Solitude Brings Coherence

We enter solitude, in which also we lose loneliness. Only discord can come of the attempt to share solitude. True solitude is found in the wild places, where one is without human obligation. One’s inner voices become audible. One feels the attraction of one’s most intimate sources. In consequence, one responds more clearly to other lives. The more coherent one becomes within oneself as a creature, the more fully one enters into the communion of all creatures. One returns from solitude laden with the gifts of circumstance.

– Wendell Berry, “Healing,” Stanza IV in What Are People For?

Wendell Berry’s statement that we lose loneliness by entering solitude seems completely counter-intuitive. Most of us are afraid of solitude for the very reason that we feel, in being alone, we will necessarily become lonely. But it does not have to be that way.

As Berry mentions, it is often in the “wild places” are where I feel most at ease in solitude. The fresh air, the rugged wildness, and the scurrying of creatures around makes me aware of both my smallness in the vastness of God’s creation, yet also God’s infinite attentiveness to the cosmos He has made. In the midst of this, nature’s contours soothe my soul. I am sure this soothing arises in part because, as Berry writes, in these wild places we are without “human obligation.”  In wild places we are away from people we feel obligated to engage with and things we feel obligated to do.

Both for good and ill, it is in solitude that we hear inner voices. Words that have been floating around inside of us – whole streams of though – suddenly take on such clear force that we are at times overwhelmed. We wonder, “Where did that thought come from?” Or, “I haven’t thought about that in awhile.” In reality these thoughts and ideas – these inner voices – are ever-present yet go unheeded because of the clamor of people and things in our daily lives. The voices and thoughts are there, but until we quiet ourselves enough, both externally and internally, we often either suppress them or ignore them.

When we are attentive to these inner voices and more intimate thoughts, we have the opportunity to come to a more comprehensive internal order with God and ourselves. We bring those clamoring voices to the living God and ask to hear His voice in it all. The unheeded voices that were always there speaking messages of fear or hurt or joy to us have been heard, conversed with, and brought to greater resolution in conversation with the God who hears and knows us. They grow quiet now. God’s voice becomes more solid, enduring, and strong. It is in this journey that we achieve a sense of coherence. We become less divided and distracted.

It is from this order and coherence that God sends us out with the ability to more fully engage with others and the created world. We become more fully present and able to connect with those around us.  We are in tune with God and the cosmos because of His work in our turbulent souls. With the Spirit’s power strengthening our will we can face the things that come into our daily lives, both planned and unplanned.

In solitude the various slivers of our distracted and fragmented selves come to a greater unity in God’s presence. That greater unity enables us to receive people into true relationship and bring our tasks toward completion. It is that powerful reality mentioned in the psalms:

Teach me Your way, Lord, that I may rely on Your faithfulness; give me an undivided heart, that I may fear Your name. (Psalm 86:11).

Excerpts from Henri Nouwen’s The Way of the Heart

The Way of the Heart - NouwenDuring my sabbatical, I re-read a book for the fifth time. That’s not a very common occurrence for me, but Henri Nouwen’s book The Way of the Heart is that sort of book for me. As I was looking through my sabbatical journals, I found excerpts from this book over a long stretch. So, as much for me as for anyone else, I am pulling them all together here in one place. Maybe one or two will particularly impact you. If so, I’d love to hear from you about that. If not, well, there are certain books that speak to us in ways that no one else understands. Since I first read this during college, The Way of the Heart has helped an active achiever like me step into the silence and stillness with God.

Solitude is the place of the great struggle and the great encounter — the struggle against the compulsions of the false self, and the encounter with the loving God who offers himself as the substance of the new self (26).

Ministry can be fruitful only if it grows out of a direct and intimate encounter with our Lord (31).

The goal of our life is not people. It is God. Only in him shall we find the rest we seek. It is therefore to solitude that we must return, not alone, but with all those whom we embrace through our ministry (40).

As ministers our greatest temptation is toward too many words. They weaken our faith and make us lukewarm. But silence is a sacred discipline, a grace of the Holy Spirit (56).

In order to be a ministry in the Name of Jesus, our ministry must also point beyond our words to the unspeakable mystery of God (59).

The question that must guide all organizing activity in a parish is not how to keep people busy, but how to keep them from being so busy that they can no longer hear the voice of God who speaks in silence (65).

Hesychia, the rest which flows from unceasing prayer, needs to be sought at all costs, even when the flesh is itchy, the world is alluring, and the demons noisy (70).

‘To pray is to descend with the mind into the heart and there to stand before the face of the Lord, ever-present, all-seeing, within you.’ – Theophan the Recluse (76).

They [the Desert Fathers and Mothers] pull us away from our intellectualizing practices, in which God becomes one of the many problems we have to address. They show us that real prayer penetrates to the marrow of our soul and leaves nothing untouched (78).

 

Four Quotations on Prayer

CBR001323This past weekend in my message “Making Space for Prayer,” the first part of our series “The Art of Prayer” at Eastbrook Church, I shared four quotations on prayer that many people asked me about later. Here they are for your edification.

“The truth is that we only learn to pray all the time everywhere after we have set about praying some of the time somewhere.” – Richard Foster, Prayer: Finding the Heart’s True Home (San Francisco: Harper, 1992), 74.

“One of the main reasons so many of God’s children don’t have a significant life of prayer is not so much that we don’t want to, but that we don’t plan to. . . . We get up day after day and realize that significant times of prayer should be a part of our life, but nothing’s ever ready. . . . And we all know that the opposite of planning is not a wonderful flow of deep, spontaneous experiences in prayer. The opposite of planning is the rut.” – John Piper, Desiring God (Portland, OR: Multnomah, 1986), 150-1.

“Work, work from early till late. In fact, I have so much to do that I shall spend the first three hours in prayer.” – Martin Luther, quoted in J. Oswald Sanders, Spiritual Leadership (Chicago: Moody Press, 1994), 86.

“One thing I know for sure about prayer these days is that we do not know how to pray. It is only the young in Christ who think they know how to pray; the rest of us know we are just beginners. So let’s try to begin together, which is really all we can do.” – Ruth Haley Barton, “Prayer,” in Sacred Rhythms (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2006), 63.

Solitude and Silence

This post continues my reflections on Dallas Willard’s book, The Spirit of the Disciplines. Here, I look at two disciplines of abstinence that are critical to our entry into the deeper life with God are solitude and silence.

Solitude
Solitude is our intentional choice to step away from interaction with others, whether in person or in other forms of communication. Solitude is abstaining from companionship. Jesus did this throughout his life, as the gospels attest. We read about his practice most pointedly in Luke 4-5, where, after a jam-packed days of ministry to others, he draws away.

At daybreak, Jesus went out to a solitary place (4:42).
But Jesus often withdrew to lonely places and prayer (5:16).

In The Spirit of the Disciplines Dallas Willard says: “Of all the disciplines of abstinence, solitude is generally the most fundamental in the beginning of the spiritual life, and it must be returned to again and again as that life develops” (161).

Solitude is a place to explore our isolation from others, to cling to Christ, and to be strengthened for His service.

Silence
As you might expect, silence is the discipline whereby we step away from sound. In a culture that is sound-saturated, from iPods to noisy traffic, it is important for us to set aside time apart from the external clutter of sounds.

It is amazing how infrequently we experience quiet. Even the places and times that we describe as quiet, we are often saturated with ambient noise.

This discipline clearly connects with the discipline of solitude. We choose to not only be alone, but to be alone without speaking and in a place of quiet.

Silence is a place where we return to God for our reassurance and approval.

What is your experience of solitude and silence as means for connecting more deeply with God?

Busyness: A Love/Hate Relationship

I struggle with busyness. I hate it, yet I love it. Being busy refreshes me, but it can also suck the life out of my soul.

In my recent reading of a biography of Henri Nouwen, an amazing writer on the spiritual life who was also a professor at Yale and Harvard, I came across some words that spoke deeply to me. Nouwen was a busy man who realized that his external busyness revealed a deeper issue at play in his soul.

His biographer, Michael Ford, writes these words:Read More »

Reflections on God from Nature

Not too long ago, I was taking a walk around Cedarly, a place where I go once a month for reflection, prayer, and quiet.  As I walked, two things jumped out to my eyes as lessons about life with God from nature.

First, the intricacies of a spider-web stretched out on the branches of a bush near the walking path. What amazing craftsmanship with a very clear purpose. It was something I wouldn’t have noticed normally, but the sun caught my attention with it. Simply stunning! No other great lesson here. Just to be attentive.

Second, a huge branch and limb segment of a massive oak tree that was broken off and collapsed on the ground. On closer inspection, it was clear that this limb was diseased inside. The inner meat of the tree was soft and rotted like sand. This reminded me of my own inner life. If the inside is healthy, then the entire thing will be sound and healthy from the inside out. But if the inside is unhealthy, then the whole thing will come crashing down, no matter how healthy it appears on the outside.

Lord, I ask two things:

  • Please restore the wonder of living as Your son within my life
  • Please keep me healthy within so that my life might truly flourish in You

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The House of Our Souls

[I wrote these words last February on a day away in solitude for prayer and study.]

I sit in this small prayer house in the winter cold. Because the main house at this retreat center is vacant for the week, I was offered the chance to stay in the main house for the day. As I went into the main house to get the key to the prayer house, I saw just how many rooms were inside; so much to explore and see.

But my choice is to sit in this small physical house. Here in this limited space I want to talk with God about the interior spaces of my soul – a large house with many rooms to explore and see. Too often I range through large spaces exterior to me, but fail to range through the deeper and cavernous spaces interior to me.

The houses we live in physically, we attend to through cleaning, upkeep, decorating, and remodeling. Some of these activities are regular.  We do our Saturday morning chores: vacuuming the carpet, mopping the kitchen floor, wiping down showers and bathtubs. Or we organize things to come into our houses: school papers from the children; mail sorted into bills, letters, or junk mail; shoes, coats, and hats put away in closets. Other activities we attend to happen as needed or according to schedule. We redecorate a living from with new furniture or fresh paint. We remodel a part of our house: finishing out a basement or adding on a family room to the rear of the house.

How much more must we attend to the interior house that is our soul? What regular activities must we do – the interior cleaning and organizing? What demands attention or requires planning – the interior redecorating or remodeling?

And so, I sit facing a window that looks out upon barren tree branches and a three-day-old blanket of snow. I look out through the window with my physical eyes, while, with my spiritual eyes, I look into the window to my soul. What will I find?

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