I’ve learned a lot from the early Christian desert tradition from whom the monastic movement emerged. Here’s an insight about practicing solitude and silence from a more contemporary desert dweller, Carlo Caretto (1910-1988):
“…if you cannot go into the desert, you must nonetheless ‘make some desert’ in your life. Every now and then leaving [others] and looking for solitude to restore, in prolonged silence and prayer, the stuff of your soul. This is the meaning of ‘desert’ in your spiritual life.
One hour a day, one day a month, eight days a year, for longer if necessary, you must leave everything and everybody and retire, alone with God. If you don’t look for this solitude, if you don’t love it, you won’t achieve real contemplative prayer. If you are able to do so but nevertheless do not withdraw in order to enjoy intimacy with God, the fundamental element of the relationship with the All‑Powerful is lacking: love. And without love no revelation is possible.” (Carretto, Carlo. Letters from the Desert. Trans. Rose Mary Hancock. Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 1972, p. 73-74.)
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(Notes from a day of solitude and silence, May 1991)
Last night, I stayed late reading the first part of John of the Cross’s Dark Night of the Soul. I found a lot that sounded familiar to me. Father, I need wisdom to see what applies to my journey.
Today, I’m taking time to be alone with God in an empty field north of the freeway here in Simi Valley. Following the path of a dried-up creek bed, I think of the dryness in my own life. What felt like a babbling brook only recently now feels like this empty creek bed. I’m walking in places where once there was running water. Now there is nothing but dry rock and silt. Not even a little puddle. My life feels like this. My soul thirsts for you in a dry and weary land where there is no water (Psalm 63:1). I feel tempted by evil like Jesus was in the desert. I need His strength and focus to say “No” to the evil one’s urge to rush me.
As I continue to walk this dry creek bed, I come back to the rushing, crowded, busy freeway. My life feels like this as well. There are many near me making what seems like great progress. They are speeding ahead with apparent purpose and direction. They seem happy to hurry along to next destination. But I feel like I’m standing still in a dry and lonely place while the others rush by. It’s frustrating and dissatisfying.
In the distance, over the noise of the traffic, I hear a single coo from a lone dove. I feel like that dove, mourning and lonesome. Indidn’ this place, Your love feels unreal and distant. I don’t feel the reassurance of Your presence, grace or comfort as I so often have in recent months. I choose to remember here that Your love and faithfulness are enduring, even when my experience shouts, “He doesn’t really love you! You didn’t really believe He’s keep loving you, did you? You are just unlovable.” Father, these statements are lies from the dark depths of hell. The king of liars would have me swallow these poisonous pills. I will not, Father.
My walk brings me finally to a tiny puddle. I notice a sort of spring from which runs a trickle of water. It is so small that the water is sitting stagnant just feet from the source. Right now, this is how my inner life feels—the slightest trickle flowing into a stagnant puddle. Lead me, Father. Be merciful.
This morning, I’m taking my younger sons, Bryan and Christopher, with me as I lead “An Unhurried Day with Jesus” at the Ventura Vineyard. My wife, Gem, is leading a women’s solitude retreat for Irvine Presbyterian Church at the Serra Retreat in Malibu this weekend as well. Great opportunities for our family to minister.
Having awakened very early to make the 100+ drive up to Ventura from Mission Viejo, I thought a post from last December might help. There, I quote Elton Trueblood’s practice of “A period of deliberate receptivity at…the beginning of the conscious day.” This has helped me a lot…
Read more of “Waking Myself After I Wake“
One of the most difficult practices for busy North American Christians and, therefore, one of the most needful is the regular habit of solitude and silence. I’ve included a link today from a post last August where I talked more about this.
Read more of “How Prayer is Deepened”
I continue today to recover from a lovely cold/flu that’s parked in my chest. Hurray for antibiotics and cough syrup with codeine. So I’ll make this one short.
E. Glenn Hinson, in an article from Weavings (May/June 2002), talked about how we might more deeply practice the presence of God in our lives through rhythms of daily and occasional disengagements from our activities to simply be in the presence of God.
Read more of “Cultivating Holy Rhythms of Life
I am a grateful witness to how God is uniquely present to His people in retreat settings like yesterday’s Come Away in Los Angeles. There is something about slowing down that enables us to enter more deeply into His infinite love for us.
With that in mind, I’m looking back to a post from December 2009 which came after one of our “An Unhurried Day with Jesus” Saturday retreats. I had been reading Kosuke Koyama’s book Three Mile An Hour God. He talks there about the pace of walking with God: “God walks ‘slowly’ because he is love.”
Read more of “Living Life at the Pace of Love”
Buy a copy of Three Mile an Hour God: Biblical Reflections on Amazon.com
Today, I am grateful to be taking a rest day after three good solid weeks of ministry. I’ll probably get out and take a good long ride on my bike. I’ll probably read plenty.
So in light of the fact that I’m not working today, I thought it would be good time to schedule ahead this list of most-visited recent posts:
- “Writing” – First, I had the treat of having a small article published in the latest edition of Conversations Journal. It was a response to David Kinnaman’s book unChristian: What a New Generation Really Thinks about Christianity… and Why It Matters. You can download a copy of my article by clicking on the article image on this page.
- “Podcast” – I launched a new audio podcast on March 29th and have uploaded ten episodes now. You can listen to them on the web directly or on iTunes (and your iPod if you subscribe there).
- “A Practice for Burn-out Prevention” – I didn’t set out to address burnout as a primary focus of my ministry over the last ten years, but it has turned out that my work in spiritual direction and retreat leading has borne a great deal of fruit in helping Christian leaders experience God’s refreshment and His sustaining Presence. Here I shared some simple, practical insights about a core practice of our ministry team: one day a month to be alone and quiet with God.
- “Bookstore” – You can see what I’m reading here for the April to June 2010 quarter.
- “Wisdom for the Wayward” – Here I shared a great quotation from the desert fathers on a prostitute who experienced God’s mercy. I love this line from one of the fathers who tells the story: “If a spark can set on fire the sea, then can thy sins stain His whiteness: it is no new thing to fall in the mire, but it is an evil thing to lie there fallen.”
- “A Good Word: Soul-Honest Prayer” – Here I shared one of my all-time favorite C. S. Lewis quotations offering counsel on how to pray.
“Solitude spiritualizes the whole [person], transforms [them], body and soul, from a carnal to a spiritual being. It can only do so in the Spirit of Christ Who elevates our whole being in God, and does not divide [a person’s] personality against itself like those false asceticisms which St. Paul knew to be enemies of the Cross of Christ.” (Thomas Merton. Disputed Questions. New York: Harcourt, Brace Jovanovich, Publishers, 1953, 1959, 1960, p. 172.)
True Christian spirituality unites our inner life and outer life. False ascetisms dis-integrate us, body from soul and spirit. We look down on the body and idealize our false vision of the inner life. Spirituality is embodied. Spiritual practices involve our body, some more obviously than others.
Solitude makes us holy as a being alone with God, not as personally directed privacy. Isolation is not solitude. Me alone with myself isn’t sanctifying. Alone and apart from God is not a place of life. Alone with God is.
- Think about recent times when you’ve been alone. At what points did you feel alone for yourself (privacy)? At what points did you feel alone with God (solitude)?
- How would you describe the difference between these two ways of being alone?
- How is God inviting you to moment alone with Him day-to-day? What would energize, encourage and refresh you alone in His presence?
On this Saturday morning, I was drawn to post a link back to something I wrote in April 2006 on “Waiting and Stillness.” Evelyn Underhill suggested that there should always be more waiting than striving in a Christian’s prayer. You can read more about this and other insights at the link below:
Read “Waiting and Stillness”
I lead many retreats these days with solitude and silence with God at the heart of them. It feels like a fringe benefit of my ministry role. I love guiding others in vital encounter with an unfailingly loving God. Nothing encourages me more. Along the way, I’ve noticed different kinds of resistance people have to spending time alone and quiet with God.
Last November, I experienced the cultural resistance of the Dominican pastors. They are rarely if ever alone. A few American missionaries were very doubtful as to whether the pastors would be able to handle two hours alone…let alone with God. There is a cultural sense that if you are alone, there must be something wrong with you. In fact, on the day retreat I led for them, one of the pastors walked to the end of the retreat center driveway and sat on a rock. Someone walking by actually made a point of walking over and asking him, “What’s wrong?” This is the “we just don’t do that here” form of resistance. It can happen in churches as easily as in countries. .
Some Christian leaders feel a temperament resistance. They may say, “Solitude is for introverts, but I’m an extrovert. I prefer to be with others. I grow most in community.” Solitude doesn’t devalue community, but is a rhythm that enriches community. My experience is that the deepest and most united community is a fruit of a deeper communion with God cultivated in solitude. Dietrich Bonhoeffer is the one who said, “Let [the one] who cannot be alone beware of community…. Let [the one] who is not in community beware of being alone.”
Finally, there is what I’d call a productivity resistance, like the CEO who says, “I’m a driven person. I don’t have time to waste in solitude like that. Solitude is for less productive people.” Leaders think that solitude is for monk-like people and not activist leaders. They think time spent alone with God will somehow reduce the fruit of their ministry. I would simply suggest that Paul the apostle was a great leader and a great pray-er. He experienced solitude on long walks between cities and in seasons of imprisonment along the way. Did he have a fruitful ministry?
And who is going to argue that Jesus was a weak leader? It is said that “Jesus often withdrew to lonely places and prayed (Lk 5:16).” Often. Not rarely. Or occasionally. Or at times. Often. What might that mean for our own rhythm of life as Christ-followers?
What kinds of resistance rise up in you to “often withdrawing to lonely places to pray”? Busyness? Fear? Guilt?