My most interesting New Year’s Eve experience came when I spent the night in a nunnery in India, and at the stroke of midnight, the nuns came down the halls yelling in Hindi as they went out in the freezing Himalayan air into the courtyard and burned an effigy. This experience definitely did not compute with the image I had in mind when I thought of a monastery or nunnery. I imagined more of The Sound of Music type environment where talking (and definitely singing in Maria’s case) did not occur in the abbey - or at least in certain parts or during certain times of the day.
Monasteries, nunneries, abbeys - these are the images that the spiritual disciplines of silence and solitude evoke for me, which make them seem either super-spiritual or boring (or both).
So why are they important? What’s so valuable and spiritual about not talking and about being alone?
Obviously, the New Testament does not command us to be hermits. In fact, we’re explicitly commanded not to neglect meeting together as believers (Heb. 10:25). We need fellowship with other believers. But we also need spiritual whitespace. In Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life, Donald Whitney encourages us to think of “silence and solitude as complementary Disciplines to fellowship. Without silence and solitude we’re shallow. Without fellowship we’re stagnant. Balance requires them all.”
We’re shallow without silence and solitude in our rhythm of life.
Think about how much noise pervades our day. I often listen to a podcast while I’m getting ready in the morning. I listen to Rick & Bubba or NPR as I drive to work. At work, there are conversations happening all around me or I have my headphones in listening to Pandora while I work. I listen to NPR on my commute home from work. TV, music, podcasts, or class lectures are likely playing at some point in the evening - or conversations with people. And, for some of you, there is either a sound machine, fan, etc. playing while you sleep. And whether our phones are on or set to vibrate, we’re getting alerts throughout the day of texts, calls, or social media or news updates.
Noise surrounds us all day - and often all night. So we have to intentionally plan for times of silence. And silence can be uncomfortable. Just think about how many of us cannot deal with “awkward silence” in a conversation…And many of us avoid loneliness at all costs. I think this is one reason why we fill our lives so much noise - we’re trying to avoid the emptiness we feel or have to come face-to-face with when things are slow or quiet.
As we look at spiritual disciplines, there are disciplines of abstinence and disciplines of engagement. Silence and solitude fall in the abstinence category. We abstain - we do without - in order to focus on God. Our lives are so full - full of noise, people, things, and we can be so full (and busy) that we cannot process or hear from God because the dailyness of our lives causes interference.
The New Testament provides several accounts of Jesus leaving the crowds and the disciples to be alone: spending 40 days in the wilderness before He was tempted (Matt. 4:1-2), going to the mountains alone to pray (Matt. 14:23), leaving early in the morning to go to a solitary place to pray (Mk. 1:35), withdrawing to the wilderness to pray (Lk. 5:16), and heading out at dawn to be alone (Lk. 4:42).
Jesus had purpose in pursuing solitude and silence. With solitude, we refrain from interactions with others, and with silence, we abstain from noise. And we do this to give God our undivided attention.
We’re silent so we can hear God speak. So we can listen.
We’re silent so we can value what is said and who is saying it.
We’re silent so we can let go of our attempts to control situations via conversation and, instead, turn and trust God.
We’re silent so we can learn self-control with our tongue.
We’re alone so we can identify our distractions and evaluate our lives (what we are doing and what we ought to do).
We’re alone so we can give God our full attention.
We’re alone so we can recognize and unlearn unhealthy social behaviors.
We’re alone so we can regain an eternal perspective.
Solitude and silence do not have to come in carving out large chunks of time to retreat with God (although this is recommended)! I try to retreat like at least once a semester where I block out an entire morning or afternoon or day to spend in prayer, reflection, study, etc.
We can also identify the “little solitudes” that occur throughout our day - when we’re stuck in traffic on 280, when we’re drinking our morning coffee before the rest of the family wakes up, when we’re feeding our baby in the middle of the night, or when we’re walking/exercising. Can we turn off the radio, iPhone, or TV in those moments and use them, instead, to reflect or talk with God? Maybe you meditate on a verse of Scripture or thank God for His blessings or praise Him for His character.
What is one step you can take this week with regards to silence and solitude?
“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.” -Dietrich Bonhoeffer
“Few men truly know themselves as they really are. Most people have seen themselves in a looking-glass, but there is another looking-glass, which gives true reflections, into which few men look. To study one’s self in light of God’s Word, and carefully to go over one’s condition, examining both the inward and the outward sins, and using all the tests which are given us in the Scriptures, would be a very healthy exercise; but how very few care to go through it.” -C.H. Spurgeon