March Growth Exercises

Solitude and Silence

Most of us struggle to spend time in solitude and silence, either because we can’t find the time, or more commonly, we don’t want to find the time because we dislike the sensation! Living in a culture dominated by busyness and background noise, we simply don’t know how to function without them. Consider the following quote: 

I have often said that the sole cause of man’s unhappiness is that he does not know how to stay quietly in his room… What people want is not the easy peaceful life… but the agitation that takes our minds off it and diverts.. That is why men are so found of the hustle and bustle.

That observation should not surprise us. What might surprise us is that it was written by mathematician and Catholic philosopher Blaise Pascal in the 17th Century. 

This is clearly not a new problem. Our culture’s methods of distraction might be unique, or perhaps new, but our reasons remain the same. This is how Henri Nouwen describes the modern-day experience:

As soon as we’re alone, without people to talk with, 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… The distractions we have used to drown out our anxieties, fears and bad memories, unresolved conflicts, angry feelings, and impulsive desires are gone… and we want them back!

Very few of us will be able to read that description without recognising our own experience in it. We know that inner chaos well. But Nouwen does more than describe the symptoms; he also give some clue as to their cause. We don’t like being alone because we’re afraid of what might surface when we are. Indeed, we are mistaken if we think that solitude and silence are simply skills we haven’t yet learned. For most of us, this is an area of insecurity that is yet to be addressed. God is waiting to address it with us— alone. 

Learning to be alone well is an essential ingredient of a number of the other spiritual disciplines. Just as we will never learn to hear God well if we are constantly in crowds, neither will we learn to rest well, or serve well, or wait well. That is why it is so important that we first learn to be alone well. 

Community has a vital role to play in our lives, as we will discuss next month. But some of us use community as a distraction from questions or struggles that can only be answered in solitude. As we learn to exchange some of our time with others for time alone, we will find ourselves being comforted, shaped and encouraged in ways that simply could not have happened otherwise. 

Of course, there is no real solitude without silence. Earpods in and on, listening to a podcast or your favourite music is not really solitude. The posture required for the comfort and encouragement of solitude rules out multi-tasking and our ‘security blanket’ sounds of text messages arriving, notifications keeping us immediately in touch with the digital world, or the familiarity of music. As Nouwen notes, even reading can be a source of unwanted ‘noise.’ No matter how pressurised and chaotic your family life, there is a way for you to creatively find times of solitude and silence— and the weekly exercises this month aim to help you explore them.

Week One Exercise

Try some time alone

It might seem inconsistent for churches like ours, which are committed to encouraging and growing gospel-shaped communities and small groups, to be promoting solitude. But in fact we value both community and solitude because one cannot function well without the other. A glance at the ascetic or isolating cults of church history will quickly reveal the unhealthy consequences of neglecting fellowship— extreme isolation, austerity, and even mental illness. Alternatively, periods of church history closer to our own highlight the shallowness and weakness of the overly-socialised church, tending towards extreme distraction, stressful over-complication and the fear of ‘missing out’. 

Which of the two extremes do you naturally gravitate towards— fellowship or solitude? Do you prefer one so much that you are missing out on the other? If so, how might you bring more balance?

Find some time this week to sit quietly alone and consider these questions— for at least 15 minutes. When the 15 minutes is ‘done’, only then journal a few notes to document your thoughts. If you can’t find that time this week, then your answers will be pretty obvious!

Week Two Exercise

Practice Solitude and Silence

While most of us are not ready to sign up for a month-long silent treat (as a friend of mine tried to do every year), we can all begin by introducing some less extreme changes into our schedule. Are you ready to take the two week ‘Blaise Pascal Challenge’? Here it is—

Stop. Sit down in silence for 5 minutes. Every day for a week. Do this with no one around, no phone, no book, no music. Nothing.

No doubt your mind will race with thoughts of incomplete tasks and urgent jobs. Just let them go. Don’t write them down for later. Just let them go. Instead, slowly become aware of the presence of God. Draw near to him just to be with him. Don’t ask for anything. Actually, don’t pray anything. Just be with Him and enjoy his presence. And if your mind just relaxes, that’s fine too.

If you miss a day— don’t sweat it. Try again the next day.  Over the week, see if you get better at this discipline. See if you actually start to enjoy it. Every 2 or 3 days, jot down a note in your journal describing your experience.

Week Three Exercise

Practice Solitude and Silence – part 2

Last week we were encouraged to make space in our day for 5 minutes of solitude and silence. These were the instructions:

Stop. Sit down in silence for 5 minutes. Every day for a week. Do this with no one around, no phone, no book, no music. Nothing.

We were also encouraged last week to journal our thoughts and reflections on this exercise. If you were able to do this, take a few moments to review your journal entries.

Overall, would you say that you enjoyed 5 minutes of solitude and silence (when you were actually able to find that time and place)? Did you become aware of any other benefits from this time?

This week, we are encouraged to try the same exercise– 5 minutes of solitude and silence each day for a week– but this week, make this a prelude to a time of prayer.

Use the time to slowly become aware of the presence of God. Draw near to him just to be with him. Don’t ask for anything for 5 minutes! Actually, don’t pray anything for 5 minutes! Just be with God and enjoy his presence. And if your mind just relaxes, that’s fine too.

Every 2 or 3 days, jot down a note in your journal describing your experience.

Week Four Exercise

How Solitude and Silence grows us

There is an important distinction between the disciplines of solitude and silence, and taking a few moments of “me time.” Stating the obvious, “me time” is all about “me”. The time spent in solitude and silence is all about “God and me”: it’s just the two of us.

Another way to view the disciplines of solitude and silence is to see them as a way of becoming your true self with God. Alone and present to God, there is no point in pretending or in polishing. In company with God alone, we are who we are.

But we are not stuck in this place. We are also a ‘work in progress’ as God continues his work of grace, transforming us to become more like the Lord Jesus. In company with God alone, we are becoming who we will be.

The beauty of the twin disciplines of solitude and silence is that, so often during this time of God-ward orientation, new thoughts arise, we become aware of fresh perspectives and conclusions are drawn.

The overflow: other contexts

This week we explore the ‘overflow’ of solitude and silence into other areas of our lives. Because we are growing into our true selves in company with God, other relationships, times and spaces are also changed.

Outside of your planned times of solitude or silence, in company with others, work on listening more. Ask questions. Speak less. Thomas aKempis wrote, “It is easier to be silent altogether than to speak with moderation.” In group settings, try to moderate you contribution to the conversation— especially if you are usually an extrovert. See if you can draw out more conversation from your more introverted friends.

We can enjoy times of solitude and silence in many locations beyond our favourite chair. Go for a walk alone, perhaps along a beach, in the bush, or in a park. Use it as a time for observation, thinking, reflection and prayer.

You might try visiting an old church building that is open to the public during the day. Quietly enter and sit or kneel for prayer. If you work in the city of Sydney, St Andrew’s Cathedral near Town Hall is a favourite of mine. Another is St Mary’s Cathedral on College Street— although the religious sculptures might not be everyone’s cup of tea!