Excerpt from Spiritual Disciplines Handbook

Though we may be unfa­mil­iar with the dis­ci­pline of soli­tude, most of us rec­og­nize it as some­thing we want­ed when we were first in love. It didn’t mat­ter if the time spent togeth­er accom­plished any­thing very use­ful or impor­tant to the world at large. It was sim­ply the way we let our beloved know that he or she mat­tered. In order to show love, we sought time alone together. 

The Song of Songs is a mys­te­ri­ous­ly won­der­ful book of the Bible. It gives a glimpse of lovers who want to be alone so they can express the full range of their love for one anoth­er. The church regards this book as descrip­tive of human love as well as of divine love. God longs to com­mune with his chil­dren. He beck­ons, Arise, come, my dar­ling; / my beau­ti­ful one, come with me” (Song of Songs 2:13). In soli­tude the heart waits for God, and God alone. Here the soul opens wide to lis­ten and receive. 

Jesus began his min­istry with forty for­ma­tive days of soli­tude. No doubt Jesus intend­ed to com­mune with God alone, but he also encoun­tered the tempter in that desert place. Mark writes, At once the Spir­it sent him out into the desert, and he was in the desert forty days, being tempt­ed by Satan” (Mark 1:12). Soli­tude is a for­ma­tive place because it gives God’s Spir­it time and space to do deep work. When no one is there to watch, judge and inter­pret what we say, the Spir­it often brings us face to face with hid­den motives and com­pul­sions. The world of recog­ni­tion, achieve­ment and applause dis­ap­pears, and we stand square­ly before God with­out props. In soli­tude Jesus did bat­tle with the intox­i­cat­ing pos­si­bil­i­ties of achiev­ing his king­dom and iden­ti­ty in the pow­er of the self. He faced down the self Satan offered and instead chose his true iden­ti­ty as the beloved Son. Through­out his three years of min­istry Jesus returned again and again to soli­tude, where the rush of atten­tion and the acco­lades of the crowds could be put into their prop­er per­spec­tive. Soli­tude with God was a way Jesus remained in touch with his true iden­ti­ty in God. 

Most of us can iden­ti­fy with the intox­i­cat­ing feel­ing that comes when we are the cen­ter of atten­tion. Soli­tude is a dis­ci­pline that gets behind those feel­ings to who we are when we feel invis­i­ble and unrec­og­nized. Who are we when pro­duc­tiv­i­ty and recog­ni­tion fall away and God is the only one watch­ing us? Some of us sim­ply seem to lose our sense of self when there is no one to mir­ror back who we are. With­out the oxy­gen of doing and the mir­ror of approval, our feel­ings of being real and impor­tant evap­o­rate. Hol­low places open up in our heart, and our soul feels emp­ty and bare. We can feel agi­tat­ed, scat­tered and dis­tract­ed. These dis­con­cert­ing feel­ings do two things for us. They reveal how much of our iden­ti­ty is embed­ded in a false sense of self. And they show us how easy it is to avoid soli­tude because we dis­like being unpro­duc­tive and unapplauded.

But we need soli­tude if we intend to unmask the false self and its impor­tant-look­ing image. Alone, with­out dis­trac­tions, we put our­selves in a place where God can reveal things to us that we might not notice in the nor­mal pre­oc­cu­pa­tions of life. Soli­tude opens a space where we can bring our emp­ty and com­pul­sive selves to God. And no mat­ter how well we do” silence, God is there to accept, receive and love us. God longs for us to be our true self in Christ. He wants us to be who we arc meant to be. In soli­tude we sec how lit­tle we embrace our true iden­ti­ty in Christ. And we find the truth of who we arc in Christ. We arc the beloved, and God is pleased with us. This iden­ti­ty is giv­en; it is not earned. Many oth­er voic­es pull at us, seek­ing to own and name us, but in soli­tude we learn what it is to dis­tin­guish between the voice of God and the voic­es of the world. (This is some­times called the dis­cern­ment of spir­its” [1 John 4:1 ].) Times of soli­tude can be sweet times, but they can also be dark times when God seems to remain with­drawn and silent. We seek the Lord, but he doesn’t seem to show up. These times of test­ing, or the dark nights,” like Jesus had in the wilder­ness, are well doc­u­ment­ed in the lives of the saints. Don’t be afraid of the dark­ness or the soli­tude. Stay with God. The light will even­tu­al­ly dawn. 

REFLEC­TION QUESTIONS

  1. How and when do you resist or avoid being alone? 
  2. What tends to pop into your mind when you are alone?
  3. What do you resort to doing when alone?
  4. What trou­bles you or makes you antsy about being alone?
  5. When have you felt most com­fort­able being alone? Most uncomfortable?
  6. What sense of God do you have when you are alone?

SPIR­I­TU­AL EXERCISES

  1. In a place where you can’t be inter­rupt­ed, inten­tion­al­ly place your­self in the pres­ence of God. Rec­og­nize that the Lord is as near as your own breath­ing. Inhale God’s breath of life; exhale all that weighs on you. Sim­ply be alone with God. • When it is time to return to oth­ers, leave the pres­ence of God gen­tly. Car­ry the sense of being alone with God with you into the next thing. 
  2. Spend fif­teen min­utes or more alone with God. You can do an activ­i­ty if you wish: walk, run, dri­ve, iron. Ded­i­cate the time ahead of you to God. • After the time is up, con­sid­er how it was for you to be alone with God. Was it hard? Good? Did God speak to you in any way?
  3. Make the time you spend in the show­er each morn­ing your alone time with God. Present your­self to your Cre­ator — all of your body, all of the dirt that has accu­mu­lat­ed in your soul, all that God has made you to be. Let the water from the show­er remind you of the water of life that nour­ish­es and changes you. Let the warmth touch you with love. If you like a cold show­er, let. the brac­ing impact call you to live your life to the full. Offer your­self to God for the day. Thank him for the alone time he spends with you. 
  4. Set aside half a day for time alone with God. Go to a retreat cen­ter, qui­et chapel or park. Don’t stay in your home. Take only your Bible. 

Tak­en from Spir­i­tu­al Dis­ci­plines Hand­book by Adele Ahlberg Cal­houn. ©2015 by Adele Ahlberg Cal­houn. Used by per­mis­sion of Inter­Var­si­ty Press, P.O. Box 1400, Down­ers Grove IL 60515 – 1426. www​.ivpress​.com

Text First Published October 2005

📚 The 2022 – 23 Ren­o­varé Book Club

This year’s nine-month, soul-shap­ing jour­ney fea­tures four books, old and new, prayer­ful­ly curat­ed by Ren­o­varé. Now under­way and there’s still time to join.

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