“Come, the Alone to the alone, because I am alone, as you see!” – from St. Symeon the New Theologian’s “Mystical Prayer” invoking the Holy Spirit –
Solitude used to come easy to me. I’m enough of an introvert that even as a child I preferred spending hours staring at a world atlas to playing outside ot looking for new friends. When I went to seminary and started out in ministry, I was encouraged by mentors and professors to seek out solitude. By drawing close to God when alone, I was told, we experience healing from the wounds of ministry, freedom from the temptation to perpetually please people, and clarification of our vocation. Most importantly, solitude lets us attend to the still small voice of the One who loves us perfectly.
Years ago I found it easier to make space to be alone with the Alone. I had a group of friends who believed the same things and supported one another in taking regular retreats, sharing what we were learning about prayer, solitude, silence, and Sabbath. My stage in life back then gave me more freedom to practice Sabbath and take retreats. And then life happened.
Nearly one year into my second pastorate, I’m noticing that I have a new, less easy relationship with solitude. Several things have changed. I’ve been married for twelve years and have been a parent for four and a half of those years. I’ve become accustomed to having little to no solitude at home. Chatter, interruptions, crying, and laughter perforate any sense of continuity or concentration I could have at home. As any parent knows, this cacophony can be hilarious and joyful at one moment and agonizing at the next. This has been the new normal for a while, so long in fact that when I am given an afternoon at home alone my first impulse is to clean or do laundry or fix one of the dozen things on our list of projects. Hence the paucity of posts on this blog recently, and why I’ll finish this post after I install a new shower-head in our children’s bathroom. . . .
Several days later, I’m back. Another difference: While there’s less solitude at home now, I have more solitude at work than in recent years. I’m new enough in Berthoud that I’m not overwhelmed by relationships wherever I turn. This is great for being an introvert, but it’s not the same as solitude. In pastoral work it can actually produce a loneliness to which I’m unaccustomed. In Pittsburgh it seemed impossible for me to be lonely: I had a co-pastor, co-workers in my other jobs, a network of friends and colleagues, and of course my family. In Colorado, I’m a solo pastor, and while I’m slowly becoming friends with other local pastors, it’s quite different than when we all went to seminary together and ended up staying within a 15 mile radius. Perhaps this is why last week I went to a local pastor’s gathering and found myself uncharacteristically (and counter-productively) anxious for people to like me. This happened only minutes after I told a friend on the phone that I don’t feel lonely here. Perhaps I’m wrong.
All of this – the clamor of home life, the incomplete solitude of work, and the anxious worry about what others think – all this means it’s time for a retreat to authentic solitude. So next week I’m going camping by myself. And I’m going camping in mountain and desert terrains because I need to let go for a few days. In the language of both the desert fathers and Ignatius of Loyola, I need to practice detachment.
Belden Lane argues that the characteristic detachment of desert spirituality owes in large degree to the terrain itself. But it’s not because the landscape is calm or soothing, or so beautiful that we forget about our other cares. It’s because the land itself doesn’t care about us. In Lane’s words, “We suppose arid and empty terrain to be naturally solicitous of our human need for contemplation. But the stark, unsettling truth is that the desert doesn’t give a damn. Its capacity for indifference seems almost infinite.” (The Solace of Fierce Landscapes p. 187). Deserts and mountains and oceans remind us how small we are, how immense God is, and how little our petty distractions truly matter.
Every day in Berthoud, I look up at Long’s Peak and Mount Meeker (in the middle of the large picture above) and I marvel at their changing appearances. One day they’re covered in snow, the next day I see cracks opening up and gray rock exposed as the snow melts. One minute it’s clear and the peaks are completely visible. Soon clouds have blown in and appear to be dancing around and between the mountains. Sometimes they’re glowing from the sunrise, or backlit by a fiery sunset. All the worries and cares of daily life are like these changing conditions. The have subtle effects on the mountains, but little change actually happens. Erosion, rock-slides, avalanches, and other factors change mountains, but they take millennia to completely change a landscape.
That’s why Martin Laird, in his book Into the Silent Land, invites us identify with the mountains. God, through the Incarnation of the Son of God and the gift of the Holy Spirit, dwells within us. When we detach from the world through contemplative prayer or other ascetic disciplines, we dive deeper into the center of our being where the unmovable God dwells. So Laird writes “The marvelous world of thoughts, sensation, emotions, and inspiration, the spectacular world of creation around us, are all patterns of stunning weather on the holy mountain of God. . . . . When the mind is brought to stillness we see that we are the mountain and not the changing patterns of weather appearing on the mountain” (p. 16). To put it in Biblical terms, “Those who trust in the Lord are like Mount Zion, which cannot be moved, but abides forever” (Psalm 125:1).
So, after a coaching visit to a new worshiping community in northeastern Wyoming this weekend, I’m going into solitude. I plan to spend a couple days in the Badlands of South Dakota and maybe in the Medicine Bow Wilderness of Wyoming. Then the plan (so I think) is to reenter the world gently, first by attending another retreat hosted by the Presbytery of Wyoming’s Sabbath Center with a few friends and colleagues. And then I’ll be home to family and church and life in the newest normal. Your prayers would be appreciated. I look forward to sharing both the fruit and the failures of this foray into solitude.