Solitude/Silence – Disciplines 2014-21
Is it possible to be in a state of extended silence or of living in complete solitude today?
It could be that a fear of being alone drives us toward noise, crowds, TV’s, etc.! We have radios strapped to our arms, ear buds in our ears and other ways of “keeping in touch, or having the comfort of distractions.” Solitude is more of a state of mind than a place, such as an inner sanctum of quiet. It is an inner fulfillment rather than a loneliness of emptiness.
A hermit, on top of a mountain in a cave can quite possibly never experience solitude. He could be alone, but he may not have the inner solitude of the mind. We should not fear being alone if we possess inward solitude for we would know we are not alone. What I mean is this, whether alone or among others, we can always carry with us a portable sanctuary of the heart that especially includes Jesus Christ.
Why would we call Solitude or Silence, an OUTWARD Discipline?
Solitude can have outward manifestations whereas there is a freedom to be alone, not to be away from others, but instead, to hear the divine Whisper better. That is outward!! Jesus did this many times. He spent 40 days alone in the desert (Matthew 4-1-11). Jesus chose the twelve and before doing so spent the entire night alone in the desert hills (Luke 6:12). After hearing of the death of John the Baptist, Jesus “withdrew from there in a boat to a lonely place apart (Matt 14:13). After feeding the five thousand he “went up into the hills by himself” (Matthew 14:23). In Mark 1:35, Jesus, ‘in the morning, a great while before day, he rose and went out to a lonely place..” Other passages such as (Luke 5:16), (Matthew 17:1-9), (Matthew 26:36-46) all show that the seeking out of solitary places was a regular practice for Jesus as perhaps it could be for us.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer in “Life Together” titled one of his chapters “The Day Together” and the following chapter “The Day Alone.” Both are essential for spiritual success. He writes, “Let him who cannot be alone beware of community…. Let him who is not in community beware of being alone…. Each by itself has profound pitfalls and perils. One who wants fellowship without solitude plunges into the void of words and feelings, and one who seeks solitude without fellowship perishes in the abyss of vanity, self-infatuation, and despair.”
Therefore, we must seek out the recreating stillness of solitude if we want to be with others meaningfully. We must seek the fellowship and accountability of others if we want to be alone safely. We must cultivate both if we are to live in obedience.
Do you think Solitude has to have Silence?
Actually, without silence there is no solitude. You do have to involve yourself in the act of listening, even though silence sometimes involves the absence of speech. To refrain from talking without having your heart listening to God is not silence. There is an old proverb to the effect that “all those who open their mouths, close their eyes!” The purpose of silence and solitude is to be able to see and hear. Control rather than no noise is the key to silence. Under the Discipline of silence and solitude we learn when to speak and when to refrain from speaking. The person who views the Spiritual Disciplines as laws will always turn silence into an absurdity. In the Book of James (3:1-12) he discusses this subject very well.
Silence is a two edged sword. If we are silent when we should speak, we are not living in the Discipline of silence. If we speak when we should be silent, we again miss the mark. Only when we learn to be truly silent are we able to speak the word that is needed when it is needed. I am trying to learn this myself, and have to mentally tell myself, “Be quiet!” when listening to someone speak their minds, especially when it is so important to that person doing the speaking.
Do you think it is hard to stay silent?
One reason we can hardly bear to remain silent is that it makes us feel so helpless. We are so accustomed to relying upon words to manage and control others. If we are silent, who will take control? Truly, God will take control, but we will never let him take control until we trust him. Silence is intimately related to trust. Control of the tongue can mean everything. Have we been set free so that we can hold our tongue? Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote, “Real silence, real stillness, really holding one’s tongue comes only as the sober consequence of spiritual stillness.” We have to learn how to be silent, and sometimes that is by being silent in a spiritual way.
The Dark Night of the Soul
We could at this time go into a discourse of solitude that comes from St John of the Cross, a man living at the time of St Theresa of Avilla in Spain in the 13th century. St John of the Cross wrote about “The Dark Night of the Soul” which goes into a privileged opportunity to draw close to the Divine in a special way.
When solitude is seriously pursued, there is usually a flush of initial success and then an inevitable letdown— and with it a desire to abandon the pursuit altogether. Feelings leave and there is the sense that we are not getting through to God. This is a normal reaction to the Spiritual way of life that includes all the Spiritual Disciplines.
When God lovingly draws us into a dark night of the soul, there is often a temptation to seek release from it and to blame everyone and everything for our inner dullness. Recognize the dark night for what it is, if you can do so. Be grateful that God is lovingly drawing you away from every distraction so that you can see him clearly. Rather than chafing and fighting, become still and wait.
Does it happen to all of us and is it a short or long term happening? Well, it is complex and I would rather not get into this aspect right now, other than to say it can occur and would be glad to go over this time of inward darkness with anyone of you that feels you are experiencing something of this nature.
What to do and how to do involving Solitude?
Don’t start by trying the big solitude moments in life, instead go for and enjoy the little ones that happen. The early morning moments when you first awake and are in bed is a good one to enjoy before the rest of the family is awake. The morning cup of coffee or tea before going to work are moments of solitude, except when there are kids screaming in the background, of course. At night, when it is nice out, slip outside the covers of your bed and go outside and take in the silent night, looking at the clouds or stars.
Progress to another level. Find a “quiet place” just for you, that is where you can be silent and alone. Decree a special chair that is yours and state that “This is my chair, for me, to be alone,— let me alone, please”, when in it. Outside your home, find a place to be by yourself, in the park, in the corner of your yard, or anywhere that you can claim as your own. Remember though what I said before, “Solitude is more of a state of mind than a place”, so it is where you most feel comfortable to have the inner self be by itself.
What do we get out of practicing the Discipline of Solitude/Silence?
We will be more sensitive to others and have more compassion. We will find that we will cherish a new freedom to be with other people. We will be attentive to their needs and hurts. Thomas Merton stated, in his work “The Sign of Jonas”, “It is in deep solitude that I find the gentleness with which I can truly love my brothers. The more solitary I am the more affection I have for them…. Solitude and silence teach me to love my brothers for what they are, not for what they say.”
I would strive to begin the Spiritual Discipline of Solitude and Silence to be closer to God and to be exposed to His Presence. This Discipline will open the door to “listening to God’s speech in his wondrous, terrible, gentle, and loving all-embracing silence” (Catherine de Haeck Doherty).