O desert nourishing the flowers of Christ! O solitude which produces the firm rocks with which the city of the Great King is constructed. O barren waste, rejoicing in familiarity with God.
attributed to St. Jerome
I’ve never liked being alone: silence makes me edgy, and solitude is uncomfortable.
This may be a quirk of my personality, but I’m kidding myself if I merely blame it on being extroverted. When alone and silent, I am overwhelmed by the sense that I ought to be doing something; I am more pricked by the lack of activity than the lack of people. If I happen to find myself alone in my apartment, I tend to fill the space with chores, lists, music, reading, or online browsing. There is little enough time as is, I tell myself. Why would I waste it sitting quietly with my own thoughts?
This might have never changed had I not found myself living on the opposite side of the world from my spouse for a year. For the first time in my life, I was not only not sharing a bedroom, I was living completely alone. Like it or not, I had been given my year’s spiritual discipline: silence and solitude. As my spouse settled into life thousands of miles away, I knew that the loneliness would be piercing, but I hadn't counted on the quietness. I discovered that silence and solitude were distinct from loneliness and were just as hard.
The silence at the breakfast table was deafening each morning, as was the quietness when I walked into the apartment after work. I had never realized how many moments of my day I filled with conversation. Music and the distractions of work and social media seemed a ridiculous substitute for another person in the apartment. And so slowly, I found myself sitting longer in silence at the table after eating--thinking or merely looking out the window. After reading, working on lessons, or marking papers I wouldn’t rush to the next activity or race to find expression for my ideas. I would just sit with them. Although I wasn’t practicing the discipline by choice, it was becoming easier by force of repetition.
And though it started to become more familiar, it remained terrifying. I was scared of becoming too attached to my thoughts and was unsettled by the absence of verbal stimulation. I feared inactivity. Two weeks in, I wrote in a letter:
...learning to face and possibly to love silence will be a major part of this year for me. I wonder what I fear in the quiet. If it is my own thoughts--that seems bad... Perhaps it is rest that I fear ...it requires so much grace to rest...
I had often scoffed at silence and solitude as spiritual disciplines, thinking them an excuse for laziness or a post-modern replacement for prayer. But, as the year progressed and I faced hour upon hour of time alone, I was chastened. Solitude wasn’t easy. I disliked it because it forced a posture of humility and emptiness; I disliked it because it wasn’t something I was doing.
Alone and silent, I couldn’t pretend that my activity would solve the world’s problems or that my words could satisfy my own desires and questions. I had to recognize that I was small and utterly dependent upon God. I had to rest.
Silence and solitude makes me honest. I must face my fears because there is no one or nothing to distract me from them. I must face the boredom that follows a sudden break of activity. I must face the panic of knowing that I can’t get myself out of the mess my own sin has wrought in me.
Silence and solitude are different from prayer but they inform each other. I cannot pray until I have become silent before God, accepting my place before Him. Practicing the disciplines of silence and solitude prepares me to approach God in humility. Being content and at peace away from activity and noise becomes easier as I submit my fear and guilt to God in prayer.
Last year, being alone and quiet never became easy, but it did become easier; like all spiritual disciplines, it is a process. In February, after five months of living alone, I wrote: The silence is heavier than I remember. A year later, I am still exploring what this means. Sometimes it is negative: the silence is weighted down by my own fragility and resistance to the power and love of God. Sometimes it is positive: the silence is heavy with the knowledge that there is nowhere I can escape from the presence of God. I want to be ready to hear the voice of God, and so I quiet myself. I want to see solitude as Jerome did, as nourishing and comforting, so I continue to practice it.
I’m still learning to think well about silence and solitude and to understand how to integrate it within a life full of God-given vocation and relationships. Later this week, Cate MacDonald will give us some resources for thinking and reading about silence and solitude in our lives and in the life of the Church. But, for now, I encourage you to consider the discipline this Lent. Set aside some time (at least 30 minutes) to be alone and quiet. Don't come with a problem to solve or a question to answer. Come in humility. Come to be silent before God.