Silence + Solitude

WHAT

Silence and solitude are ancient practices to reorient ourselves to God and his Word. This can take numerous forms – centering prayer, meditation and contemplation, retreat, and daily and weekly sabbath rhythms. But before I get to practices, allow me to offer a visual. The spiritual writer Henri Nouwen suggests that we intentionally enter into the room of our hearts and make space for God, and that Jesus joins us there. It is in the quiet space of our hearts, away from the distractions of the world and the demands on our lives, in silence and solitude that God speaks through Jesus the Word deep within our hearts. We develop ears to hear by stopping, descending from our minds into our hearts in prayer, and entering the sacred space within. It is here that we hear the still, soft, whispering voice of God that Elijah hears in 1 Kings 19. Isaiah reminds us of this in chapter 30: This is what the Sovereign Lord, the Holy One of Israel, says: “In repentance and rest is your salvation, in quietness and trust is your strength, but you would have none of it. You said, ‘No, we will flee on horses.’

Many of us are afraid of silence and solitude, which is normal, so we “run with the horses” to avoid it.  It is when we are face-to-face with God without illusions and masks that we see ourselves and hear God’s voice. It is here that we face our fears, our addictions, and our false selves. But it is also here that we hear our Father tell us about our true selves, our redeemed selves, and where we receive a new name.

“The challenge is to develop a simple discipline or spiritual practice to embrace some empty time and empty space every day.” (Henri Nouwen, Spiritual Discernment)

This time of solitude does not need to be a separate discipline in itself. In fact, some of the best ways to practice silence and solitude are through other disciplines: spiritual reading, lectio divina, listening prayer, centering prayer, or combining prayer and listening with going for a walk, run, hike or bike ride. Or maybe you create a music playlist that helps you calm down and encounter God, throw on your headphones, and disappear into the prayer guided by music.

“The world says, ‘If you’re not making good use of your time, you are useless.’ Jesus says: ‘Come spend some useless time with me.’” (Henri Nouwen, Spiritual Formation)

WHY

Very early in the morning, while it was still dark, Jesus got up, left the house and went off to a solitary place, where he prayed. Simon and his companions went to look for him, and when they found him, they exclaimed: “Everyone is looking for you!” (Mark 1:35-37)

An ancient practice that Christians have used for centuries is the practice of silence and solitude. Though these two are not the same thing, for our purposes we’ll keep them together.

The world we inhabit is filled with background noise, distracting noise, and directive noise. More than any other century in time, we have filled our lives and the earth with more and more noise. In the 2020 COVID lockdowns, seismologists noted a dramatic reduction in sound around the planet. We run with earbuds, we drive with the radio on, we make dinner with the television on, we move from event to event surrounded by people and even extroverts can find themselves in a constant crowded loneliness. Noise and distraction and directive are pointed in our direction in the advertisements between scenes, on billboards as we drive, and on baseball fields as we enjoy the national pastime – which honestly very few enjoy anymore because it doesn’t keep us “entertained.” How does a person develop the “ears to hear” in an environment filled with constant noise? If Jesus is right, that our hearts are spiritually formed by the things we take into our body, then our constant consumptive lifestyles lead to being culturally formed by the spirits of this world.

“Be still and know that I am God.” (Psalm 46:10)

HOW

Step 1: Choose a specific time each day and one longer time each week to be alone, quiet, and actively listening for God’s voice.

Step 2: During these times, remove the usual distractions or remove yourself from them. Create an “alternative space and time” from your normal routines.

Step 3: If you are a “kinetic” person, choose an activity like walking, running, painting, coloring, hiking, kayaking, etc. but an activity in which you can pay attention to God while doing something with your body.

Step 4: Choose an activity or other spiritual practice to help you focus on God: listening prayer, centering prayer, journalling, spiritual reading/Lectio Divina, meditation, or contemplation are great examples.

Step 5: Seek to quiet your mind from the distractions of the world around you and allow your mind to descend into your heart to meet God in the sanctuary of your inner self.

Step 6: Repeat this process regularly. It will take some time and repetition to truly “be still” in the midst of the noise of your own heart, mind, and life.