Solitude: In God for the World
“Wherever there is something in our life that is not conformed to the image of Christ, there is a place where we are incapable of being all God wants us to be with others … a place where our life with others is hindered and limited and restricted in its effectiveness and in its fullness … a place where our life will tend to become disruptive and even destructive to others. We can never be all God wants us to be with others as long as that point of unlikeness to the image of Christ exists within us.”
M. Robert Mulholland, Jr.
Each of the spiritual disciplines—rightly practiced—is in some profound way, for the sake of others. The spiritual practices are means of grace that open us to God’s transforming work in those places where we are not like Christ so we can be Christ in the world.
There are still those among us who worry that spiritual practices—especially solitude and silence—are merely occasions for narcissistic navel-gazing. I have worried about this myself. As we begin experiencing God’s presence in solitude, we may find our desire for God and the joy of being with him in this particular way to be a bit overwhelming. At times on my own journey, it has seemed like I just couldn’t get enough—which is a little frightening. At such times, I have wondered if I would ever be able to fully re-engage with people again or would I always be wishing I could go off by myself? Was I hopelessly selfish or endlessly needy? Would I ever be good for anything practical again?
While I was learning to maintain rhythms of solitude and silence, my performance anxieties stirred as I compared myself to others who were able to turn out more “real work” than I could. I wondered if I would ever be capable of producing again. I wondered if I would ever even care about producing as much as I had cared about it before. I remembered Elijah’s experience in I Kings 19 and wondered if he ever had similar concerns. Having journeyed so far from a place of prominence and productivity in his life to a place of deep quiet and hiddenness, did he, too, wonder if he would ever go back to life in the company of others?
For a while I tried to keep these fears and questions to myself. In the midst of the high-performance cultures in which I lived and worked and worshiped, it was embarrassing to acknowledge such a voracious desire for silence and solitude. I was afraid people would question my ability to succeed along the lines they were measuring. I was afraid of becoming irrelevant in a world that measures relevance by output and being out-front.
Starving for God
At the same time, I realized I was like a starving child who is given a bowl of rice or oatmeal, her first real food in a long time. The child is so hungry that once she realizes where the food is, she can’t help hanging around the place where food is dispensed. Once she receives her first portion, she grabs it and shovels it into her mouth without stopping to be polite, without being able to slow down enough to get it all in her mouth, without caring that she is slurping and spilling it down the front of her dress. It’s not a pretty sight.
The good news is that eventually it does the job; the emptiness gets filled so that sooner or later the child can look up from the bowl, wipe her mouth and speak to the people around her. Because she is satiated, she can engage with others on the basis of something besides her hunger or her fear that there won’t be enough.
I am not the only one who has gotten so hungry for true “soul food” that I couldn’t seem to get enough. Others, too, are ambushed by the intensity and insatiable quality of their own desire as well. Sometimes they return from their first several hours in real silence and with a bit of embarrassment (and sometimes a tear sliding down their cheek) they whisper,
“Can I ask you something?”
“When it was time to come back, I didn’t want to come back. I’ve never experienced God loving me like that before. I didn’t want to leave that place where God was so real to me. I don’t want to talk and I don’t want anyone to talk to me. Is that normal?”
Towards a New Normal
Many of us have no idea how hungry we are. Some of us are so far into the later stages of spiritual starvation that we don’t know what it is to be full and well. We have been feeding for so long on the emptiness of words and noise and activity that our souls are emaciated but, like an anorexic teen, we are past the point of desiring real food. The soul-nourishing substance of solitude holds no appeal. We look in the mirror and think that the 95 pound bag of bones we see there is attractive; even when the opportunity for solitude is there, we don’t choose it.
Others of us are aware of our hunger and have been starving for so long that when we find ourselves in the presence of real spiritual food, we are frantic with fear that we will never get enough after so much emptiness. Either way, this is a pretty scary stuff.
The only thing we can do is trust that the process of receiving nourishment will eventually lead us to a place of being able to give out of that fullness.
A Shimmer of Something New
There is something about the process of having our emptiness filled in solitude that eventually enables us to engage with those around us on the basis of fullness rather than need. If we relax and trust God’s initiative in the spiritual process, eventually something new begins to shimmer around the edges of our lives and relationships.
A different capacity for being present to others in love comes upon us, almost imperceptibly at first. Far beyond the familiar territory of “ought” and “should” we might notice a spontaneous and surprising desire to find a way to bring some of what we are experiencing in God’s presence to others. There is no fanfare to herald such profound inner changes, just the willingness to give ourselves to it.
For the Sake of the Teenagers in the House
There was one night in particular when I began to see a glimmer of something new and good for others emerging from my experiences in solitude. It was a beautiful summer evening. The windows and doors were all open and our home and yard was full of the kind of energy that only a group of lively junior high schoolers could bring. No matter that it was getting late, that I was trying to meet a writing deadline, and that tomorrow was a full day of work; on this night, our daughter and about twenty of her closest friends had gathered for a spontaneous “hang out” at our home. Some were in the backyard playing volleyball, others were on the street in front of the house shooting hoops, another contingency played pool in the basement, and always there was someone traipsing past my office for a drink or a snack.
My initial reaction was one of irritation. Couldn’t I just get a break here? Couldn’t I get a little peace and quiet so I could get something done? This was not a new feeling for me; it is who I am when left to myself. All too often, I have responded to my life in the company of others with this kind of frustration, bent on getting my own way and shaping my environment to my own wants and needs. In fact, the awareness of my own self-centeredness was one of the things that had sent me on the quest for deeper levels of transformation in the first place.
On this night I was finally ready to ask a different kind of question. Rather than asking how I could manipulate my environment to get what I wanted, the question came, “Is there anything from my experiences of fullness in God these days that I can bring to this moment, to these children?” This time I wasn’t asking from the “guilty-mom” place; this time I was asking because everything in me ached to give some good gift to these teenagers. But how?
Fortunately I remembered Julian of Norwich’s wonderful statement about being present to God when in the company of others. She says, “I look at God, I look at you, and I keep looking at God.” Although I had often prayed this way during times of solitude, on that night I decided to try it in the midst of a very ordinary moment in a house full of kids, facing deadlines and long workdays wanting nothing more than to be alone with my work. It occurred to me, “If my experiences in solitude and silence don’t impact this kind of real-life moment, then I’m not sure any of this is worth much.”
So I looked at God. Sitting in front of my computer trying to bang out an article, tired, kids coming and going from every door…I turned inward to that place of quiet where I had grown accustomed to meeting God. I asked God to give me sacred eyes—set-apart eyes to see and feel and know spiritual reality in this moment. Then as I turned my eyes to these young people, I began to see and feel things that were a bit uncharacteristic for me.
Rather than being frustrated by a desire to be alone so I could write, I was filled with gratitude that—during a time when so much is going wrong with our youth—these young people had chosen to be in a home where parents are present, expending their youthful energy in life-affirming ways. Rather than wishing my home were quiet, I found myself experiencing the noise and activity as the energy of youthful spirit and I was drawn to it, filled by it. Rather than experiencing their comings and goings and curious questions as interruptions, I found myself noticing how beautiful and distinct each one was and I was enlivened by the privilege of interacting with them.
After looking with sacred eyes at these children, I looked back at God and I sensed God’s love for them filling my own heart. A deep, beyond-words kind of prayer welled up, a prayer that somehow they would be blessed by the bits and pieces of our togetherness. Rather than being worn out by one more evening of parental responsibility, I found that being present to God in this moment somehow graced my own heart with love and renewed energy and wonder. I touched into a spiritual dynamic that was beyond my own ability to produce. In the midst of external noise and chaos, I had a deep experience of being present to God in the company of others and I was changed by it.
Coming Full Circle
I had not moved beyond solitude; rather, by God’s grace, I brought the quietness of my solitude and silence right into the present moment. I was learning, through experience and experimentation, that solitude consists not only in creating perfect external conditions in a retreat center, a church, or a devotional corner; the quietness of solitude and silence was becoming an inner condition within which I was able to recognize and respond to the stirrings, the voice, the very Presence of God.
And so the practices of solitude and silence do, in time, bring us full circle—back into life in the human community. Whether we have been away for a half an hour of solitude, for an extended retreat time, or we have dropped completely out of sight for awhile, God, in his time, does eventually bring us back to the life he has given us. Perhaps nothing in our outer circumstances has changed but we have changed and that’s what our world needs more than anything.
Without pressing or pushing or trying to make something altruistic happen, we discover that there is much that happens in solitude and silence that ends up being “for others”—as paradoxical as that may seem. We find that our speech patterns are refined by the discipline of silence because growing self-awareness enables us to be more choice-ful about the things we say. Rather than speech that issues from sub-conscious needs to impress, to put others in their place, to compete, to control and manipulate, to repay hurt with hurt, we now notice our own inner dynamics and choose to speak from a different place. A place of love, and trust, and true wisdom that God is cultivating within us.
Over time we become safer for other seeking souls because we are able to be with them and whatever is going on in their lives without being “hooked” by our own anxieties and fears! We are comfortable with our own humanity because we have experienced God’s love and compassion in that place. It becomes very natural for us to extend love and compassion to others in their humanity.
Transformed People Transform
For all of our Christian piety and activity, we as Christian people are not always known for our kindness. Sometimes we are downright mean and judgmental. But most, if not all, of our meanness comes out of those places within us that have been unattended and untouched by God’s love. Every broken place that has not been healed and transformed in God’s presence is a hard edge of our own personality that slices and dices others when they bump up against it. It is no wonder that Bonhoeffer makes the startling and counter-intuitive statement “Let him who cannot be alone beware of community…let him who is not in community beware of being alone.”
Without solitude, we are dangerous in the human community and in the Christian community because we are at the mercy of our own compulsions. We are driven by our inner emptiness to a self-seeking, anxious search for fullness in the next round of activities, accomplishments, or relationships. When we are not finding ourselves loved by God in solitude, we live life in the company of others always on the prowl for ways in which they can fill our emptiness. We enter into life in community trying to grab and grasp from others what only God can give.
On the other hand, when we are experiencing ourselves as the beloved of God, accepted and cherished by him in all of our beauty and brokenness, our hard, rough edges start to soften. We begin to see that others are beloved as well and that is what gets reflected back to them when they look into our eyes. For there is nothing that fills like the Love that is God. There is nothing that transforms like the Presence that is God. There is nothing that produces what the Silence of God produces within the human soul.
Not only does the love of God come to us in solitude, the love of God begins to pour through us to others. This is a very different kind of productivity and only God can bring it forth.
©Ruth Haley Barton. 2015. Not to be reproduced without permission.
This article is adapted from Invitation to Solitude and Silence: Experiencing God’s Transforming Presence (InterVarsity Press, 2004.)
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