For what man is not disposed to rest in himself? Who, in fact, does not thus rest, as long as he is unknown to himself; that is, so long as he is confronted with his own endowments, and unconscious or unmindful of his misery? Every person, therefore, on coming to the knowledge of himself, is not only urged to seek God, but is also led as by the hand to find him.
John Calvin, Book I, Chapter I, Institutes of the Christian Religion
Rebecca’s excellent piece on silence and solitude introduced to Wheatstone Writes a topic very dear to my heart. I have been tasked with offering some resources for those interested in pursuing the disciplines of silence and solitude, but have struggled for two weeks to write it.
The power of silence and solitude, as Rebecca discovered, can be surprising, and has a tendency to sneak up on one. It is also, in my experience, individual enough to make it very difficult for me to give resources that I am confident will be helpful to you, oh Unknown Reader. I have written dozens of silence and solitude retreats for clients, and have thought quite a bit about my own experiences, but have always done both in a particularly personal context. So much so, that I’m not sure how to universalize it.
But I do want to try, so we will start with a theology of the importance of silence and solitude to the Christian life, beginning, in this particular post, with a book that happens to be open in front of me. John Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion is not a book you’ll find on most Spiritual Director’s resource lists, but the quotation that starts this post seems to me a valuable place to start thinking about why we need silence and solitude. Calvin writes, “For what man is not disposed to rest in himself? Who, in fact, does not thus rest, as long as he is unknown to himself; that is, so long as he is confronted with his own endowments, and unconscious or unmindful of his misery? Every person, therefore, on coming to the knowledge of himself, is not only urged to seek God, but is also led as by the hand to find him.”
Calvin begins his great work by arguing that the true Christian must have knowledge of himself in order to grow in knowledge of God. He says, “For, in the first place, no man can survey himself without forthwith turning his thoughts towards the God in whom he lives and moves; because it is perfectly obvious, that the endowments we possess cannot possibly be from ourselves; nay, that our very being is nothing else than subsistence in God alone.” Self-knowledge leads directly to a desire for God. He who does not know his own weakness is “disposed to rest in himself” so long as he remains unknown to himself, and this resting will limit his seeking.
The disciplines of silence and solitude are meant to introduce you to yourself, your real self, devoid of distractions and easy comforts. It is the cultivation of time in your life that is intentionally contentless, so as to hear from your own heart, and from the God that so often speaks quietly. Many of us lead lives of such noise and haste that silence and solitude initially sound quite peaceful. But they can, and perhaps should be, at least initially, distinctly unnerving, for they are the process of becoming known. John Calvin believes that self-knowledge is the first step to knowing God, and I’m inclined to believe him.
If this be so, then silence and solitude are an invaluable tool in our relationship with God. They are a gateway by which we begin to understand who we are, and who He is in relation to us.