Hi everyone – welcome back to week 6 of this virtual retreat experiment! I hope this week’s focus on prayer as intimate conversation (both talking and listening) with God was fruitful. Sometimes intimacy isn’t comfortable, and sometimes our parent has to tell us things we don’t want to hear, but those of us who are also parents know that true, lasting, long-haul love requires us to correct as well as comfort our children. I hope that any correction you may have heard this week was received knowing that God is fully committed to you and will see you through to the end – in fact, even if you run from him, he will pursue you actively. There is no height or depth or width that can separate us from the love of Jesus. He’s proved that already through the cross. He longs to prove it anew in his constant, personal conversation with you. So I hope some good seeds were planted this week that will bear the fruit of regular, intimate prayer!

This week we’ll be talking about silence (irony, yes) and solitude: two of our soul’s greatest needs, especially in the constant onslaught of information we receive these days.

Our Need for Silence and Solitude

Neil Postman has written two great books highlighting two great problems of our society: Amusing Ourselves to Death (discussing our overdependence on entertainment) and Technopoly (discussing our overdependence on the tyranny of technological progress). I remember a point he made about the results of the tyranny of technological progress: before washing machines were invented, people actually spent far less time washing their clothes than we do today. Why is that? It’s because washing clothes is so easy that we constantly throw them in the washer. (Unless you’re a college student, in which case you probably wash your clothes twice a semester.) But we spend more time washing clothes also because we have far more clothes than we did back before we had washing machines. Because it’s easier to wash our clothes, we can buy more of them because it’s not so much work to maintain them. But the irony, and the thing I think no one expected, is that we actually end up spending more time doing it and less time doing other things. Back in the 1950’s and 1960’s people really thought that technological progress would result in people needing to work only 2 to 3 hours a day – and have all this leisure time – which would have created all sorts of problems in and of itself. But that’s not what happened. We are busier than ever. Navigation systems in cars, cell phones, online bill paying systems, the speed of computers: the ability to do two and three things at once results in a great impatience with the time it takes to accomplish tasks, so even when we accomplish more, we are twice or three times as rushed. And we are exhausted by our lives, so that when we have a spare moment or two, we can only muster up enough energy to turn the television on or the computer on, and “rest” in another highly stimulating environment, that just covers up or masks the true exhaustion of our souls.

Because what is happening is that technology is taking us further and further away from our bodies. I would say we feel the need to work faster and faster and faster out of a deep need that is not being met – a deep need for the real and tangible. Our relationships are no longer with real people – they are mediated through a computer. When I go to the bank, I put my money in an ATM and not in the hands of a bank teller. When I talk on the cell phone while I’m waiting in the waiting room of a doctor’s office, I ignore all the real people sitting around me with whom I could speak face to face. When I listen to my iPod when I’m taking a walk, I’m ignoring my neighbors, or I’m getting hit by a car, by a driver also talking on her cell phone. Etc. We are craving more and more connection with people through cell phones, Facebook, email, etc., because our connection doesn’t satisfy. Because ultimately we’re only exchanging disembodied information, words, and sometimes just noise. It seems like relationship and connection, especially if it’s the only kind you ever had, but it doesn’t satisfy.

I point this out not just to highlight our need for solitude and silence in our frenetically paced society, but to emphasize that even when there is no living soul around us and perhaps no noise around us, this does not mean we are practicing the disciplines of solitude and silence. Our brains can be going a million miles a minute, all the while missing the real things going on around us and missing the true condition of our soul.

Solitude and silence are recreating disciplines because they force us to get in touch with the fact that we have a body, that we have five senses, and not just one: hearing. That there is more to relationship than just exchanging information. That there is more than one language than just that which is spoken.

The beginning of Psalm 19 highlights the fact that God speaks through his creation, through the five senses, through nonverbal means. The disciplines of solitude and silence reveal to us the aspect of our God’s language that is nonverbal and experiential. In line with verses 7 and following, these disciplines develop the capacity in us to perceive the eternal newness of the law of the Lord, of the words of scripture. There is something conveyed even in the words of Scripture that beyond information, that is eternal, that has recreative power, and that connects us directly and spiritually with the source of the law himself. Scripture itself is beyond words and beyond language; it itself is an experience of intimacy, which you hopefully discovered as you practiced the discipline of meditation while spending in-depth time with the words of scripture. That’s why, ultimately, the Son had to be made flesh: mere words of information were an incomplete vehicle for the Word. The incarnation is proof that it is not only good to have a body, it is indispensable in order to hear what God is saying to us and even to have a relationship with him. He loves the physical, he loves the tangible, and we leave it behind at our peril. We don’t know what this peril is, but if there are Christians who practice the disciplines of solitude and silence during these times especially, I think we will find out before the lack of embodied relationship destroys our humanity. The psalm ends with v. 14 : “Let the words of my mouth and meditation of my heart be acceptable to you, O Lord, my rock and my redeemer (emphasis added).” Our words have weight and are pleasing to God when we can perceive the nonverbal language of his creation, when we perceive with all our five senses and not just one, and the disciplines of solitude and silence can create in us that capacity.

Certainly many disciplines are centered on cultivating fellowship and connection with others, such as guidance, submission, service, confession, and celebration. But we can’t ever practice these outward or corporate disciplines well unless we have the balancing discipline of solitude. Foster is clear in Celebration of Discipline that the goal of silence is neither to be able to refrain from speaking for a long time, nor is it a pointless show of the will. The goal of silence is to discipline our tongue to say what needs to be said. So much of the time we speak to defend ourselves, or to make sure other people think that we are right. Out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks. Silence is difficult because we feel we must protect ourselves and control our public image. And that reveals our heart: we don’t trust God to be our defender, we must do it. This is also the heart of submission, one of our first disciplines we practiced together. Our source of value is not rooted in our identity as being created in the image of God, our source of value is rooted in what people think of us, or in our being right. We use our words to control. If we practice silence, we will know better when to speak and what to say. We’ll be free from having to defend ourselves, and we can just be ourselves, as imperfect and as right or as wrong as that may be. Our words will again become connected to the Word, and they will have power and brevity and weight. They will indeed bind and loose things on earth and heaven, as our God intended. His words made substance from the void and order from chaos – our words have the same potential if we learn to practice the discipline of silence.

The Practice

To experience solitude and silence, the world around does not have to disappear. It can’t, even if you live in seclusion. You have to develop an inner solitude and an inner silence. The goal of this inner silence ,again, is not just to be silent, but to hear that still, small voice of God. And when you are able to hear that still, small voice of God, you will realize that you actually are never alone. So you have great freedom. All this inner silence and solitude is, is listening: developing the capacity to listen to God’s quiet voice within you and through others.

Dark night of the soul. St. John of the Cross, a Spanish mystic, wrote at length on this topic in a book of the same name. About ten years ago I experienced a year-long dark night of the soul, and I expect I will again. It happened at a time when I was absolutely dependent upon my mind as a vehicle for knowing God. All of a sudden everything was dry, and I truly felt like I was in the darkness. I couldn’t connect with God experientially. I thought I must be doing something wrong, and other Christians around me agreed – Christians are supposed to experience joy and the abundant life continually if they really believe, right? Wrong. Isaiah 50:10 refers to this kind of experience of “walking in the darkness,” and how, when we find ourselves in this darkness, we are not to trudge ahead, lighting our own firebrands, but simply sit in the darkness and wait. As for me, it meant that God was doing soul surgery, that I was indeed pursuing him, and as part of my growth process he was freeing me from dependency on language, on logic, and on my mind as a vehicle for knowing him. He was forcing me to listen to him and to attend to him directly. We can learn a lot about God and talk a lot about God without listening to him or knowing him. He won’t settle for that; he will remove everything that gets in the way of knowing him, even if that includes our emotional joy. The dryness is purifying.

Our active practice

But if we don’t want the discipline of silence and solitude thrust upon us, we can choose to practice the disciplines ourselves. The best way is to take advantage of little solitudes during the day. Like most of you, my days are constantly busy, and I long for silence and solitude – far more than what I’m able to have with raising two small boys, being a wife, running my own business, writing, being a friend, and… When I first became a parent, for instance, I felt powerless and exhausted for a long time because I didn’t have any long blocks of time to meditate and just be by myself in the way I had been accustomed. But slowly I’m beginning to find those little solitudes and make much of them. For instance, on my way home tonight from a meeting, I decided to turn the radio off in my car and just experience the silence. Very often my mind begins chattering to fill the silence, but eventually, if I’m patient, it wears down and stops. Then I was able to enter into the silence and sense that even while I was doing nothing and saying nothing, all was well with me and my God. Prioritize finding those.

Create a particular place where you can go. There’s great value in ritual – if you go to the same room (or same corner of the room), or same place in the park, or same circuit around the neighborhood, when we use our bodies and our senses to establish physical associations with the experience of solitude, it’s easier for our mind to get connected with God and more quickly settle into that inner solitude and silence.

Discipline our tongue. Let the words we say be true and have weight. Censor meaningless talk.

Or go further – set aside a lengthy time of silence.

Exercise

For this week, I’d like you to meditate on Psalm 19, dwelling in it however long it takes for you to feel like you’ve absorbed what it has to offer. You may want to read it each day this week, or just once. Then I’d like you to mindfully use the little solitudes you can find in your daily schedules: the car rides alone, your kids’ naptimes or school times, your down time in the evening, the time in the early morning before you have to get out of bed. Consciously rest in that silence and solitude, realizing that you are never alone because God is always actively with you. As a further step, I’d like you to designate a daily proportion of whatever screen time you spend on solitude and silence. Just choose to spend 15 or 30 minutes in silence, taking a walk, sitting comfortably in a room, wherever you can most easily find solitude and silence.

As always, please post your experiences and/or comments here, or email me directly at info@amandarooker.com. Enjoy the re-creation!

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