Thursday, April 18 2024 - 3:01 AM
country road
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The Need for Solitude

I had to lie on my back with my head strapped in place for 32 minutes for a medical test. The scanning equipment made very little sound other than an occasional click. The technician had told me that he would play some music for me but he forgot until halfway through the test. So I was alone in a cold room with a warm blanket and my thoughts.

For the first 15 minutes, I concentrated on remaining still yet relaxed, and I prayed for as many people as I could think of. That kept me occupied until my body started to respond to my position. I could not ignore the discomfort coming from the back of my head as the cradle pushed against my skull. Muscles in my face started to hurt under the positioning straps. My neck started to hurt also. I really wanted the test to be over with so I could move.

Thankfully, I made it to the end of the required time and was most happy to get up, leave, and be with people again.

The Practice of Solitude

My experience might be related to how some Christians have struggled with the practice of solitude and silence. What are some of our associations with these words? Perhaps “solitary confinement” or “going to your room” as punishments; bleakness, loneliness, and sadness come to mind. After a few minutes, many people find solitude to be a time of antsy distraction-seeking. Racing thoughts may dig up past traumas, current problems, future worries, sin struggles, mistakes, guilt, and anger. After a while, physical pain and body symptoms may add to the distress. Slow torture? Yet, as a spiritual practice, it has been used to aid spiritual growth during past centuries. Now few people talk about the benefits and challenges of this discipline. Even fewer people continue the practice on a regular basis to turn to God, learning to find the rewards.

Thankfully, I  have had some sweet quiet times at several favorite retreat centers. Periods of quiet and solitude in nature, reading or writing, were spaced with spiritual direction and meal times with others. And some people choose to be in solitude for days or weeks at a time to focus on their relationship with God. It can become a discipline of abstinence from human relationships so that we can be strengthened to go back into relationships.

The Bible gives us many examples of those who gained wisdom and strength in times of solitude: Moses and David in their years of shepherding; John the Baptist in the desert; Jesus Christ in his 40 days in the wilderness and regular times of prayer; the Apostle Paul in the Arabian Desert and later in prisons; and John on Patmos Island. Not to mention those desert fathers who practiced during dark times in Christianity while copying or protecting scriptures.

Some of my favorite more contemporary Christians have emphasized the importance of solitude and silence. Dietrich Bonhoeffer practiced solitude and silence every morning and evening. He said that God should have the first and last word of the day. Henry Nouwen said it was the place of conversion where the “new self” is born. Richard Foster proposed that the value of solitude and silence is that God’s love purifies and puts us at peace to better love others. We should be better able to see and hear, to avoid burnout and become more creative.

So solitude is not a selfish quest for personal therapy, a resignation of boundaries, nor an escape from personal responsibility. And we can expect pushback from those who demand much from us or use us as their anchor! Explanations and negotiations must be worked through with family and friends to get our needed space with God.

Let’s not fear solitude and silence but practice listening for God singing in our hearts: “The Lord your God is with you, he is mighty to save. He will take great delight in you, he will quiet you with his love, he will rejoice over you with singing” (Zephaniah 3:17, NIV).

Questions for personal journaling or group discussion:

1. How long could you take solitude from human companionship and abstinence from technology?

2. What do you anticipate as your challenges to practicing solitude and silence?

If you liked this, you might also like Alone Time | Silence and Solitude 

Karen Spruill writes from Florida.

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About Karen Spruill

Karen Spruill

writes from Orlando, Florida.

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