Over the last number of weeks, we have explored solitude as a neglected path to God. We have learned that in the early centuries of the church’s life, solitude was encouraged as a way of not only strengthening our own faith but also strengthening the faith of the community. Time apart was necessary to a healthy individual and a healthy community. People would readily give permission to one another to take time for solitude simply because the value of solitude was recognized.
Our modern society with its constant push for connectedness has left us with the impression that there should be no such thing as wasted time. Keeping busy is seen as a way for children and youth to stay out of trouble. And even for adults, being involved in clubs or activities is seen as ensuring that we will make the most of our time here on earth. Solitude or solitary time is then viewed as wasteful and useless. But I believe it is viewed this way because solitude – in its best sense – cannot be structured in the same way as other activities and its effects cannot be monitored or qualified by the same parameters that we use to measure the effectiveness of other activities in our lives.
Most of my pastoral ministry experience was with mission congregations. My first experience was 2 congregations that expanded to three. Each of them had a distinctive personality and character. Each effectively fulfilled many needs of the people in their community. But when it came to evaluate my effectiveness as a leader, the measurements I was asked to make were statistical: number attending worship, baptisms, new members, finances. There was no place to record the spiritual growth of the people. Of course, documenting such spiritual growth was something that required an intimate knowledge of where each person was in their faith – and that was not always an easy thing to gain. But I ever regretted that there was no place for me to even begin to express in general terms the growth I was witnessing.
But that growth was what I was discovering as people spoke to me about how their own faith was changing and how they were seeing the world around them and themselves with new eyes. Their outlook on the world was changing and it brought changes in their relationship with others, their sense of their own self and their understanding of and relationship with God. And while those people may not have intentionally thought they were on a path of solitude, the time they spent reflecting on their faith, reflecting on their life, reflecting on God had already put them on that path.
Through this series, my desire has been to reawaken us to the reality that people of faith have routinely walked the path of solitude. And while we may believe that such a path is only for those called to ministry or some special role in the faith life of the community, the reality is that it is a path that all of us need to be encouraged to claim for ourselves. The path of solitude like the path of community is something that is there to help each of us explore what it means for each of us to be in relationship with God and the communities of which we are a part.
So, let’s say that you have made the decision that you are willing to explore the path of solitude. The first step is to find a time and place to begin. Running off for a week of silent retreat somewhere may not be possible or even advisable. Any new venture requires us to be compassionate with ourselves that we might find our choice to be a positive one. Moore suggests taking a few hours one day a week. He also encourages us not to see it as just one more thing to fit into our schedule. When we see any activity in our life as burdensome or stressful, we will soon abandon it if we possibly can. So, the decision to begin needs to be a decision that you take because you sincerely believe you need it and so give yourself the permission to do so.
The second step is to identify clearly exactly what it is you are seeking in your solitude. Each person’s purpose will be different, and you may even find that your purpose changes.
The third step is to develop an attitude of watchfulness. In the silence you begin to notice the world around you – the ticking of the clock, or the movement of the trees in the wind. You are opening doors and windows to your inner being and allowing the spirit and presence of God to enter.
The fourth step is to realize that solitude and the practice of solitude takes time. As children we would try things over and over before achieving new skills. We may even have had that experience as adults. Solitude is no different. Changes, insights, or revelations about ourselves, others and God do not happen in the space of a day, a week, a month or even a year.
So, you are prepared to give solitude a try. You are ready to give yourself permission to set time and space apart. Others are ready to let you go and you are prepared to be watchful and give yourself time.
But what am I supposed to do with this time?
You may first need time just to sit quietly and get used to the idea that appearing to do nothing can be exactly what you need to calm your mind and spirit. You may want to invite the Holy Spirit of God to be with you in your time of solitude and let the Spirit sit or walk with you.
You may be led to read a devotional or spiritual book – even the Bible itself but in pieces that allow you time to reflect. You may want to journal your experiences in solitude as a way of helping you to see the path you are taking and note changes when they come. You may find that physical activity will be part of your time in solitude. Solitude does not have to be just sitting with your eyes closed meditating or walking through forests. It may also be a time when you tend your garden or restore a piece of furniture or create a picture or compose a poem or song. But please remember that when it becomes something that you feel is a burden or stressful, then stop and find something that allows you to reflect and listen.
Prayer will not doubt be part of your time in solitude but remember that this prayer need not be gentle. It is a time for you to be honest and open with God. Anger, disappointment, frustration, fear, joy and sorrow are all appropriate. And don’t be afraid if you find your mind wandering in a daydream or even falling asleep and dreaming. God works in many ways to reveal things to us.
Finally, remember that there is no one pattern for experiencing solitude as a path to God. Each of us will find what is appropriate for us. My pattern may or may not fit you and that’s fine. For it is not what works for me that is the goal, it is what works for you. It is not about you achieving my view of a balanced life, it is about you finding your view of a balanced life.
I wanted to introduce this path to you because I and many others have found it beneficial to us not only spiritually but emotionally, mentally and physically.
May God continue to bless you and walk with you as you seek to find the balance in your own life and to discover the presence and Spirit of our God.