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How Spiritual Disciplines Work: Solitude and Silence as Spiritual Disciplines

Expand imageOne of the most difficult practices to carry out in the Western church is the practice of doing nothing. As followers of Christ, we should mirror His example of silence and solitude.

Author's note: As we dive into the disciplines of solitude and silence, I need to make a very important qualification. While some of the things in this article may, at first, sound like something you'd hear from a New Age guru, these ideas are, in fact, based on Scriptural principles and practices. To see what I'm getting at, consider these examples:

  • "Be still, and know that I am God; I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth" (Psalm 46:10, NIV).
  • "Very early in the morning, while it was still dark, Jesus got up, left the house and went off to a solitary place, where he prayed" (Mark 1:35, cf. Luke 4:42).
  • Abraham's servant "went out to the field one evening to meditate, and as he looked up, he saw camels approaching" (Genesis 24:63).
  • "I will meditate on all your works and consider all your mighty deeds" (Psalm 77:12).
  • "May the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be pleasing in your sight, O Lord, my Rock and my Redeemer" (Psalm 19:14).

You see, there's a very important distinction between vocabulary and definition. While terms like meditation, being still and solitude may be common to both Christianity and the New Age (or many Eastern religions), their content or meaning is significantly different.

So, with these biblical foundations in mind, let's consider the importance of silence and solitude.

Solitude, Silence and Stress

Throughout his writings and lectures, Dallas Willard has warned that the hardest thing to get North American people to do is nothing.

The regular practice of doing nothing, however, is crucial for spiritual growth. It keeps us from having an inflated view of our importance, it surfaces anxiety, fear, and worry along with our controlling strategies to keep from facing them, and it opens our heart to hear from our real, authentic selves and God.

These benefits of solitude combined with silence — a form of "doing nothing" — are of crucial importance in today's climate. Arguably, the most distinctive, pervasive characteristic of contemporary folk is stress. And a stressful life is one prone to depression and anxiety. So now more than ever it is important for Christians to incorporate the disciplines of solitude and silence into their regular practices.

Arguably, the most distinctive, pervasive characteristic of contemporary folk is stress.

These disciplines are absolutely fundamental to the Christian life, and they are naturally practiced in tandem. In solitude we choose to be alone and to reflect on how we experience the facets of life (our family, job, relationship with God, finances) and what they mean to us while in isolation. We unhook from companionship with others, we take ourselves physically and mentally out of our social, familial, and other human relationships.

Because one can learn to practice solitude in the anonymity of a crowd, silence is not necessary for practicing solitude, but it is a very useful aspect of it. Silence involves two aspects. First, one closes oneself off from sounds and seeks a quiet place. Second, one closes oneself off from communicating with others.

How can one learn to practice silence and solitude? I offer some practical suggestions, realizing that there is no "thus saith the Lord" in these. It is important to find activities that work for you in learning to practice solitude and silence. Still, I have found these ideas to be immensely helpful to many of my friends and to me.

Two Regular Practices of Solitude and Silence

First, you must remember that when you go into solitude and silence, your basic goal is to do nothing. Yes, nothing! You should spend your time in quiet and rest. As you do that, you also focus your affections on the Lord and His creation. This is not a time to catch up on your scheduled daily Bible reading or on anything else. In fact, if possible, the first thing you should do when engaging in solitude is to remove your watch.

This is not a time to catch up on your scheduled daily Bible reading or on anything else.

Second, there are different occasions for entering solitude. Here are three suggestions — two listed in this section and one in the next: (1) Form the habit of taking an hour on each night for two or three nights in order to practice. After watching the evening news or before your favorite television program comes on (it is unrealistic to start by cutting off all television or all your ordinary habits — start modestly until a habit is formed), say from 7-8 p.m., go to a quiet place in your house or go for a walk. Some change of location, however small, is very helpful.

(2) Practice driving in the slow lane with the radio and cell phone turned off. In all honesty, I have found that my commute to work (around 35 minutes one way) has been one of the most important places for my spiritual development in my weekly schedule. Practicing solitude while driving can make traffic a joy and your car a cathedral.

You should especially focus on the way you experience pressure from drivers who push you to go faster. We quickly become aware of how short our tempers are, with how easily we are manipulated by social pressure, how hasty we are to project our own feelings onto others.

These insights are worth the price of admission, because one of the key benefits of solitude is that when we unhook from our support systems, our defective strategies for coping with life, our negative feelings that lie just beneath the surface, manifest themselves. Then we have a chance to feel and think about them and invite Jesus to give wisdom and support in developing healthier habits and strategies.

What to Do on a Solitude Retreat

(3) Once or twice a year, go on a solitude retreat from 9 a.m. one day until 5 p.m. the next day. Go to a retreat center that has as one of its purposes the provision of a place for individual sojourners. Try to find a center that has gardens, fountains, statues and other forms of beautiful artwork. In my experience, Catholic retreat centers are usually ideal for solitude retreats.

The reason that I recommend 9 a.m. as the starting time is so that you will have a full morning ahead of you, yet you won't have to get up so early that you will be tired your first day. (By the way, if you need a nap on your retreat, by all means take one.) For your retreat, take a Bible, notebook and hymnal.

This is not a time to catch up on reading. It is a time for quiet reflection and for worship. I also recommend that you take pictures of your loved ones as well as an object or image that reminds you of Jesus. By focusing on these things, your loved ones and the Lord Jesus can become steady objects of focus and love.1

After checking in, stay in your room, get on your knees for around 15 to 30 minutes, and dedicate the next 32 hours to God. When you kneel, be sure it is in a comfortable place. If you kneel at your bedside, open the Bible to a favorite passage, read it a few times and pray it to Jesus. Then get up and go for a long, slow, quiet walk. If possible, walk where there are beautiful sounds and sights, for example, near fountains, flowers or beautiful statues.

Like an ocean wave, if you fight against anxious thoughts, they will overwhelm you and you will become fixated on them.

As you quiet down, most likely, anxious thoughts, worries about things you need to get done, tensions with work, family or responsibilities, will surface. Don't fight them. Like an ocean wave, if you fight against them, they will overwhelm you and you will become fixated on them. Just let them roll through your body, mind and emotions. Pray about your concerns and, after awhile, stop to look at a flower or to listen to a fountain. Or gaze at a statue of Jesus. Or let some pleasant thought, feeling, or memory run through your mind over and over again.

While focusing on some beautiful object or some pleasant memory, let joy and thanksgiving for the object or memory well up within you. Begin to sing a song to God. Take a passage you have memorized and which you dearly love and pray it repeatedly to God. Use this as an occasion to pause and give thanks for specific aspects of your life from the wonderful taste of coffee to more important matters.

As concerns spring up, talk again to Jesus about that. If you can't get worries off your mind, I suggest that you schedule time later your first day, say, one hour before dinner, to do nothing but focus in prayer and meditation2 on your worries. That way, if a concern threatens to overwhelm you, you can tell yourself you will face it later.

After an hour or so, go back to your room and journal anything that comes to your mind and heart. Then get back on your knees and pray, read scripture, sing, or meditate again for 30 minutes. When finished, sit in a comfortable chair and begin reading a book of the Bible. I recommend that you make it your goal to read an entire gospel during your retreat, not necessarily at one sitting. Read until you desire to stop, but be sure to pause repeatedly during your reading to pray, sing or journal.

Make the goals reasonable.

Move back and forth between 1) prayer and meditation on your knees; 2) sitting comfortably while journaling or reading scripture; 3) walking and pausing at beautiful sights. This will form the staple of your entire solitude retreat. At various times, go into the chapel, kneel and worship. During the solitude retreat, if it is not distracting, evaluate the last 12-18 months of your life and set some modest goals for the next six months. Be sure to include some habit changes. Make the goals reasonable. And don't feel guilty if you get sleepy from time to time. Be sure to take naps if needed.

C O F F E E  S H O P

Have you practiced silence and solitude? If so, how'd it go? If not, why not?

Join the discussion!

Remember, Jesus Himself frequently engaged in solitude and silence (Mark 1:35; Luke 4:42). As His students in the school of life, it only makes sense that we follow Him in these activities.3

What's Next

Have you ever wondered if God actually answers prayer? In my next article, I'll close this series on spiritual disciplines by taking a look at the importance of identifying and remembering answers to prayer.

  1. Scripture forbids making and worshiping images of God because God is invisible and, more importantly, an "image" was understood as an object of worship. Using an image of Jesus is different because it's not an object of devotion; rather, it is a means of helping fix your attention on the Lord Jesus Himself. Back^
  2. This type of meditation should not be confused with the New Age practice of the same name. Rather, the meaning that I have invested in this word is the same as that of the Psalmist when he says, "I will meditate on all your works and consider all your mighty deeds" (77:12, emphasis mine; see also the many uses of this word in Psalm 119, as well as 143:5 and 145:5). Back^
  3. For more on spiritual disciplines, see Klaus Issler, J. P. Moreland, The Lost Virtue of Happiness (NavPress, 2006). Back^
About the author
J.P. Moreland is Distinguished Professor of Philosophy at Talbot School of Theology and director of Eidos Christian Center. He has contributed to over 40 books, including Love Your God With All Your Mind (NavPress), and over 60 journal articles. Dr. Moreland also co-authored the 2006 release, The Lost Virtue of Happiness: Discovering the Disciplines of the Good Life (NavPress, 2006).

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