The Discipline of Silence and Solitude

Let him who cannot be alone beware of community . . . .
Let him who is not in community beware of being alone.

Deitrich Bonhoeffer

In silence, we close ourselves off from noise, whether that be music, words, or any number of natural things. In our modern world, total silence is extremely rare. In fact, what we today call “quiet” usually only amounts to “a little less noise.” Many people have never experienced silence and do not even know that they do not know what it is. Our households and offices are filled with whirring, buzzing, murmuring, chattering, and whining of the multiple contraptions that are supposed to make life easier (Willard, The Spirit of the Disciplines, 163).

And in some curious way, these noises comfort us. Likewise, the absence of noise petrifies us. Have you ever experienced absolute, complete silence? It is terrifying.

So daunting to us is silence that it drives many of us to constantly seek noises and crowds. We buy radios and MP3 players to strap to our bodies when we aren’t in cars. We buy video games and portable DVD players to occupy our minds when we are alone. Think what it says about the inward emptiness of our lives if we must always turn on the television or radio to make sure something is happening around us.

We are addicted to words. They are the most powerful weapon of manipulation that we possess. Because we are so afraid of what others think about and see in us, we use our words to correct and control other’s understanding of our behavior. Have you ever tried to go a whole day without talking? Try it, and you will see how much you have come to rely on words and their power to control and manage your environment. We fear silence. For if we remain silent, who will take control? Yet, this tendency is so sad, for if we do not learn to be silent before God, we will never completely allow Him to take control of our lives. Also, it is only through silence and solitude that we learn to develop freedom from the ingrained habits that hinder our growth towards maturity in Christ.

We fear silence because it rips down the walls and forces us to face the realities of our aloneness and lack of control.

There remains another way, however; the disciplines of solitude and silence. By acquiring and developing these disciplines, we can cultivate within ourselves a heart of solitude that destroys the chains of loneliness.

So what exactly is the discipline of solitude and silence? Solitude is actually more a state of mind and heart than it is a place. In fact, crowds, or the lack of them, have little to do with these inward attitudes. One could leave this modern world behind to live as a desert hermit and never experience solitude.

To possess inward solitude means that we do not fear being alone, for we understand in the depths of our being that we are never and will never be alone. In the same regard, it also means that we do not fear being with others for they have no sway or control over us and our beliefs.

To continue

Let him who cannot be alone beware of community . . . . Let him who is not in community beware of being alone . . . .
Each by itself has profound pitfalls and perils. One who wants fellowship without solitude plunges into the void of words and feelings,
and one who seeks solitude without fellowship perishes in the abyss of vanity, self infatuation, and despair.

So how do we begin to develop the discipline in a world so full of noise and distraction? The heart of solitude is silence. “Without silence there is no solitude” (Foster, Celebration of Discipline, 98). Silence doesn’t focus so much on the absence of speech as it does on the presence of listening. Simply to refrain from talking for a day is not silence unless we focus our attention on listening for God’s voice. It is for this reason that solitude and silence are inseparable. They work together to allow us to “see and hear”. There is an old proverb that says “all those who open their mouths, close their eyes.”

The Apostle James points that the tongue is a powerful tool; it can be used both for great evil or for great good. To abstain from talking all together would eliminate its potential for evil, yet it would also eliminate its potential for good. However, it is easier to remain silent than to speak with moderation. A disciplined person is one who learns to do what needs to be done when it needs to be done. In the same fashion, a person disciplined in silence and solitude is one who can say what needs to be said when it needs to be said in an appropriate manner. So to remain silent when we should speak is just as wrong as speaking when we should remain silent. Through the pracitce of solitude, we learn when to speak and when to refrain from speaking. Control is the key.

Of all the disciplines of abstinence, solitude and silence are the most fundamental in the beginning of our spiritual lives, and they are the ones that we must return to most often in order to regain our strength and maintain our course.

Only when we truly learn to be silent will we learn to speak the words that need to be spoken when they need to be spoken. “When solitude is seriously pursued, there is usually a string of initial success followed by an inevitable letdown—and with it a desire to abandon the pursuit altogether” (Foster, 103). We have the feeling that we are not getting through to God. Often people pull away and try to blame others:

The preacher is such a bore. The hymn singing is too weak. The worship service is so dull. We may begin to look around for another church or a new experience to give us “spiritual goose bumps (103).

Many people never make it through this step. They turn back, but that would be a mistake. Yet God must move us through such a time to allow us to take our focus off of the things around us and center on Him alone.

Things to do

Spiritual disciplines are things that we do. They are actions that we must take and not merely states of mind. We must not forget this or take it for granted. It is easy to talk about having a heart of solitude, but talking about it or even dreaming about it, won’t create its reality within us.

1. Take advantage of the “little solitudes” through out your day. The early moments in bed before your family disturbs you, the quiet moments and fresh feel of your morning shower, etc. There can be little moments of rest and refreshment when we stop to enjoy the beauty God has used in creating a flower or a child.

2. Find or develop a “quiet place” designed for silence and solitude. Find a place inside or outside your home where you can be with God uninterrupted.

3. Do an experiment. Do deeds without giving any explanation for doing them. Record how you feel in a journal. Note how often you try to justify your actions to control how people see you. Yet, instead of speaking, let God be your justifier.

4. Learn the skill of plain speech. Speak honestly. Do what you say you will do.

5. Try to live an entire day without words at all. Do it not as a law but as an experiment. Make sure to note your dependence on words as you remain silent when you feel you just must speak. Find new ways to relate to others

6. Four times a year, withdraw for three to four hours for the purpose of reorienting your life goals. During this time, re-evaluate your goals and objectives in life. Set realistic goals but be willing to dream and stretch.

7. Finally, try to take a retreat once a year with no other purpose in mind but seeking solitude.

The fruit of solitude is an increased sensitivity and compassion for others.