you “simply stay with yourself; you sit with your emotions; and you shut the door to any intrusion. This happens both literally and spiritually. 6 The desert fathers and mothers lived alone in a simple dwelling, quite unlike us, but the point of the cell was to be alone and undistracted.
If Silence and Solitude are part of your regular rhythm, what might you add to the above?
If you’re new to these practices, drop me a line and tell me how you’re doing with them. And if you have questions, please leave them below, I’ll do my best to answer them.
p.s. If you’ve not yet read my post on the practice of Retreat, you can do so here.
- Jan Johnson, Spiritual Disciplines Companion: Bible Studies and Practices to Transform Your Soul (Downers Grove: IVP Book, 2009), 13.
- Scazzero, Peter. The Emotionally Healthy Leader (p. 139). Zondervan. Kindle Edition.
- Henri Nouwen
Paintner, Christine Valters. The Soul’s Slow Ripening: 12 Celtic Practices for Seeking the Sacred. Ave Maria Press. Kindle Edition.
- Christine Valters Paintner, PhD, Desert Fathers and Mothers: Early Christian Wisdom Sayings (Woodstock: Skylight Paths Publishing, 2016), 14.
- Christine Valters Paintner, PhD, Desert Fathers and Mothers: Early Christian Wisdom Sayings (Woodstock: Skylight Paths Publishing, 2016), 6.