In solitude and silence

Many people fear being alone or in silence, but these two spiritual disciplines bring freedom, as well as a close communion with God, says Amy Boucher Pye

The incongruity of reading a murder mystery during a time set apart for communion with God was finally too much even for me. I packed up K Is for Killer in my duffel bag and vowed not to open the zip.

I was at my favourite place of retreat, where I had met God previously. There I had decided against entering a marriage commitment; there I had received a fresh filling of God’s Spirit; there had I entered his presence in quiet and gentle ways. This time, however, I felt far from the Lord. I knew in my head that he was there, even if I didn’t feel his presence, but my heart wasn’t so sure.

I had been silent for hours, but was not truly quiet – the voices screaming inside drowned out any still, small voice of God. I was filled with pain and doubt. “Are you really speaking to me, God?” I cried out. “Is that really you I’m hearing, or is it just my heart? Or something else? I don’t want to anchor my life on what’s not real. Are you there? Can I hear you?”

Anguish had filled me for weeks. I had announced that I was leaving the Christian organisation I was working for to join another Christian group in a different city, but my plans had fallen through. Bottomed out, more like it. The opportunities I was pursuing evaporated as the doors slammed in my face. The embarrassment of announcing my intentions and then not leaving was painful, but more devastating was my belief that God had directed the move.

I yearned for God, yet couldn’t bear to approach him. After a few weeks, however, I knew I needed a place of quiet in which to face the pain and to seek God’s solace. Having made arrangements with the retreat centre, I began my time alone with a mixture of fear and anticipation. Yet here I was reading the latest Sue Grafton novel.

I came to my senses and lugged my Bible, journal, and a blanket down to the nearby pond for a change of scene. After gazing at the serene waters and the wildlife around it, I was finally able to pour out my pain, disappointment, and confusion to the Lord. In the silence and solitude he met me; God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit surrounded and silenced me with his love and peace. Once again, my heart knew and believed.

It would take many years of growing in maturity before I would be more confident in discerning the still, small voice of God. But that day at the convent was a turning point in my relationship, for once again I was able to trust and receive assurance from him. It was only when I silenced the competing voices and offered up to the Lord my unrealised hopes and dreams that I was able to enter into a deep quiet and hear his voice.

Why is the spiritual discipline of solitude and its close partner silence so difficult for us modern people? The answer is seemingly obvious – we have manifold possibilities with which to fill our lives, much of it via technology, such as television, mobile phones, and the internet – blogs, e-mail, chat rooms, and the like.

Technology surely contributes to the cacophony surrounding us, but a deeper answer resides in the condition of the human heart. Augustine of Hippo in his famous line from his Confessions puts it succinctly: “For you have formed us for yourself, and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in you.” The God-shaped vacuum inside of us cries out to be filled. If we don’t turn to God, we will look to something else, such as pulp fiction, food, wine, sex, shopping, or even the building of God’s kingdom.

Turning down the volume of the outside noise and taking away the comfort-crutches leaves us on our own, naked before God. And for many, like me on that day in the convent, that is chilling.

Indeed, silence is frightening. Dallas Willard says in his fine book The Spirit of the Disciplines, “because it strips us as nothing else does, throwing us upon the stark realities of our life. It reminds us of death, which will cut us off from this world and leave only us and God.”

He continues: “In solitude, we confront our own soul with its obscure forces and conflicts that escape our attention when we are interacting with others . . .  We can only survive solitude if we cling to Christ there.”

And that is what I found; when I finished falling, I landed on Christ. Never are there more welcoming arms; never is there a more solid foundation.

Many of us run from solitude and silence, but these disciplines are vital to a flourishing and robust spiritual life. Setting aside time in the day, week, month, and year to be alone with God will feed our souls as nothing else will.

I hear you respond, “My schedule is already too full – I can’t possibly fit in another thing.” As a parent of young children, I can relate. At such stages of life – or, for example, if you’re caring for a sick loved one – an offsite retreat may be out of the question.

Richard Foster in his classic Celebration of Discipline speaks to this dilemma: “Solitude is more a state of mind and heart than it is a place . . .  If we possess inward solitude, we do not fear being alone, for we know that we are not alone. Neither do we fear being with others, for they do not control us. In the midst of noise and confusion we are settled into a deep inner silence. Whether alone or among people, we always carry with us a portable sanctuary of the heart.”

He recommends that we make the most of what he calls the “little solitudes” of the day, such as the early morning before the family awakes, during our morning cuppa, while in traffic or commuting, when we glimpse a tree or a flower. As he says, “These tiny snatches of time are often lost to us. What a pity! They can and should be redeemed.”

But maybe you are able to get away for a 24-hour (or longer) retreat for silence and solitude. I’ve always found the best settings to be those nestled in a lovely spot of nature, for there are fewer distractions and the surroundings themselves lead to worship of the Creator. The trees of the wood sing out in joy before the Lord; the sea roars and the fields rejoice. God’s handiwork is awe-inspiring and produces a grateful heart.

One of my strong petitions while on retreat (and not limited to then) is to enter into a deep silence, so that I can hear the voice of the Lord and receive from him. I’m easily distracted and, like Martha while Jesus was visiting, “worried and upset about many things” (Luke 10.41). For me to release those niggles often takes a conscious effort in prayer, usually through writing out my meditations on a verse of Scripture or spending time praising the Lord in song.

For example, in seeking quietness I might pray through a verse from Isaiah (30:15): “In repentance and rest is your salvation, in quietness and trust is your strength . . .” But sometimes what I need most is simply a nap – and that’s the most ‘spiritual’ thing I can be doing.

Whether we’re able to get away for a couple of hours, a couple of days, or not at all, the practice of solitude and silence can bring us not only into communion with God, but also into a newfound freedom. Through it we can be released from the need to fill our time with words, distractions, self-soothing behaviour, or the pressing desire for the approval of others. For when Jesus says, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest,” we can believe and know that he is speaking to us.

As we meet with the God of the universe, the one who bids us call him Abba, we are changed into his likeness. His presence is beyond compare – far and above any murder mystery.