Friday, May 02, 2008

The discipline of solitude

Making all things new

From all that I have said about our worried, over-filled lives, it is clear that we are usually surrounded by so much outer noise that it is hard to truly hear our God when He is speaking to us. We have often become deaf, unable to know when God calls us and unable to understand in which direction He calls us.

Thus our lives have become absurd. In the word absurd we find the Latin word surdus, which means “deaf.” A spiritual life requires discipline because we need to learn to listen to God, who constantly speaks but whom we seldom hear.

When, however, we learn to listen, our lives become obedient lives. The word obedient comes from the Latin word audire, which means “listening.” A spiritual discipline is necessary in order to move slowly from an absurd to an obedient life, from a life filled with noisy worries to a life in which there is some free inner space where we can listen to our God and follow His guidance.

Jesus’ life was a life of obedience. He was always listening to the Father, always attentive to His voice, always alert for His directions. Jesus was “all ear.” That is true prayer: being all ear for God. The core of all prayer is indeed listening, obediently standing in the presence of God.

The concentrated effort

A spiritual discipline, therefore, is the concentrated effort to create some inner and outer space in our lives, where this obedience can be practiced. Through a spiritual discipline we prevent the world from filling our lives to such an extent that there is no place left to listen. A spiritual discipline sets us free to pray, or, to say it better, allows the Spirit of God to pray in us.

A time and a space

Without solitude it is virtually impossible to live a spiritual life. Solitude begins with a time and place for God, and Him alone. If we really believe not only that God exists but also that He is actively present in our lives – healing, teaching, and guiding – we need to set aside a time and a space to give Him our undivided attention. Jesus says, “Go into your private room and, when you have shut the door, pray to the Father who is in that secret place…”

Inner chaos

To bring some solitude into our lives is one of the most necessary but also most difficult disciplines. Even though we may have a deep desire for real solitude, we also experience a certain apprehension as we approach that solitary place and time. As soon as we are alone, without people to talk to, books to read, TV to watch, or phone calls to make, an inner chaos opens up in us.

This chaos can be so disturbing and so confusing that we can hardly wait to get busy again. Entering the private room and shutting the door, therefore, does not mean that we immediately shut out all inner doubts, anxieties, fears, bad memories, unresolved conflicts, angry feelings, and impulsive desires. On the contrary, when we have removed our outer distractions, we often find that our inner distractions manifest themselves to us in full force.

We often use these outer distractions to shield ourselves from the interior noises. It is thus not surprising that we have a difficult time being alone. The confrontation with our inner conflicts can be too painful for us to endure.

This makes the discipline of solitude all the more important. Solitude is not a spontaneous response to an occupied and preoccupied life. There are too many reasons not to be alone. Therefore we must begin by carefully planning some solitude.


Henri J. M. Nouwen, Making All Things New, quoted in Devotional Classics, edited by Richard J. Foster and James Bryan-Smith (HarperSanFranciso: 1991-3), 94-96.


Jamie said...

Wow, that really spoke to me. I know my life is currently so full of chaos that even when I take the time to sit down "in solitude" my brain is constantly churning and straining to "get busy" again. This is a challenge I'm working to overcome. Thanks for the thoughts.

Loy Mershimer said...

Thanks, Jamie. I appreciate your thoughts and I think that so many of us probably share your sense of the 'get busy' signal in the middle of solitude!

God bless,