As a people, we spend a lot of our time being busy...very, very busy. We run around with our work and our errands and our activities. But even when we aren’t running around we fill our lives with noise and activity. Music, television, computers, smart phones, texting, emailing, tweeting, Instagram, Facebook, our machines that take care of the house – vacuums, dish washers, washing machines, mixers, coffee makers, etc. We fill our heads with busyness, thinking about what will be happening next, what needs to be done, problems that need to be solved, places we want to visit, conversations we’ve had with people, etc. We are not comfortable with silence. We are not comfortable with stillness. We are not comfortable with solitude. Of course there are exceptions to this. Some people are very good at taking quiet time for themselves. And I think the older generations are generally better at this than the younger generations. The last time I was in an airport I noticed that all the people my age and under were busy on their phones, but several older couples, whom I guessed were in their eighties seemed much more content to simply sit and wait. So I will grant that this is a growing problem and one that affects the younger much more than older folk, but for many of us, we avoid solitude and silence.
We run from quiet, we run from stillness. We run from anything that seems like “wasting time” and by wasting time I mean anything other than being busy. This is so much the case, that even though it is one of the ten commandments to have a day of rest, to honor Sabbath, a time of quiet, stillness, prayer, study and solitude, I know very few people who actually honor the Sabbath. The Sabbath is not just a day off from work or any work related activities like household chores (which in itself is hard enough). It is a day to do nothing but pray, study, rest, be quiet, be silent, and practice solitude. But we don’t know how to handle this anymore. And so we don’t do it.
In running from solitude, we are really running from two things. We are running from ourselves. And we are running from God. Sometimes even our relationships can be ways of running away. Sometimes we avoid ourselves, we avoid solitude, we avoid quiet by being focused on someone else and on the drama of that relationship. I speak from my own experience here. From the time I was a young teenager on, I was never NOT in a significant relationship until my divorce. I could not tolerate being without a partner of some kind. I was not married until I was 29, but I was always in a relationship, with someone, as a way to avoid being alone, until that time. When I was divorced, therefore, I had not been ALONE in the sense of not being with a partner since I was a teen. And I didn’t like it. I was afraid alone. I was lonely alone. And rather than looking at what that meant and why that was, I simply made sure that I was never by myself. There were my children to fill the space, constantly, almost all the time. They filled the empty time, they kept me busy. But in the evenings, after they were in bed, it was just me, for the first time in three decades. And it was hard. That quiet. That stillness. That solitude. I often filled it with conversations with friends, especially those on the West Coast (I was in Ohio at the time) for whom it would not really be so late. Still, there were spaces of aloneness. Sometimes it was so hard, so lonely, that I wondered if I really existed in those times alone. It’s kind of like all the jokes about if a tree falls in the wood and there is no one there to hear it, does it still make a sound. I truly felt in some of those moments that if there was no one beside me, maybe I didn’t exist in those moments. Or rather, that my presence didn’t matter in those moments. My existence didn’t matter, didn’t have purpose, didn’t have meaning in those times. A lonely, hard place to be.
A very wise spiritual director said to me during that time that every search to be filled – with noise or busyness or community or connection is, ultimately, a search for a deeper connection with the Divine, with that which is bigger than ourselves. When we feel alone, when we feel lonely, when we feel empty, and even when we feel anxious because we are not DOING anything in a particular moment, these feelings are ultimately and deeply a search to connect with the Divine. So if we can actually turn our yearning for fulfillment, for connection with others, for feeling filled into what it really is; if we can focus that yearning on connecting with God, we can find ourselves filled in a much fuller, truer, more whole way than we might otherwise experience. If we can choose, through prayer and meditation, through the intentional search for solitude, and through a decision to seek solitude, through time set aside to be alone with God to ask for that closeness with God rather than filling up the emptiness with others, with food, with busyness, with addictions, we can find God in new ways. We are invited through the discipline of solitude to just BE in the quiet, in the aloneness. We are invited to truly “be still”, and know that God is. We are invited to be quiet and come to know more about who God is, and through that, to come to know more about who God calls us to be. We can experience God more fully and completely, and in doing so, come to know ourselves more fully and deeply as well. That achy loneliness that we have all felt is a call from God to be in the silence and to listen, rather than to push those feelings away and fill the emptiness.
I am reminded of the story in 1 Kings 19:11-13 of Elijah’s encounter with God – “Go out and stand on the mountain,” God replied. “I want you to see me when I pass by.” All at once, a strong wind shook the mountain and shattered the rocks. But God was not in the wind. Next, there was an earthquake, but God was not in the earthquake. Then there was a fire, but God was not in the fire. Finally, there was a gentle breeze, and when Elijah heard it, he covered his face with his coat. He went out and stood at the entrance to the cave.
God asked, “Elijah, why are you here?”
We tend to think we can experience God in the big, in the dramatic, in activities in our busyness, especially when we are doing work FOR God. But the work and busyness we do FOR God should be our response to having encountered God. They are responses of service that should stem from gratitude about our relationship with God. But encounters with God, while they come in many forms, are often most deeply to be found in solitude. We don’t find them in the loud earthquakes, or in the big dramatic fires, or in the crazy windy storms of our lives. We will find them, we will find GOD, in the quiet, in the stillness, in the solitude.
We have Jesus’ examples, too, of that spiritual practice. Jesus, who “often withdrew to lonely places and prayed” (Luke 5:16); Jesus, whom we are told that after healings and time with the people, withdrew for solitude with God. Mark 1:35 “And rising very early in the morning, while it was still dark, he departed and went out to a desolate place, and there he prayed.” After John died, Matthew 14:13, “Now when Jesus heard this, he withdrew from there in a boat to a desolate place by himself.” Before choosing the twelve apostles Luke 6:12–13, “In these days he went out to the mountain to pray, and all night he continued in prayer to God.” When he retreated to the garden in Gethsemane, and at many other times. Sometimes he invited his disciples to join him. “Then, because so many people were coming and going that they did not even have a chance to eat, he said to them, ‘Come with me by yourselves to a quiet place and get some rest.’ So they went away by themselves in a boat to a solitary place”.
Solitude, or that quiet time away, is an important practice for all of us. So how do we practice solitude?
Here are some concrete suggestions:
1. Turn off the noise and distractions for 15 minutes a day. That means turning off the ringer on your phone, getting away from TV, radio, music, media, the computer, machines, and intentionally seeking out quiet alone time.
2. Go for a walk in nature by yourself.
3. Go on a silent retreat.
4. Sit in a park for a time by yourself.
5. Take time to sit in the quiet of the sanctuary any time, by yourself.
6. Create a spot in your home for a quiet retreat space and use it.
7. Walk the labyrinth, again, by yourself.
8. Spend time reading scripture, in quiet, by yourself.
9. At a lesser level, turn off the phone, radio, podcasts, news in the car when you drive alone.
10. Practice Sabbath – take a day of rest, prayer, study, quiet and solitude, each week.
Alone time, solitude time, allows us to get to know God and ourselves more deeply. It invites us into prayer and reflection on where God has been in our lives, is currently acting in our lives. It invites us into self-reflection and into a time of listening for where God is calling us to move, how God is calling us to be, and what God is calling us to become. It is an invitation for closeness with God. One we don’t accept easily, but one that is filled with gifts from the Spirit. Amen.