Spiritual Disciplines: Silence and Solitude
Listen to advice and accept instruction, that you may gain wisdom in the future. Many are the plans in the mind of a man, but it is the purpose of the Lord that will stand ~Proverbs 19:20-21
There are a couple things many people, especially those who meet me in a professional context, are amazed to learn about me. First of all, they are surprised to learn that, as a child and even into my early teens, I was an extremely quiet, shy kid. My mom tells me that I failed kindergarten screening the first time around simply because I flat out refused to answer any of the questions the strange lady was asking me. I changed schools just before my 7th grade year and, because I didn’t know any of the kids in my class, I would go entire days without saying a single word.
The second thing many people are surprised to learn is that, at my core, I’m rather an extreme introvert. I do enjoy teaching and preaching. I am fine with public speaking. I can make small talk and carry on a conversation with a stranger. In short, I have decent social skills. However, all that small talk is something I find exhausting. I need time by myself if I’m to have the energy to tackle much of life.
These two things together mean that I generally welcome silence and solitude into my life. Several years ago I heard, for the first time, about a retreat center which focused specially on offering silent retreats. A friend had recently spent a weekend there and was telling a group of us about her experience. She was surprised at how easy it was to go without her phone but with how hard it was to be without music or television. Not making small talk with other participants when they crossed paths felt odd and even rude and yet also rather freeing.
Because we live in a rather noisy world filled with people, my friend was told her experience was rather common, especially for those who were there for the first time. The disciplines of silence and solitude are not generally celebrated in our world. In fact, for many of us, they make us downright nervous. Why? Because in silence and solitude we don’t have anything to distract us from what God is trying to speak into our lives. But this is exactly why we should embrace them, striving to make them a regular part of our lives.
Let’s start with looking a little more closely at what solitude is all about. Too often we assume that someone who is by themselves is lonely. However, while loneliness is about inner emptiness, solitude is about inner fulfillment. Solitude is about being able to, in the midst of noise and confusion, be settled in our heart. It gives us the freedom to be alone with the purpose of being able to better listen for the divine Whisper better. In practicing solitude, we are able to find the mental distance from the trappings of our lives to see those things which worry, trap, and oppress us.
The next time you are feeling overwhelmed and stressed, purposely make some time to step away alone. Go for a walk. Hide away in a secret corner. Step away from all the demands that others are making on your time and energy if even just for a few minutes. Spend that time just taking a deep breath and listening for God. That sudden clarity on what the true priorities of the moment are, the ability to re-enter the situation with renewed determination, the solution to the problem that has been stumping you. These are examples of the Holy Spirit speaking into your life when step away to allow yourself to focus solely on God.
The discipline of silence goes hand in hand with solitude. While solitude calls us to withdraw from distracting people and things, silence invites us to withdraw from distracting noise. It is both the absence of speech and the act of listening. “Simply to refrain from talking, without a heart listening to God, is not silence.” (Richard J. Foster) Just as solitude isn’t simply about being alone, silence is about more than simply not talking.
The challenge in practicing silence is that it is rare to find a place which is truly silent in our world. In the Minneapolis area, there is a place known as the “Quiet Chamber” which, at -9 decibels, is believed to be the quietest place on earth. This chamber is so quiet that, when one sits in it for more than a minute or two, they are able to hear the internal workings of their own body. You can go on a tour, and even sit in the chamber for up to 20 minutes, but it isn’t cheap. So how can we practice silence since I’m guessing most of us don’t have regular access to a place like the Quiet Chamber?
The most basic of steps is simply to start shutting off the noise. Turn off the TV and cell phone. Power down the computer. Unplug the electronics and appliances you can which contribute a hum to the symphony of sound just by being on. If you can't shut it off, go to a place with less noise. I went to college in a small town and one evening, a friend and I decided to randomly walk as far out into the country as we could in 30 minutes. Once outside of town on the local county blacktop, we stood in silence listening for the farthest away thing we could hear. In the stillness of the springtime evening, we could hear water running through tile lines and animals scratching at the dirt. We could hear the buzz of the power lines above us. We could hear the rustle of feathers as a bird took flight. It was fascinating how much we had been missing simply because we hadn’t taken the time to be silent.
Silence and solitude are often considered two of the foundational spiritual disciplines because they both, in their own way, focus on eliminating the distractions of our world so that we might be able to hear God’s still, small voice speak into our lives. Together, they allow us the space to reflect and consider how our actions do (or do not) give testimony to our faith. I’ll end with a though from Dallas Willard’s book, “The Spirit of the Disciplines.”
“Silence and especially true listening are often the strongest testimony of our faith. A major problem for Christian evangelism is not getting people to talk, but to silence those who through their continuous chatter reveal a loveless heart devoid of confidence in God. As Miguel de Unamuno says, ‘We need to pay less attention to what people are trying to tell us, and more to what they tell us without trying.’”
- When you contemplate a silent retreat where you don’t talk to another person, listen to music, watch TV, or use your phone for 24 hours, how do you feel? Nervous? Anxious? Worried? Excited? Curious? Why do you think you feel that way?
- When was the last time you purposefully spent 5 minutes alone? How can you find 5 minutes in your day today to purposefully withdraw from people?
- It has been said that most of us listen not to hear the other person, but to respond. As a result, we aren’t really listening to others, we are allowing them to be background noise until we get an opportunity to speak and turn the focus back on ourselves. In what relationships or situations are you most guilty of this tendency? How can you be better at being a true listener?
- Want to learn more about the quietest place on earth? Check out this article.
Helpful Resources Used:
- "The Spirit of the Disciplines: Understanding How God Changes Lives" by Dallas Willard - Pages 159-165
- "Celebration of Discipline: The Path to Spiritual Growth" by Richard J. Foster - Chapter 7
- "Spiritual Disciplines Series: Solitude and Silence" by Ben Keiser on www.summit.org
- "Solitude and Silence" by Bill Gaultiere on www.soulsherding.org