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.

Pho­to by Abhishek Koli on Unsplash

Text First Published June 1981 · Last Featured on Renovare.org May 2022

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