Solitude—a choice to be alone, away from all human interaction, in order to be with God and deal with the things that keep us from being fully centered in Him.
Stop and listen right now, right where you are. What do you hear? What is going on around you? Do you hear traffic, voices, radio? Is the TV on somewhere? Will your cell phone ring before you finish reading this? Will you answer it? What is vying for your attention at this moment? Will you have any time alone today? If you will, how will you spend that time?
This is where we live. For most of us, there is stimulation and noise everywhere we turn. Music and news and podcasts and talking and traffic and television and internet all just a fingerclick away. Moments of silence, when they materialize, are almost unsettling. We aren’t in the habit of being quiet. We aren’t in the habit of being alone without something filling the silence. Silence and solitude have been dubbed “The Forgotten Disciplines,” but for those who remember them or find them for the first time, they carry a wealth of benefits for the Spiritual life.
The discipline of silence is the voluntary and temporary abstention from speaking so that certain spiritual goals might be sought. Sometimes silence is observed in order to read, write, pray, or discern. Though there is no outward speaking there may be internal dialogues with self and God. This is “outward silence.” At other times silence is cultivated outwardly and inwardly so that God’s voice may be heard more clearly.
Observing silence may mean simply not speaking when we would otherwise have much to say. It is controlling the tongue (James 3) and only saying those things that build up, encourage and strengthen others. The silence is found as we trust God to take care of situations, to take care of us and our reputations instead of relying on our own compulsive need to defend, fix and preserve.
Solitude is the spiritual discipline of voluntary and temporary withdrawal to privacy for spiritual purposes. Solitude may be sought in order to participate, without interruption, in other spiritual disciplines or just to be alone with God. Many people retreat to a cabin, a hotel, a retreat center/monastery or a place in the wilderness to find the ability to completely focus on Christ. Retreats of any length are helpful as they set apart time for the pursuit of God and the Holy Spirit’s direction. Retreats can be guided by a Spiritual Director who works with the retreat center or can be guided by books written for that intent. Others choose to guide themselves with the simple tools of a journal and the Bible.
But solitude is not dependent on being able to get away to a cabin in the mountains. Solitude is an attitude of the heart that can learn to be still and “with God” even in the chaos of a college football game, in the clamor of a coffee shop, or in the noise of a carpool run. “Whether alone or with people, we always carry with us a portable sanctuary of the heart.” What is needed is to start finding our way to that place on a regular basis, wearing a path that will become familiar and welcoming each time we turn our heart in that direction.
1. Notice and take advantage of the little solitudes that fill our day. Those may be moments before getting out of bed or in the silence of the morning shower. It may be at stop lights, when you find yourself stuck in traffic, or each time you hear bells ring. Stop momentarily to notice gifts of beauty: flowers, sunsets, a sleeping child, a bird on your deck, the way the leaves dance as they fall from their branches. Stopping to attend to these things are moments of solitude. There are hundreds of them each day for those who look. Don’t miss them.
2. Find quiet places for silence and solitude.
Seek out a quiet place close to home where you can spend some time. There is probably a park in your area, a tree or a rock that invites you to linger. See if there are any churches in your area that keep their doors open so that visitors may use their sanctuary. Arrange a space at home to be your place to be with God. (See Sacred Places section.)
- Set aside time throughout the year for extended solitude.
Find weekly space for extended quiet. Maybe that means once a week packing your lunch for a private time with God. Perhaps block out a few hours to meet with God for coffee, to meditate on scripture, to journal and pray.
Find time for quarterly retreats. What would it mean for you to get away for one 24 hour period each season to get realigned, to rethink priorities, to examine the last quarter and make decisions about what is next, all in prayerful solitude with God?
Consider a guided retreat at a retreat center that understands the benefits of silence and solitude. Plan to go for a weekend or longer. Many retreat centers and monasteries are ready to receive retreatants at a reasonable cost, will supply a private room, meals and guidance for your retreat based on your needs and desires. Be aware that there are many retreats advertised that are not really retreats in the true sense of the word. They are highly programmed and fill up your time with activity, words and a lot busyness.
Luke 4: 42
1 Kings 19:12
James 1: 19
Foster, Richard J. Celebration of Discipline: the path to spiritual growth. New York: HarperCollins, 1978, chapter 7.
Nouwen, Henri J. The Way of the Heart: desert spirituality and contemporary ministry. San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1981.
Willard, Dallas. The Spirit of the Disciplines: understanding how God changes lives. San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1988, pp.160-164.
Merton, Thomas. Almost anything by him will delve into this subject.
 Foster, Richard. Celebration of Discipline