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Dream Come True or Crazy Hard Challenge?

And he said to them, “Come away by yourselves to a desolate place and rest a while.” For many were coming and going, and they had no leisure even to eat." ~ Mark 6:31

This week’s topic is silence and solitude. Most of my fellow introverts have just breathed a sigh of relief because this week will likely be a relatively easy challenge and even a welcome excuse to step away from people and be by themselves for a bit. Most of my wonderful extroverts are likely cringing at the very thought of not only having to be completely alone for some length of time but having that time also be a time of silence. However, even for the most outgoing and extroverted among us, it is good to step away and focus on being completely and only in the presence of God.

Let’s start by admitting a basic reality: it is hard to find time to truly be alone in today’s world. I can’t help but remember visiting my sister shortly after the birth of her youngest child a couple of years ago. The baby and the toddler were napping and I was entertaining her 5 year old with a project of some sort when she quietly tells me that she is going to run to the store for a few things. An hour later I get a phone call from her wondering if everything is going OK. I assured her we are all good, there was no need to rush home. She took me at my word and took her time. When she did get home, she told me she had spent some time just sitting in her van enjoying the realization that, for the first time in 4 years, there was no one “in me, on me, or with me.” For the first time in 4 years, she truly had a moment to recharge her introvert energy.

Even without kids in the picture, it is still incredibly hard to find time to really be alone. Cell phones make it so everyone expects to be able to get ahold of you at a moment’s notice by phone call, text messaging, email, or video chat. Tablets and laptop computers enable us to take our work with us wherever we go. Cars have radios and Bluetooth links to make sure our music and podcasts are always accessible. And while COVID-19 has slowed down our lives to some extent, there are still things happening and most of us miss being a part of at least one regular gathering of friends or neighbors.

So why is it hard to find time for solitude and silence in our lives? Primarily, because it makes most of us uncomfortable. Silence is awkward. Especially together they force us to confront just how much we prefer other things and other people to making a concentrated effort to be in the presence of God, listening for his still small voice. Creating time and space to be alone and quiet before God is an act of faith because it is believing the God will make himself known in some way in your life. It’s easier to pursue the group worship experience where we can borrow the faith of others in believing that God is present in those moments. That isn’t a bad thing. In fact, that is why gathering together for worship is a key part of our Christian faith. But solitude forces us to acknowledge where we are at with our own faith in believing God is present in our lives.

Ultimately, the spiritual practice of solitude isn’t about being alone and letting our introvert energy re-charge itself. Instead, it is a conscious decision to pull back from everything, including people, for the sole purpose of giving our full and undivided attention to God. Solitude doesn’t have to silent but it often is as the spiritual discipline of silence requires us to intentionally place ourselves in a quiet place to focus on God and His presence. Solitude and silence go well together and so are very often practiced together.

So how do you make solitude and silence a spiritual practice instead of a mental health practice (or a punishment of sorts for the extroverts out there)? First, know that it requires a plan. Neither will happen by accident in our lives. If you have young kids, you’ll need to arrange for someone else to watch them and, very likely, for you to be out of the house! It will require creating a space in your schedule where you have no other obligations. Next, know that they require time. You likely will have a hard time getting your brain to quiet down. The lists of things to do, things to pick up at Target, phone calls to return, emails to send will do their best to be focus of your time. You have allow yourself time some time to let such thoughts go and get focused on God. Third, put away, shut off, and take care of the obvious distractions. Get the electronics out of the room and turn off sound notifications so you can’t still hear them. Wear clothes that are comfortable and appropriate for where you are (indoors/outdoors/warm/cool) and be sure you are hydrated. Stay away from places with projects to be done out in plain sight. In short, remove the temptations to focus on something other than God.

And finally, it might require a shift in your attitude and perspective in regards to solitude and silence. Instead of trying to endure quiet time alone, try viewing it as an opportunity to grow deeper in your relationship with God. Adele Ahlberg Calhoun defines time spent in spiritual silence as “a regenerative practice of attending and listening to God in quiet, without interruption and noise.” She further observes, “Silence provides freedom from speaking as well as from listening to words or music.” Wait, silence as a form of freedom?! Think about that for a moment. You are free from needing to offer an opinion or answer. You are free from having to pay attention or listen. That’s actually a really big deal to be free from speaking AND listening to the sounds of this world.

I want to close with an observation I have had in my own life. When I was most recently in graduate school, the main campus library had 4 floors of books and places to study. In every available open wall space were signs which had just one word in letters measuring 24 inches tall: SILENCE. As a student of theology, I spent a lot of time there reading books. So I spent a lot of time with only the sound of rustling pages being turned in books and fellow students typing on laptops to fill my ears. At the end of my year of study, I found that I listened much more closely to people when they talked and was much more easily overwhelmed by loud noises and crowds. The same effect happens in our spiritual life. When we take time to be alone and silent with God, it becomes easier to hear his voice and we become much more easily overwhelmed by noise meant to distract. And just like I began to avoid those noisy overwhelming crowds, I also became more likely to avoid the noisy, overwhelming distractions in my life.

Follow Up:

- Check out the Lenten Experience video for this week!

- What is your biggest distraction or challenge when it comes to spending time in silence and solitude? Maybe you can’t be rid of all distractions but consider how you can lessen the major distractions as a starting point.

- Does the challenge to spend time in silence and solitude sound like a good idea, or does it sound like a punishment? What do you need to do to get your heart and mind in the right place to really focus on God before spending some time in silence and solitude?

- Consider setting up a time to take a silent retreat. Check into ministries such at Pacem in Terris which specialize in offering silent retreats. Camp is a great place to escape to during the winter months for a day or two of silence and solitude. In the summer, finding a somewhat remote camp site might be an option.

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