Sunday, May 03, 2009

The Spritual Practice of Solitude

Solitude is time spent alone, in silence, to hear the voice of God speaking to you. Remember the story of Elijah--God's voice was not in the fire, whirlwind, or earthquake, but in the silence and stillness that came at the end. But solitude is also an attitude and a way of life--not that we separate ourselves out from the world in order to be "pure," but that we create spaces in the midst of our crazy-busy lives in order to be present to God's Spirit.

Here are some pointers on cultivating the spiritual practice of solitude:

--Begin by finding the quiet spaces in your life. What part/parts of your day is the most quiet? (For me, it’s about 6 a.m., before anyone else, including the dogs, have awakened.) Richard Foster told the story in his book about playing “the quiet game” (all the parents reading this will know what he means by that) “Who can be the quietest?” Find those moments when you feel the quietest, and remember what that feels like.

--Then, find a quiet place. Where do you go to be alone? (A place in your house, a park, the church, the library—some other place.)

--Go to that place and spend some time alone on a regular basis. (If you are an extrovert, it is usually best to do this in conjunction with spending time with others—don’t take anyone else with you to your quiet place, but spend time with others, and then go there. If you are an introvert, don’t spend all your time in the quiet place, but find a way to interact with others, too.) Remember what it feels like to be in your quiet space.

--Quiet your mind; settle in (There is a Quaker expression that is used for this—“Centering down.”) Remember that this is not a contest. It will take time to learn to center yourself—many times of going to your quiet place.

--Cultivate the practice of “centering down” in your quiet place. Find out what helps you center down most easily. Then, remember that feeling, and what it was that got you there.

--While you are centered, do not speak, but listen. Listen for the voice of God. Sometimes, despite what the psychological tests say, it is o.k. to hear the voice of God. Find God speaking to you through whatever you are reading or experiencing while you center down. Remember that. All of this will become very important later.

--Ease yourself back into the world. Don’t shock your system. Remember what they tell you when you bring a fish home from the pet store? You keep it in the baggie and put the baggie in the fish tank at home for about an hour before you let the fish go. That way, the water in the baggie can take on the temperature in the tank, and the fish won't be shocked when you let it loose. Take a “buffer time” between solitude and plunging yourself back into life full steam. Remember how you do that, and how it feels.

Why is it so important to remember how you feel as you go to your quiet space?

--Because solitude is a frame of mind, not necessarily a place. (I’ve met too many people who say they can only experience the presence of God in one particular place—it limits your ability to be attuned to God’s presence and God’s voice.) If you practice enough, you may be able to center yourself in a shady glen or in an airport, in a church or in an office building. Even in the midst of noise and distraction, if you can remember what helps to center you down in your quiet space, you can find solitude and peace.

The pitfalls and dangers of practicing solitude:

1. Feeling like you’re not doing it “right.” (It’s different for everyone. What centers you may feel like torture to someone else. Do what works for you, but don’t use the lack of finding any one method as an excuse to say that you can’t practice solitude, either. It often takes months or even years of practice to get to a solitude that works best for you, and sometimes even then, you might find yourself growing and finding new ways to experience solitude.) Don’t feel like you have to “get it right.” Practicing a spiritual discipline is not about “getting it right,” but about getting right with God.

2. Restlessness—or the wandering mind. One of the desert “Abbas,” or fathers, of the early monastic movement was once asked, “What do I do when I am meditating in my cell and my mind wanders?” Abba replied, “Smile to yourself, and then get back to your work.” [Work, here, meaning, the work of practicing solitude.] Our minds wander; how many times have you spent at least a few moments during worship thinking about what you’re going to have to eat after church? Be honest! Smile to yourself—smile at yourself—and then get back to what God has called you to do.

3. Rushing. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had people come to me for pastoral counseling or spiritual direction, and they come in for one session, and I teach them some method of meditation or prayer, and they go away and come back the next time and say something like, “I tried it, and it didn’t work!” I ask, “Really? How many times did you try it?” “Once.” Practicing a spiritual discipline—especially solitude—takes time. It’s like taking care of a plant--you water it a little bit at a time and let it grow. If you tried to give a plant all the water itwould need in its lifetime in one gulp, it would die. Practicing solitude is the same way.

4. The “long dark night of the soul.” This is not my phrase--it comes from St. John of the Cross. Often, we try to avoid the dark places in life; St. John of the Cross invites us in. “The dark night of the soul” is a time of struggle—think of Jacob, wrestling with God (or an angel) in Genesis. It was only after the struggle that he was blessed. Rather than a place of dread and fear, the dark night can be a great teacher. The greatest mystics and teachers of the faith have all had this experience. In her recently released letters, Mother Teresa is seen to be struggling quite often with this very issue. The dark night of the soul teaches us patience with God, and with ourselves. It is the time during which we deconstruct all our pre-conceived notions about ourselves and the world around us, not so we are left quivering and confused, but so we can put it all back together again in the end.

St. John of the Cross wrote this about the dark night of the soul:

O guiding night!
O night more lovely than the dawn!
O night that has united
The Lover with His beloved,
Transforming the beloved into the Lover.

In going through solitude, and eventually the long dark night of the soul, we go through the exact experience of Jesus. What does Luke tell us happened while Jesus prayed on the night before his death? He sweat blood! (That’s a powerfully dark night of the soul…)

--Working through all of these pitfalls, with some fits and starts, and allowing yourself enough grace to learn from your silence and solitude, you can begin to build up for yourself a practice of solitude. You will not become a monk—I don’t expect that—but if you do feel that call, let me know, there are ways to express a monastic vocation in a Protestant environment. But you will find yourself cultivating your own flower of solitude to the point where you can find that quiet place inside yourself whenever you need it most. And in the stillness and the silence, you can listen for the heartbeat and voice of God.

Grace and Peace to you in solitude,


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