Introductory Note:

Henri Nouwen’s eminently practical guidance on the spiritual discipline of solitude is worth reading on at least an annual basis. His picture of the distracted mind of a would-be pray-er as a house with a dozen visitors pounding at the doors has long stayed with me. “At first, the many distractions keep presenting themselves. Later, as they receive less and less attention, they slowly withdraw.”

Carolyn Arends
Director of Education, Renovaré

Excerpt from Devotional Classics

1. Hard Work

The spir­i­tu­al life is a gift. It is the gift of the Holy Spir­it, who lifts us up into the king­dom of God’s love. But to say that being lift­ed up into the king­dom of love is a divine gift does not mean that we wait pas­sive­ly until the gift is offered to us.

Jesus tells us to set our hearts on the king­dom. Set­ting our hearts on some­thing involves not only seri­ous aspi­ra­tion but also strong deter­mi­na­tion. A spir­i­tu­al life requires human effort. The forces that keep pulling us back into a wor­ry-filled life are far from easy to overcome.

How hard it is,” Jesus exclaims, “… to enter the king­dom of God!” (Mark 10:23, JB). And to con­vince us of the need for hard work, he says, If any­one wants to be a fol­low­er of mine, let him renounce him­self and take up his cross and fol­low me” (Matt. 16:24JB).

2. The Small, Gen­tle Voice 

Here we touch the ques­tion of dis­ci­pline in the spir­i­tu­al life. A spir­i­tu­al life with­out dis­ci­pline is impos­si­ble. Dis­ci­pline is the oth­er side of dis­ci­ple­ship. The prac­tice of a spir­i­tu­al dis­ci­pline makes us more sen­si­tive to the small, gen­tle voice of God. 

The prophet Eli­jah did not encounter God in the mighty wind or in the earth­quake or in the fire, but in the small voice (see 1 Kings 19:9 – 13). Through the prac­tice of a spir­i­tu­al dis­ci­pline we become atten­tive to that small voice and will­ing to respond when we hear it.

3. From an Absurd to an Obe­di­ent Life

From all that I said about our wor­ried, over­filled lives, it is clear that we are usu­al­ly sur­round­ed by so much out­er noise that it is hard to tru­ly hear our God when he is speak­ing to us. We have often become deaf, unable to know when God calls us and unable to under­stand in which direc­tion he calls us.

Thus our lives have become absurd. In the word absurd we find the Latin word sur­dus, which means deaf.” A spir­i­tu­al life requires dis­ci­pline because we need to learn to lis­ten to God, who con­stant­ly speaks but whom we sel­dom hear.

When, how­ev­er, we learn to lis­ten, our lives become obe­di­ent lives. The word obe­di­ent comes from the Latin word audire, which means lis­ten­ing.” A spir­i­tu­al dis­ci­pline is nec­es­sary in order to move slow­ly from an absurd to an obe­di­ent life, from a life filled with noisy wor­ries to a life in which there is some free inner space where we can lis­ten to our God and fol­low his guidance.

Jesus’ life was a life of obe­di­ence. He was always lis­ten­ing to the Father, always atten­tive to his voice, always alert for his direc­tions. Jesus was all ear.” That is true prayer: being all ear for God. The core of all prayer is indeed lis­ten­ing, obe­di­ent­ly stand­ing in the pres­ence of God.

4. The Con­cen­trat­ed Effort

A spir­i­tu­al dis­ci­pline, there­fore, is the con­cen­trat­ed effort to cre­ate some inner and out­er space in our lives, where this obe­di­ence can be prac­ticed. Through a spir­i­tu­al dis­ci­pline we pre­vent the world from fill­ing our lives to such an extent that there is no place left to lis­ten. A spir­i­tu­al dis­ci­pline sets us free to pray or, to say it bet­ter, allows the Spir­it of God to pray in us.

5. A Time and a Space

With­out soli­tude it is vir­tu­al­ly impos­si­ble to live a spir­i­tu­al life. Soli­tude begins with a time and a place for God, and him alone. If we real­ly believe not only that God exists but also that he is active­ly present in our lives — heal­ing, teach­ing, and guid­ing — we need to set aside a time and a space to give him our undi­vid­ed atten­tion. Jesus says, Go to your pri­vate room and, when you have shut your door, pray to the Father who is in that secret place” (Matt. 6:6JB). 

6. Inner Chaos

To bring some soli­tude into our lives is one of the most nec­es­sary but also most dif­fi­cult dis­ci­plines. Even though we may have a deep desire for real soli­tude, we also expe­ri­ence a cer­tain appre­hen­sion as we approach that soli­tary place and time. As soon as we are alone, with­out peo­ple to talk with, books to read, TV to watch, or phone calls to make, an inner chaos opens up in us.

This chaos can be so dis­turb­ing and so con­fus­ing that we can hard­ly wait to get busy again. Enter­ing a pri­vate room and shut­ting the door, there­fore, does not mean that we imme­di­ate­ly shut out all our inner doubts, anx­i­eties, fears, bad mem­o­ries, unre­solved con­flicts, angry feel­ings, and impul­sive desires. On the con­trary, when we have removed our out­er dis­trac­tions, we often find that our inner dis­trac­tions man­i­fest them­selves to us in full force.

We often use these out­er dis­trac­tions to shield our­selves from the inte­ri­or nois­es. It is thus not sur­pris­ing that we have a dif­fi­cult time being alone. The con­fronta­tion with our inner con­flicts can be too painful for us to endure.

This makes the dis­ci­pline of soli­tude all the more impor­tant. Soli­tude is not a spon­ta­neous response to an occu­pied and pre­oc­cu­pied life. There are too many rea­sons not to be alone. There­fore we must begin by care­ful­ly plan­ning some solitude.

7. Write It in Black and White

Five or ten min­utes a day may be all we can tol­er­ate. Per­haps we are ready for an hour every day, an after­noon every week, a day every month, or a week every year. The amount of time will vary for each per­son accord­ing to tem­pera­ment, age, job, lifestyle, and maturity.

But we do not take the spir­i­tu­al life seri­ous­ly if we do not set aside some time to be with God and lis­ten to him. We may have to write it in black and white in our dai­ly cal­en­dar so that nobody else can take away this peri­od of time. Then we will be able to say to our friends, neigh­bors, stu­dents, cus­tomers, clients, or patients, Tm sor­ry, but I’ve already made an appoint­ment at that time and it can’t be changed.”

8. Bom­bard­ed by Thou­sands of Thoughts

Once we have com­mit­ted our­selves to spend­ing time in soli­tude, we devel­op an atten­tive­ness to God’s voice in us. In the begin­ning, dur­ing the first days, weeks, or even months, we may have the feel­ing that we are sim­ply wast­ing our time. Time in soli­tude may at first seem lit­tle more than a time in which we are bom­bard­ed by thou­sands of thoughts and feel­ings that emerge from hid­den areas of our minds. 

One of the ear­ly Chris­t­ian writ­ers describes the first stage of soli­tary prayer as the expe­ri­ence of a man who, after years of liv­ing with open doors, sud­den­ly decides to shut them. The vis­i­tors who used to come and enter his home start pound­ing on his doors, won­der­ing why they are not allowed to enter. Only when they real­ize that they are not wel­come do they grad­u­al­ly stop coming.

This is the expe­ri­ence of any­one who decides to enter into soli­tude after a life with­out much spir­i­tu­al dis­ci­pline. At first, the many dis­trac­tions keep pre­sent­ing them­selves. Lat­er, as they receive less and less atten­tion, they slow­ly withdraw.

9. Tempt­ed to Run Away

It is clear that what mat­ters is faith­ful­ness to the dis­ci­pline. In the begin­ning, soli­tude seems so con­trary to our desires that we arc con­stant­ly tempt­ed to run away from it. One way of run­ning away is day­dream­ing or sim­ply falling asleep. But when we stick to our dis­ci­pline, in the con­vic­tion that God is with us even when we do not yet hear him, we slow­ly dis­cov­er that we do not want to miss our time alone with God. Although we do not expe­ri­ence much sat­is­fac­tion in our soli­tude, we real­ize that a day with­out soli­tude is less spir­i­tu­al” than a day with it.

10. The First Sign of Prayer 

Intu­itive­ly, we know that it is impor­tant to spend time in soli­tude. We even start look­ing for­ward to this strange peri­od of use­less­ness. This desire for soli­tude is often the first sign of prayer, the first indi­ca­tion that the pres­ence of God’s Spir­it no longer remains unnoticed.

As we emp­ty our­selves of our many wor­ries, we come to know not only with our mind but also with our heart that we were nev­er real­ly alone, that God’s Spir­it was with us all along. Thus we come to under­stand what Paul writes to the Romans, Suf­fer­ings bring patience … and patience brings per­se­ver­ance, and per­se­ver­ance brings hope, and this hope is not decep­tive, because the love of God has been poured into our hearts by the Holy Spir­it which has been giv­en to us” (Rom. 5:4 – 6JB).

11. The Way to Hope

In soli­tude, we come to know the Spir­it who has already been giv­en to us. The pains and strug­gles we encounter in our soli­tude thus become the way to hope, because our hope is not based on some­thing that will hap­pen after our suf­fer­ings are over, but on the real pres­ence of God’s heal­ing Spir­it in the midst of these sufferings.

The dis­ci­pline of soli­tude allows us grad­u­al­ly to come in touch with this hope­ful pres­ence of God in our lives, and allows us also to taste even now the begin­nings of the joy and peace which belong to the new heav­en and the new earth. 

The dis­ci­pline of soli­tude, as I have described it here, is one of the most pow­er­ful dis­ci­plines in devel­op­ing a prayer­ful life. It is a sim­ple, though not easy, way to free us from the slav­ery of our occu­pa­tions and pre­oc­cu­pa­tions and to begin to hear the voice that makes all things new.

Excerpts tak­en from Devo­tion­al Clas­sics: Select­ed Read­ings for Indi­vid­u­als and Groups (Richard J. Fos­ter & James Bryan Smith, Edi­tors. Harper­Collins, 1993.) Used with permission.

Text First Published June 1981 · Last Featured on May 2022

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