Without solitude it is virtually impossible to live a spiritual life. . . . We do not take the spiritual life seriously if we do not set aside some time to be with God and listen to him. – Henri Nouwen –
Of the various spiritual disciplines I’ve attempted to practice, I’ve found that solitude is what most nourishes my soul. As an introvert in ministry, the time I spend alone is absolutely necessary for me to reflect and recharge. This is probably why God led my friend BJ to focus on the discipline of solitude when he preached the charge at my ordination service a year and a half ago. So for a year and a half, I’ve made an effort to spend time in solitude. Sometimes it’s taken the form of special retreats. Most weeks I’m able to take a sabbath and spend most of one day in solitude.
There’s a problem though: it’s easy to squander solitude. Solitude is not just being alone. In fact it’s not being alone at all. It’s being with God. But more importantly, it’s being alone with God and being attentive to God’s presence in that time. Occasions when I really experience solitude by that definition are rare. One reason why is that it’s too easy to let the little distractions of the day invade opportunities for time with God: How often do I spend the first forty-five minutes of my day with the newspaper and then move toward spending time with God? A deeper reason is that I often come into the solitude experience with my own agenda. I plan in detail what I wanted to read, think, and pray about in solitude and as a result I closed the door to actually being present with God. I seek to control the experience rather than to meet God within that time. But why?
Ruth Haley Barton, in whose book Invitation to Solitude and Silence I came across the Nouwen quote above, notes that fear is one thing that keeps us from deeply entering into the solitude experience. She writes, “Perhaps the deepest and hardest to articulate fear is the fear that this God whom we cannot control will not meet us in the way we want to be met” (p. 49). This fear is the fear of relationship. It’s the fear of knowing and truly being known because the Other is beyond control. For an introvert like me it’s also the feeling of being so tired of relational engagement that one more conversation, even with God, will set one over the edge.
For me personally, the weeks leading up to Holy Week this year were anything but spiritually nourishing. The stress of church, cafe, and buying a house overwhelmed me. And predictably, on Good Friday I crashed. Last week I recovered, but then my normal day of solitude this Monday was replaced by a very-extroverted conference. It was a very good conference in its own way (more on that in another post), but by last night, I knew I had spent two straight days talking about what God was doing in the world and next to no time listening to God.
This is why spiritual disciplines are called disciplines. They take effort. To some extent, they take the courage to accept responsibility, step into deeper communion with God, and detach from the demands of other people. Spiritual disciplines are not easy, but they’re necessary. So, I’m making a committment to look closely at my life and think about how I squander opportunities to be attentive to God’s presence. And to pose a few questions to all those reading this: What are the other ways in which we squander opportunities to be alone with God? What other distractions and noises of daily life disrupt our attentiveness to the Holy Spirit? What does a truly disciplined life look like? What deeper things keep us from stepping into God’s presence?