Through­out the life of the church the great lead­ers in the faith have com­mend­ed silence and soli­tude as nec­es­sary for mak­ing progress in the spir­i­tu­al life.

Dur­ing the Ren­o­varé region­al con­fer­ences Richard Fos­ter taught, 

Prayer is the most cen­tral of the dis­ci­plines of engage­ment, the via pos­i­tive. Soli­tude is the most cen­tral of the dis­ci­plines of absti­nence. The rea­son is sim­ple: Soli­tude makes the spir­i­tu­al life pos­si­ble because in it we are freed from the bondage to peo­ple and our inner com­pul­sions, and we are freed to love God and know com­pas­sion for others.

The 15th cen­tu­ry priest Thomas à Kem­p­is encour­aged this spir­i­tu­al prac­tice in The Imi­ta­tion of Christ: 

In qui­et and silence the faith­ful soul makes progress, the hid­den mean­ings of the Scrip­tures become clear, and the eyes weep with devo­tion every night. Even as one learns to grow still, one draws clos­er to the Cre­ator and far­ther from the hurly-burly of the World.

And Hen­ri Nouwen wrote, 

With­out soli­tude it is vir­tu­al­ly impos­si­ble to live a spir­i­tu­al life. Soli­tude begins with a time and place for God, and for 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 space to give him our undi­vid­ed attention.

From each of these teach­ers, I hear words of invi­ta­tion. Freed to love God and know com­pas­sion for oth­ers… one draws clos­er to the Cre­ator… He is active­ly present… give Him our undi­vid­ed atten­tion. Tru­ly these are words of invi­ta­tion and com­fort. Still there are bar­ri­ers that pre­vent many of us from accept­ing the invi­ta­tion to sim­ply do what the Psalmist invites to do. Be still and know that I am God. (Psalm 46:10).

Bar­ri­ers to Engag­ing in Solitude

One bar­ri­er is an incom­plete under­stand­ing of the dis­ci­pline. Dal­las Willard writes that soli­tude is the cre­ation of an open, emp­ty space in our lives by pur­pose­ful­ly abstain­ing from the inter­ac­tion with oth­er human beings, so that, freed from com­pet­ing loy­al­ties, we can be found by God.” 

We can begin by cre­at­ing an open, emp­ty space on our calendar.

I found one of these wide open spaces by acci­dent. I was trav­el­ing through the col­lege town where my son lived. He asked if I would join him for break­fast before his first class on the day of my depar­ture. Yes, of course. It was easy to delay my dri­ve for an hour to spend time with my son. He called just as I arrived at the pan­cake house. He over­slept so he asked if I would delay my dri­ve by anoth­er few hours so we could have break­fast after his class. Yes, of course. 

A small park was near­by so I went to wait and found a beau­ti­ful rose gar­den. The ros­es were in bloom and fresh with the morn­ing dew. I saw a lit­tle sien­na brown chip­munk dart­ing from bush to bush. Chip­munks are shy lit­tle ani­mals so every time I would catch a glimpse of the crea­ture it would run away and hide. Final­ly, I sat down on a bench. A few min­utes lat­er I heard God say to me, If you want to see the chip­munk you need to be very still and qui­et and wait.” I sat very still and qui­et. The chip­munk came out of hid­ing and sat on the path right in front of me. He just sat there.

God was teach­ing me. I under­stood that he want­ed me to learn to be still and wait and watch for Him. The words of that old hymn came to mind: And he walks with me, and he talks with me, and he tells me I am his own; and the joy we share as we tar­ry there, none oth­er has ever known.

A sec­ond bar­ri­er is the dis­trac­tion around us and the many com­pet­ing thoughts that run through our minds like a swarm of bees. Like any spir­i­tu­al dis­ci­pline we learn by prac­tic­ing. We begin by find­ing a qui­et place that is as free from dis­trac­tions as it can be. We notice how we respond. It may be that learn­ing a short breathe pray will help us return to a lov­ing atten­tive­ness toward God. My prayer is sim­ply, Father. In time you will find one that is right for you. I encour­age you to exper­i­ment. Sus­tained prac­tice will help us under­stand what Tere­sa of Avi­la means when she wrote Set­tle your­self in soli­tude and you will come upon Him in yourself.”

In his arti­cle, Fos­ter address­es the third bar­ri­er to prac­tic­ing soli­tude: fear. The fear of becom­ing unim­por­tant, unneed­ed, insignif­i­cant, use­less. He teach­es us how to over­come the fear and why we should set it aside. We learn to release our lit­tle to do list” of good things that need atten­tion. We learn to be still and seek God with our whole heart. We find lit­tle silences and soli­tudes all through an ordi­nary day.

It is in this way that, in the words of St. Paul,

We throw open our doors to God and dis­cov­er at the same moment that he has already thrown open his door to us. We find our­selves stand­ing where we always hoped we might stand — out in the wide open spaces of God’s grace and glo­ry. —Romans 5:1 MSG

Let’s throw open our doors to God through giv­ing him our undi­vid­ed atten­tion. Let’s delay for an hour or two some­thing that seems urgent so that we can learn to be present to God — ful­ly present. Per­haps you can select two or three of the sug­gest­ed venues for silence and soli­tude and just give it a try.

[Edi­tor’s note: This arti­cle orig­i­nal­ly pro­ceed­ed Richard Fos­ter’s arti­cle The Fear of Soli­tude.]

Wide Open Spaces was orig­i­nal­ly pub­lished in Per­spec­tive, April 1997.

Pho­to by Lucas Davies on Unsplash

Text First Published March 1997

📚 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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