Thursday, 1 November 2018

Spiritual Disciplines- Solitude and Silence





The spiritual discipline we are looking at this week is Solitude, but we might also call this Silence. For the most part they go together. We go to them for a similar reason. They offer us the opportunity to receive a similar grace. The practice of solitude “calls us to pull away from life in the company of others for the purpose of giving our full and undivided attention to God” (Ruth Haley Barton in the Dictionary of Christian Spirituality). Silence is a way to cease using our voice to manipulate our environment. It is also a way to still the voices that try to manipulate us.

Through both solitude and silence we quiet the noise outside us so that we can still the noise within us. … We are constantly being bombarded by stimulation- radio, Tv, podcasts, books, advertisements, magazines, smart phones, facebook, instagarm, email … not to mention face to face conversations, and the excitement of community and driving. … In our society we are dealing with all kinds of pressures, all kinds of strivings. Depending on what part of our life we are living we strive for education, career, friendship, romance, wealth, success, health, retirement, travel, etc.. Our life is full of things to strive for, either because we think that will make us happy, or because we are pressured to seek after these things because that is “just what you do”. We strive with others for various things and this leads to incredibly complex relationships.

Many of us are addicted to noise. To be in the silence and to be alone can be almost painful for some people. For many of us, it’s like we don’t know who we are if we aren’t doing something. Our identity is tied up in the pressures, the strivings, the activity, and the noise. We use words and actions to manipulate our image. We speak to control the agenda. All of this noise distracts us from our inner reality.

Modern society has a heightened level of noise, but societies have always had pressure and there have been many who have sought solitude. In Thomas Merton’s book, The Wisdom of the Desert, he says that according to the Desert Fathers and Mothers 

“Society… was regarded as a shipwreck from which each single individual man had to swim for his life … These were men who believed that to let oneself drift along, passively accepting the tenets and values of what they knew as society, was purely and simply a disaster.”
 To this Henri Nouwen ads the comment, 
“this observation leads us straight to the core of the problem. Our society is not a community radiant with the love of Christ, but a dangerous network of domination and manipulation in which we can easily get entangled and lose our soul” (The Way of the Heart, p. 11).

The Desert Fathers and Mothers sought the death of the false self that was imposed on them by society, so that they could seek the true self that was found only in their relationship with God. In the solitude and silence of the desert the Fathers and Mothers wanted to give God full access to their souls, so they could be free from the bondage of human expectations. They wanted to re-center their lives completely on God, and to do that they had to respond from an inner reality with God, rather than external pressures.

There's a kind of parable about a man who is out in a little row boat. It's twilight and starting to get dark. There is a bit of mist on the water. The man in the boat stops rowing and just drifts. He relaxes and enjoys the gentle rocking of the waves. After a while he sees a sail off in the distance. However, the man's appreciation for the beautiful scenery begins to be disturbed because the small sail boat begins heading in his direction. He starts to wonder, "does the person in the boat see me?" The relaxed evening becomes tense as the sail boat gets closer. Eventually the man yells out. "Hey! change course!" The boat gets closer and closer, and the man is yelling at the top of his lungs, "You idiot! What are you doing?! Move! move! Change course! open your eyes! you're going to hit me!" The sail boat is headed straight for the man in the boat who is now standing and screaming at the top of his lungs. The two boats nearly collide, but the sailboat just misses the man and his rowboat. As the sailboat passes by the red faced screaming man sees that the sailboat is empty. The sail boat is at the mercy of the wind. No one is controlling it.

This parable is used to say that our peace is not determined by our outward circumstances. Sometimes we can be like the man in the row boat. We can scream our lungs out and stamp our feet as hard as we want, but even if we succeed in changing our outward circumstances we will not find peace. All that will happen is that our faces will turn red, our blood pressure will rise and our peace will be destroyed. The parable teaches us that our peace doesn’t come from outward circumstances. Rather, our peace comes from an inward reality. When we remove ourselves from the outward circumstances we normally deal with by entering into solitude and silence we will discover the peace, or lack of it, within ourselves.

The 17th century mathematician and theologian Blaise Pascal once said, 
“All of humanity's problems stem from man's inability to sit quietly in a room alone” (Pensées).
 We often think that we will find happiness and peace by changing our outward circumstances. What the desert father and mothers found by going into the wilderness was that the issues they had with society didn’t completely vanish. They had inner pressures they had to deal with, which they could only confront in solitude. In dealing with their inner turmoil, with God’s grace, they could find peace.

We see examples of people seeking solitude all through the Bible. Jacob sends his family ahead of him and in solitude he wrestles the angel and receives his blessing along with a new name, Israel. Moses encounters God through the burning bush in the wilderness while tending sheep. We read today about Elijah encountering God in the sound of silence rather than in the powerful wind, the earthquake, or the fire. Jesus often went off by himself to solitary places to pray and be alone with God.

There are a variety of ways to practice solitude and silence. It is often helpful to go away somewhere. For an extended time of solitude go to a retreat center. Kingsfold in Cochrane has cabins where you can go to be alone with God. Or, you can find solitude closer to home by going for a walk in nature. You probably want to consider not listening to music and not bringing a book with you, and turning off your cell phone. In the silence we come face to face with our desire to be entertained and distracted. We confront our memories, and our sense of self worth. Fantasies, sins, old conversations, regrets, all bubble up in our soul in solitude and silence. Then we stay in that long enough that the initial surge of inner noise surge calms down. The goal is to turn off the outward noise enough that you become aware of your inner noise. In solitude we become aware of our inward compulsions, our desire to control, our attempts to manage our image, our agenda. In the solitude we are confronted with the thought about what gives us worth.

There are a number of practices we can do in the silence. There are forms of silent listening prayer that don’t disturb the stillness and seek to give control to God. We should be careful about filling the silence with our words, even if you are alone. Listen, even when you are alone. If you read Scripture during this time, read small amounts. Spend more time reflecting on smaller portions of Scripture. … Consider spending time in self-examination. Reflect on your life and your future. You may want to journal to make yourself more aware of your inner reality.

The grace we seek in solitude and silence is an awareness of the inner stories that exert pressure on us. What gives us worth? What were we told as children that define us even now? Do we only know who we are if we are busy and active? … In the silence and solitude we might just discover that we are loved by God just as we are, and that God has things under control. … Amen

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