The Lost Discipline of Silence and Solitude

celebration of disciplineSettle yourself in solitude and you will come upon Him in yourself. —TERESA OF ÁVILA

I have recently been reminded of a discipline that I want to practice more.  The Discipline of Solitude.  Richard Foster has written a book call Celebration of Discipline where he chronicles certain faith practices that some of the masters of the faith have practiced over the years.  In our modern world we sometime fail to draw on the experiences of the giants of the faith from days gone by.  Below is an excerpt from his grand book.

“Solitude and Silence. Without silence there is no solitude. Though silence sometimes involves the absence of speech, it always involves the act of listening. Simply to refrain from talking, without a heart listening to God, is not silence. “A day filled with noise and voices can be a day of silence, if the noises become for us the echo of the presence of God, if the voices are, for us, messages and solicitations of God. When we speak of ourselves and are filled with ourselves, we leave silence behind. When we repeat the intimate words of God that he has left within us, our silence remains intact.”  We must understand the connection between inner solitude and inner silence; they are inseparable. All the masters of the interior life speak of the two in the same breath.

For example, The Imitation of Christ , which has been the unchallenged masterpiece of devotional literature for five hundred years, has a section titled “On the Love of Solitude and Silence.” Dietrich Bonhoeffer makes the two an inseparable whole in Life Together as does Thomas Merton in Thoughts in Solitude. In fact, I wrestled for some time trying to decide whether to title this chapter the Discipline of solitude or the Discipline of silence, so closely connected are the two in the great devotional literature. Of necessity, therefore, we must come to understand and experience the transforming power of silence if we are to know solitude.

There is an old proverb to the effect that “all those who open their mouths, close their eyes!” The purpose of silence and solitude is to be able to see and hear. Control rather than no noise is the key to silence. James saw clearly that the person who could control his tongue is perfect (James 3: 1– 12). Under the Discipline of silence and solitude we learn when to speak and when to refrain from speaking. The person who views the Disciplines as laws will always turn silence into an absurdity: “I’ll not speak for the next forty days!” This is always a severe temptation to any true disciple who wants to live under silence and solitude. Thomas à Kempis writes, “It is easier to be silent altogether than to speak with moderation.”  The wise preacher of Ecclesiastes says that there is “a time to keep silence and a time to speak” (Eccles. 3:7). Control is the key.

Steps into Solitude.  The Spiritual Disciplines are things that we do. We must never lose sight of this fact. It is one thing to talk piously about “the solitude of the heart,” but if that does not somehow work its way into our experience, then we have missed the point of the Disciplines. We are dealing with actions, not merely states of mind. It is not enough to say, “Well, I am most certainly in possession of inner solitude and silence; there is nothing that I need to do.” All those who have come into the living silences have done certain things, have ordered their lives in a particular way so as to receive this “peace that passes all understanding.” If we are to succeed, we must pass beyond the theoretical into life situations. What are some steps into solitude?

The first thing we can do is to take advantage of the “little solitudes” that fill our day. Consider the solitude of those early morning moments in bed before the family awakens. Think of the solitude of a morning cup of coffee before beginning the work of the day. There is the solitude of bumper-to-bumper traffic during the freeway rush hour . There can be little moments of rest and refreshment when we turn a corner and see a flower or a tree. Instead of vocal prayer before a meal consider inviting everyone to join into a few moments of gathered silence. Once while driving a carload of chattering children and adults, I exclaimed, “Let’s play a game and see if everyone can be absolutely quiet until we reach the airport” (about five minutes away). It worked, blessedly so. Find new joy and meaning in the little walk from the subway to your apartment. Slip outside just before bed and taste the silent night. These tiny snatches of time are often lost to us. What a pity! They can and should be redeemed. They are times for inner quiet, for reorienting our lives like a compass needle. They are little moments that help us to be genuinely present where we are. What else can we do?

We can find or develop a “quiet place” designed for silence and solitude. Homes are being built constantly. Why not insist that a little inner sanctuary be put into the plans, a small place where any family member could go to be alone and silent? What’s to stop us? The money? We build elaborate playrooms and family rooms and think it well worth the expense. Those who already own a home could consider enclosing a little section of the garage or patio. Those who live in an apartment could be creative and find other ways to allow for solitude. I know of one family that has a special chair; whenever anyone sits in it he or she is saying, “Please don’t bother me, I want to be alone.” Let’s find places outside the home: a spot in a park, a church sanctuary that is kept unlocked, even a storage closet somewhere. A retreat center near us has built a lovely one-person cabin specifically for private meditation and solitude. It is called “The Quiet Place .” Churches invest millions of dollars in buildings. How about constructing one place where an individual can come to be alone for several days ? Catherine de Haeck Doherty has pioneered in developing “Poustinias” (a Russian word meaning “desert”) in North America . These are places specifically designed for solitude and silence. *

In the chapter on study we considered the importance of observing ourselves to see how often our speech is a frantic attempt to explain and justify our actions. Having seen this in ourselves, let’s experiment with doing deeds without any words of explanation whatever. We note our sense of fear that people will misunderstand why we have done what we have done. We seek to allow God to be our justifier. Let’s discipline ourselves so that our words are few and full. Let’s become known as people who have something to say when we speak. Let’s maintain plain speech: do what we say we will do. “It is better that you should not vow than that you should vow and not pay” (Eccles, 5: 5). When our tongue is under our authority the words of Bonhoeffer become true of us: “Much that is unnecessary remains unsaid. But the essential and the helpful thing can be said in a few words.” 13 Go another step. Try to live one entire day without words at all. Do it not as a law, but as an experiment. Note your feelings of helplessness and excessive dependence upon words to communicate. Try to find new ways to relate to others that are not dependent upon words. Enjoy, savor the day. Learn from it. Four times a year withdraw for three to four hours for the purpose of reorienting your life goals. This can easily be done in one evening. Stay late at your office or do it at home or find a quiet corner in a public library.

Reevaluate your goals and objectives in life. What do you want to have accomplished one year from now? Ten years from now? Our tendency is to overestimate what we can accomplish in one year and underestimate what we can accomplish in ten years. Set realistic goals but be willing to dream, to stretch. (This book was a dream in my mind for several years before it became a reality.) In the quiet of those brief hours, listen to the thunder of God’s silence. Keep a journal record of what comes to you. Reorientation and goal setting do not need to be cold and calculating as some suppose. Goals are discovered, not made. God delights in showing us exciting new alternatives for the future. Perhaps as you enter into a listening silence the joyful impression to learn how to weave or how to make pottery emerges. Does that sound too earthy, too unspiritual a goal? God is intently interested in such matters. Are you? Maybe you will want to learn and experience more about the spiritual gifts of miracles, healing, and tongues. Or you may do as one of my friends: spend large periods of time experiencing the gift of helps, learning to be a servant. Perhaps this next year you would like to read all the writings of C. S. Lewis or D. Elton Trueblood. Maybe five years from now you would like to be qualified to work with handicapped children. Does choosing these goals sound like a sales manipulation game? Of course not. It is merely setting a direction for your life. You are going to go somewhere so how much better to have a direction that has been set by communion with the divine Center. Under the Discipline of study we explored the idea of study retreats of two to three days’ duration. Such experiences are heightened when they are combined with an inner immersion into the silence of God. Like Jesus, we must go away from people so that we can be truly present when we are with people.

Take a retreat once a year with no other purpose in mind but solitude. The fruit of solitude is increased sensitivity and compassion for others. There comes a new freedom to be with people. There is new attentiveness to their needs, new responsiveness to their hurts. Thomas Merton observes, “It is in deep solitude that I find the gentleness with which I can truly love my brothers. The more solitary I am the more affection I have for them…. Solitude and silence teach me to love my brothers for what they are, not for what they say.”

Don’t you feel a tug, a yearning to sink down into the silence and solitude of God? Don’t you long for something more? Doesn’t every breath crave a deeper, fuller exposure to his Presence? It is the Discipline of solitude that will open the door. You are welcome to come in and “listen to God’s speech in his wondrous, terrible, gentle, loving, all-embracing silence.”

Foster, Richard J. (2009-03-17). Celebration of Discipline (Kindle Locations 1734-1787). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.

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