Silence and Solitude
The Life Abundant
an introduction to the spiritual disciplines of silence and solitude
And [Jesus] went to the mountain and prayed.
What do you think about silence and solitude? How good are you at being alone? How about silent, listening, not speaking? How can these things be considered a discipline that can bring us closer to knowing God?
I want to tell you a story real quick here, before we get into this too far. When I was a kid, we used to go to church in Markleville in a little trailer. I don't remember much about the preaching, but I do remember the story of Elijah from there. I don't know who preached it, but I remember the story. It was about God talking to Elijah on the mountain. There was great wind and an earthquake and fire. But God was not in any of these things. Let's read 1 Kings 19:9-14. He came in what the KJV calls “a still, small voice” (1 Kings 19:12). I also remember Emory saying that he couldn't explain the voice, that Reverend Helm said it was like trying to explain the taste of a granny smith to someone who has never had an apple. I think I remember this because we had an apple tree out in front on the church, and I was probably hungry.
I also remember when Dad would preach. I loved that part, because it made sense. I could understand what he was saying. He used to do this thing were he would look up the word in the dictionary, to help us understand it better. I loved that. So, silence, solitude.
Function: noun Etymology: Middle English, from Anglo-French, from Latin silentium, from silent-, silens Date: 13th century 1: forbearance from speech or noise : muteness —often used interjectionally
2: absence of sound or noise : stillness <in the silence of the night>
3: absence of mention: a: oblivion, obscurity b: secrecy <weapons research was conducted in silence>
Function: noun Etymology: Middle English, from Middle French & Latin; Middle French, from Latin solitudin-, solitudo, from solus Date: 14th century 1 : the quality or state of being alone or remote from society : seclusion
2 : a lonely place (as a desert)
Silence and solitude are not new things in the walk with God. Not at all. Moses went alone to Mount Sinai to talk with God (Exodus 19:1-4). Paul, in Galatians 1:17, went away to Arabia for some time away from all the noise. Jesus often went away to a mountain or a quiet place to talk to God (Matthew 4:1, Matthew 14:23, Mark 1:35, Luke 4:42, Luke 22:39-46). Why do you think He did this? It is mentioned at least these times, maybe more, apparently it was something He did and, if He did it, shouldn't we, also?
Dan Gilliam notes some things about silence and solitude in his book, God Touches: Finding Faith in the Cracks and Spaces of Life . Let's read that:
While there is a common assumption in church circles that God speaks most frequently and the clearest through singing worship and heart-enlivened sermons, I find the context of speechless tranquility to be a more common ground for God-messaging than any activity with noise, no matter how holy the words. This is the “Be still” part of “Be still and know that I am God” which goes on to say, “…and I will be exalted in the earth.” (Psalm 46:10) According to the psalmist, God is praised in our practice of stillness and silence. From all I have read and learned about God, His greatest desire is to share space and consciousness with us through conversation and friendship. A willingness to practice silence and solitude in our daily affairs as well as in intentional times of quiet can lead to an intimate awareness of God’s presence regardless of the activity we happen to doing at the time.
In this daily silence and solitude, wherever and however I experience it, I get a taste of my right and humble place on this planet and once more feel the swell of gratitude and sense of belonging that come from trusting God’s will and way for my life. In these moments of stillness found in early morning cemetery walks, a 20-minute bicycle ride or late night prayers from a screened-in porch, I am reminded that these sacred segments are precious and scarce in an increasingly busy and populated society. Silence is not the widened way of this world; it is a slender, rough-cut trail up the backside of the mountain that few dare to travel. It is the narrow path that Christ spoke of, the road less traveled that leads to the “Today is the day of salvation” kind of stuff, even for those who consider themselves already saved. In times of stillness we are saved, not from sin or hell, but from ourselves and all the petty worries, fears and ego ideas that often run us around like a puppy chasing its short and insignificant tail. In this quiet salvation, God again becomes God of our lives and we are relieved of our need to compete with Him for the Universal throne.
Because of its otherworldly characteristics, the mystical experience of individual and collective silence, over the centuries, has been a regular practice and core value of the Christian community, a passageway into the divine present practiced by both would-be saints and everyday believers alike. Part of the lure of the monastic life has always been the opportunity for a deeper walk with God through the life of solitude that a cloistered society provides. I have yet to meet a spiritually minded man who has not, at one time or another, fantasized about living the life of a priest or monk. While it is difficult to imagine living without the conveniences and luxuries to which we have become accustomed, the idea of having hours on end to read, pray and tend to dumb animals while making wine, cheese or candles has never lost its appeal. In modern times, the way of silence and solitude can be likened to the course of a salmon swimming upstream, going against the spiritual grain of a culture that lives and breathes accomplishment and the acquisition of material belongings. This way of stillness, not commonly found or talked about in 21st century America, is not for everyone. It is, however, available to all those who are unwilling to wait for the ethereal mists of heaven to get their hands on the keys to the kingdom. Silence and solitude are for those who desire to hear God speak and watch the Spirit move in the cracks and the spaces of life. Here and now.
It should come as no surprise to anyone new to the discipline of silence that it does not come easy. One would not normally expect to be a great musician or athlete without practice (except for golfers who all expect to be good without working at it), so the same measure should apply here. While practice can sometimes make perfect, other times, it simply makes practicing easier. For two years, I was gifted with an opportunity to live, work and play among some evangelical Quakers in Oregon. While they were not as simple or removed from society as the Amish, the Quakers, also known as Friends, taught me much about shared silence and listening for the sense of the group. Until this exposure to Quaker worship, I had never sat in intentional silence without a good reason except as punishment for pulling a girl’s ponytail or for talking too much in class. Sure, I had many times when I was alone or with people and just not talking, but it was never with an intention of listening to what God might say to me in the moment. In my early experiences of unvoiced worship I was pleasantly surprised to discover that shared silence was much easier to enjoy than any of my solo attempts had been. Most people understand the difficulty of quieting the mind in attempts at meditation or quiet reflection and I was no exception. However, in a group of people all trying to connect at some level with Christ, the Present Teacher, there is a common energy that almost gives you the feeling of your mind being weighted down. A group gravity of sorts helps your mind to stay focused and not wander so much. It is an interesting phenomenon that, once you experience it, you find yourself wanting more because of the fellowship with God and others that become so accessible.
I like this, maybe because it appeals to me, like he has it right. I don't know if you know who Dan is, but I have had the joy of meeting him and his wife on a few occasions, and it's fairly obvious he lives this. He is of the aging hippie persuasion and just fun to be around and listen to. He's the kind of guy that, if he would let me, I would just sit at his feet and listen to him talk about God for days. I don't know how sound his theology is, but I know that he loves God and walks with Him, and these two things are the core of Christianity, so he can't be too far off. I like the monk idea, but, as I have said before, I think it is cheating. I think that God calls us to love Him and to love our neighbor and, if we have no neighbor, well, you get the point. I think God calls us to follow Him in community, around others, in the struggle. Maybe I am wrong, maybe that's just where He calls me and I am jealous of those other guys.
The point I am trying to get at is this: monks do some things right. They usually follow a rule laid out by their abbot or by the founder of their order. I have this one called The Rule of Saint Benedict. It's got more rules in it than KCC, but I think they have the right idea. You cannot let life sweep you along, like a salmon that has given up on the mating ritual. You have a choice. You dictate how you spend your time. Sure you have thing that you have to do, but you can always make time if there is something you want to do or feel is important. Silence and solitude are important. In the world of noise and clutter, these things can quiet you enough to hear that still, small voice.
Let's look at Luke 6:12,13. What happens in this verse? Jesus went away to hear the still small voice and received the answer to His question: who are my disciples? It's funny, Jesus, the man who was also 100% God, went away, by Himself to hear from His Father, God in heaven. Now, without too much struggle in the realm of “why does God need to be alone to talk to God”, if Jesus deemed it necessary to do (even if only as an example for us, which I do not believe) then shouldn't we also do this?
How are you at being alone, being quiet?
What about in your mind, can it be silenced, or slowed and quieted enough to listen? Think about when someone you know is telling you a story or giving you some information that you want to hear. You are focused on them, you know are quiet, waiting to hear what they are saying. The same holds true, I think, in listening to God.
When you hear from God, will you accept it? Will you listen and obey? This may be the hardest part, but also the most rewarding. I think you know what I mean, but there are times when God will bring something to your mind, something you need to do or someone that needs prayer or encouragement or whatever.
Read James 1:22-25. You can't ignore these things. If you desire to hear from God, you have to listen to His voice and follow where He leads. If you becomes used to ignoring His voice, eventually you won't even notice that it's there. Silence and solitude are ways to slow down, to listen, to hear again. They help us to know God, what He desires, who He is and give us the opportunity to hear, trust, and obey. That hymn has it right, I think: Trust and obey, for there's no other way to be happy in Jesus, than to trust and obey.
So, in practice, maybe it looks like this: you take a Bible, paper and a pen to the woods and you sit for hours, reading, praying, listening, and writing. Or maybe it's the car ride home driven leisurely without the stereo. Maybe it's early in the morning before anyone is up on your back deck. Maybe late at night you sit alone in silence. Maybe it's the last couple minutes of lunch, sitting in your truck. Where ever it is, get some time to be still and know that Jehovah is God.
Next time we will learn about sacrifice and also stewardship. Read Philippians 3:7-11 for next week. Think about it, spend time alone with God this week, talking with Him and listening to what He has for you.