I have just returned from meet­ing with a high­ly effec­tive pas­tor in our area who is plan­ning an extend­ed peri­od of per­son­al retreat for his own spir­i­tu­al nur­ture. Dur­ing our con­ver­sa­tion, he said to me, The great­est gift I can give my peo­ple is to become a pas­tor who has grown deep in the things of God.” Wise pas­tor! And rare.

This prompt­ed me to think about why we shy away from expe­ri­ences of soli­tude even though they were absolute­ly axiomat­ic to the fig­ures that walk across the pages of our Bible and to the great lead­ers of all our tra­di­tions. I am not think­ing about the nor­mal excus­es we give for neglect­ing times of per­son­al retreat: over­crowd­ed sched­ules, demand­ing respon­si­bil­i­ties, numer­ous oblig­a­tions, con­stant dead­lines, and more. While these things do need to be dealt with, they are only sur­face matters. 

The Root of our Fear

No, I am con­cerned about a deep­er rea­son that invari­ably crops up any time we con­sid­er times of gen­uine soli­tude. It is the almost over­whelm­ing feel­ing that we will be passed over. Now, what we say is, I want to be avail­able to help when­ev­er there is a cri­sis or prob­lem.” But what real­ly con­cerns us is that peo­ple will get along quite well with­out us! You see, this strikes right at the root of our fear of becom­ing unim­por­tant, unneed­ed, insignif­i­cant, useless. 

This is pre­cise­ly why soli­tude is such a fun­da­men­tal dis­ci­pline of the spir­i­tu­al life. As long as we are at the cen­ter of the action, we feel indis­pens­able. And we are sore­ly tempt­ed to micro-man­age every­one around us… for their good, of course! But gen­uine expe­ri­ences of soli­tude under­cut all the pre­tense. In the very act of retreat we resign as CEO of the uni­verse. We entrust peo­ple into the hands of God. We allow oth­ers to devel­op and grow with­out our con­stant over­sight. This, in time, gives us a pre­cious free­dom when we are among peo­ple — the free­dom to serve and be served with­out the slight­est need to man­age or con­trol either peo­ple or circumstances. 

Ren­der­ing Our­selves Useless

Besides, it isn’t all that bad to become use­less. Good teach­ers hope in time to make them­selves use­less to those under their tute­lage. Stu­dents unable to think for them­selves and thus for­ev­er depen­dent upon their teach­ers have not been taught well. Par­ents are exceed­ing­ly use­ful to young chil­dren. But good par­ents are con­stant­ly work­ing to make them­selves use­less as they nur­ture a grow­ing self-gov­ern­ment in their chil­dren. Per­pet­u­al depen­den­cy in a daugh­ter or son is a grotesque thing indeed. 

An old writer, Hen­ry Clay Trum­bull, once said, There are ever two ways of striv­ing to fill one’s place in the world: one is by seek­ing to prove one’s self use­ful; the oth­er, by striv­ing to ren­der one’s self use­less. The first way is the com­mon­er and the more attrac­tive; the sec­ond is the rar­er and the more noble.” Reg­u­lar expe­ri­ences of spir­i­tu­al retreat and gen­uine soli­tude will empow­er us and give us the per­spec­tive nec­es­sary to ren­der our­selves useless. 

Grow­ing Togeth­er: Prac­ti­cal Steps

By now you may have guessed that the theme of this arti­cle is per­son­al retreat. All of us com­mit­ted to the Ren­o­varé vision are seek­ing to inte­grate times of soli­tude and retreat into our per­son­al lives, and (giv­en our world and its reign­ing val­ues) we need all the encour­age­ment and help we can get in this mat­ter. So, in this sec­tion devot­ed to prac­tice, let me sug­gest some of the var­ied venues for soli­tude that are with­in the reach of everyone. 

Take a pre-dawn walk. Lis­ten to the awak­en­ing sounds of your world, whether city or coun­try. Give the com­ing day to God. Lis­ten for his guid­ance over the labor of the day. It is an ancient dis­ci­pline to wel­come the new day in faith and wor­ship. O Lord, in the morn­ing thou dost hear my voice; in the morn­ing I pre­pare a sac­ri­fice for thee, and watch” (Ps. 5:3). And in the morn­ing, a great while before day, he [Jesus] rose and went out to a lone­ly place, and there he prayed” (Mark 2:35). In the words of the old Ger­man hymn, When morn­ing gilds the skies, My heart awak­ing cries, May Jesus Christ be praised!” 

For one month leave your car radio off and turn your morn­ing com­mute into a mini-retreat. Place your chil­dren and spouse into the lov­ing care of God. Pray for the per­son in the car ahead of you. Con­sid­er the lilies of the field and how they dif­fer from the fran­tic scram­ble of human activ­i­ty around you. Try dri­ving in the slow lane for a change. Bless those who cut in front of you; bless and do not curse them. Lis­ten for divine impres­sions on upcom­ing meet­ings, rela­tion­ships in the office, cre­ative solu­tions to trou­bling busi­ness sit­u­a­tions, and more. 

In the mid­dle of the morn­ing or after­noon, take a five minute wor­ship break. Enjoy a fresh-cut flower on your desk or a tran­quil pic­ture or say­ing on the wall. Stroll around the office build­ing (or home or field or school), prayer­ful­ly plac­ing every per­son who works there into the strong, pro­tec­tive arms of God. Tap your toe or fin­ger to the tune of a sim­ple wor­ship song. Enjoy a fresh cup of cof­fee and with every sip ask for the inflow of God’s warmth.

Lim­it your speech to an absolute min­i­mum for one day. See what you learn about your­self; for exam­ple, how fran­ti­cal­ly you depend upon words to manip­u­late sit­u­a­tions. Watch for how words bless and encour­age, and how they wound and destroy. For the future con­sid­er ways that your words can be few and full. 

Read one chap­ter of a devo­tion­al clas­sic as the chil­dren are tak­ing a nap. While pon­der­ing the read­ing, savor the alone­ness” and silence. 

Go to the inner city for a social jus­tice retreat. Talk with the home­less, learn­ing from them rather than preach­ing to them. Fast so that in a small way you may enter into the gnaw­ing hunger of those who live an eter­nal, com­pul­so­ry fast. Walk the streets, lis­ten­ing to the whim­per­ing songs from the slums.” Con­sid­er what it would mean to live with­out hope. With­out try­ing to solve every prob­lem, lis­ten for any divine guid­ance you may be giv­en for action. 

Make your next plane flight or bus trip a per­son­al retreat. Watch peo­ple. Lis­ten. Pray. Read through a good book in one sitting. 

Have an expe­ri­ence of watch­ing”. Arise at 2:00 a.m., light a sin­gle can­dle as a reminder of the pres­ence of Christ, and for one hour lis­ten to the sounds of the night. Don’t try to read or write. This is a time for silence, for still­ness. Don’t even try to pray in the nor­mal sense of talk­ing or artic­u­lat­ing thoughts. Be qui­et. Enter the Shalom of God. After the hour, return to bed and to sleep, remem­ber­ing the words of Broth­er Lawrence; those who have the gale of the Holy Spir­it go for­ward even in sleep.” 

Leave phone, TV, and radio off while clean­ing the house or base­ment or garage or work­ing on a hobby. View this time of qui­et as a spe­cial gift from God dur­ing which you can lis­ten for his whisperings. 

Orig­i­nal­ly pub­lished in Per­spec­tive, April 1997.

Pho­to by Nicholas Bar­baros on Unsplash

Originally published March 1997

Starting Soon: The 2020-21 Renovaré Book Club

An inten­tion­al way to read for trans­for­ma­tion not just infor­ma­tion. Runs Sep­tem­ber 2020 through May 2021.

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