I am writing this in an empty Starbucks, on a sunny, windy, cloud-decked sky of a Sunday, on my way back from 48 hours of solitude at a convent—The Benedictine Sisters of Perpetual Adoration in Clyde Missouri. In between the long, uninterrupted hours of contemplation that I had in the quiet guest house Sister Judy prepared for me and the to do lists and friends and Superbowl parties and noise that awaits me in Kansas City.
This is perhaps an eyebrow-raising way to spend a weekend. To choose silence and to be alone for two days. Admittedly, I am an introvert to the core, so I am coming back from this weekend feeling deeply energized and refreshed. Increasingly, I have made these retreats an important rhythm in my life. Without fail, I always leave these oases vowing to continue to carve out more time, no matter how busy life gets. Creating space to let the mental and internal clutter settle like a snow globe that’s been set on the shelf is, for me, part of becoming and remaining deeply human. It is always a coming home, a coming back to myself. Especially as one who finds that being alone is where I feel most myself, most able to articulate my story and name it, I find that I need solitude, but it has become a strong conviction of mine that everyone would deeply benefit from going away to the mountaintop, to be alone with God. I believe that “until we experience the freedom of solitude, we cannot connect authentically. We may be enmeshed, but we are not encountered.” (Julia Cameron)
Will you let me (and Henri Nouwen, and Richard Foster, and Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and Thomas Merton, and my mentor Lori Adams, and others…) tell you why I think you, and everyone you know, should make solitude a regular part of their life?
“Solitude is being with God and God alone. Is there any space for that in your life? Why is it so important that you are with God and God alone on the mountain top? It’s important because it’s the place in which you can listen to the voice of the One who calls you the beloved. To pray is to listen to the One who calls you ‘my beloved daughter,’ ‘my beloved son,’ ‘my beloved child.’ To pray is to let that voice speak to the center of your being, to your guts, and let that voice resound in your whole being.” (Henri Nouwen)
We live in a world with so much noise, where it is easy to miss that voice that is calling you Beloved. It is quite possible to live day in and day out with a constant barrage of notifications, feeds, podcasts, live streams, and pop-ups asking us if we want to continue watching. Multiple sources of distraction, it’s as if our headphones have become an IV, a constant drip of numbing morphine, tranquilizing us from the terrifying thought of facing ourselves, of—heaven forbid—being alone with only ourselves for company. For all this busyness and distraction, we are lonely creatures, are we not? Logic follows that being alone would only deepen this wound we carry, but “we can cultivate an inner solitude and silence that sets us free from loneliness and fear. Loneliness is inner emptiness. Solitude is inner fulfillment.” (Richard Foster)
Because solitude is not just being alone with yourself. That’s called introspection. And that is a nasty, gross, mucky downward slope that spirals into self obsession, self hatred, and despair. I’m not trying to be dramatic, I’m just speaking as one who has been down that horrible rabbit hole. Rather than being this austere, navel-gazing ritual of entering into the inhospitable holy of holies, solitude has been, for me, a childlike playful thing, a restful sweetness, an embracing and murmuring of “it’s all going to be ok. You are ok, my child.” At times, yes, a reckoning and wrestling, of raw reality and facing of fears, but also a time of fort making and nap taking. Of making sculptures out of tree bark and leaping over muddy river banks, giggling at the bewildered cows that watch my adventure from afar. No, solitude is not a lonely affair, it is being alone with the One who knows me deeply, and being delighted by being delighted in.
I want you to know that solitude comes with a rhythm. I have found it usually takes time to exhale first. To dump out the contents of my heart and let them sprawl. The things that are weighing me down are brought up and set aside, and then the myriad of pesky and inconsequential thoughts swirl around for awhile. The laundry I haven’t done, the person I forgot to call back, and the kicking myself for still not filing my taxes yet swirls around and can cause untold frustration. You feel like you “aren’t doing it right.” Henri Nouwen likens your inner life to a banana tree filled with monkeys jumping up and down. If Henri Nouwen had inner monkeys, I guess it’s ok that I have them too. I have found that being patient and gentle with the monkeys is the best way to coax them down. Sometimes it can take several hours, or even days for quiet to come. And that is ok. We are far more impatient with ourselves than God is. He waits.
And then the deeper things come up to the surface. The things that have been nagging in your subconscious, or maybe you completely unaware of. The thing that all the other things were merely symptoms of. And God takes your hand, and you go there together. It’s messy. And most of the time there isn’t some glorious moment like in the Renaissance paintings of saints where they are in some spiritual ecstasy. It’s probably a moment on your walk when you see that bird, or when you reread something in your journal, or in a verse that sinks down more deeply because you’ve been quiet. That’s when you can inhale the things that you need to receive. Almost every time I hear some variation of the same message that I will continue to need to hear until I die. That I am loved deeply. And that being enough makes me enough. It’s a word or a phrase or a picture, but every time, I am changed. Even if it feels frustrating and empty in the moment, there is a harvest eventually. Richard Foster says “the fruit of solitude is increased sensitivity and compassion for others. There comes a new freedom to be with people. There is new attentiveness to their needs, new responsiveness to their hurts.” And Thomas Merton observed that “it is in deep solitude that I find the gentleness with which I can truly love my brothers. The more solitary I am the more affection I have for them… Solitude and silence teacher me to love my brothers for what they are, not for what they say.”
So, what kind of adventure of solitude are you being invited into? I get that it’s intimidating, but seriously, it is so Good! Start small. Maybe it’s turning off the radio on your commute to work. Maybe it’s carving out some time every Tuesday to go to go on a walk and not listen to a podcast, but just have your eyes open. Maybe it’s fasting this Lent from the extra noise that is numbing you to being honest with yourself and entering into a healing dialog with God. Or maybe you’re feeling invited to start planning a solitude retreat of your own!
If you want more resources or to dialog about what this could look like, I would be so excited to share more about this spiritual discipline that has been so life giving to me.