We began a new sermon series this week at SPL (St. Paul’s Leaskdale) called “Inside Out: Pursuing the Interior Life of Jesus.” Together we are walking through the book of Mark in the Bible. During this series I will be posting a reflection on the blog coinciding with the same chapter in Mark, but focusing on the application, the “what now” piece after the sermon text. The Mark 1 sermon related to the text: “You are my son, the beloved, with you I am well pleased,” where Jesus is baptized and hears these words from God. The very next verse, though, is what I want to focus on this week. Jesus’ identity is established as God’s beloved Son, and immediately out of that, he spends forty days in the wilderness, in solitude.
What I am going to do each week is look at a practice, a specific way of being, that we can learn from the life of Jesus and reflect in our own lives. This week, the practice I want to look at is solitude.
Contemporary society has a lot to say about solitude. There is a huge movement right now in both religious and non-religious circles toward “mediation” and “mindfulness.” The psychological and mental benefits of these are touted in popular magazines and medical journals alike. But I want to take a step beyond mindfulness or meditation to something even more uncomfortable: intentional solitude.
The practice of solitude, as defined by Henri Nouwen (late Catholic priest, professor, and writer) in his book, Making All Things New: An Invitation to the Spiritual Life, is a “strange period of uselessness.”
The practice of solitude is like a “strange period of uselessness.” Nouwen
Nouwen brilliantly, and much ahead of his time, posits that we have a culture obsessed with being useful. We not only are busy people “occupied” with what is going on now, but we are “pre-occupied” in the sense of being future-busy-oriented. We worry about the future and we plan and we waste much of our lives being pre-occupied with the senseless. And to combat this, Nouwen recommends solitude as a “period of uselessness.”
Earlier this week, my brother-in-law just recommended a show to my husband and I called Alone; which is a reality television show, on the history channel of all things. I have serious doubts about reality TV, but was captivated by this one nonetheless. The contestants are dropped off in Patagonia, the largest region of unpeopled and unchartered wilderness in the world, in the mountainous regions of Chile, and their sole goal is to be the last survivor. At any point, they can pick up their satellite phone and call in help and go home. But they can’t call their families, or read books, or browse the web—they can just be in the woods…alone.
It is a survivalist show at its core, but what the videos seem to show is not an overwhelming anxiety at being in the danger of hazardous weather, or wild animals, or even starvation (most of the contestants are proficient in those areas). Rather the overwhelming anxiety for most of them is being alone. One individual noted in a video that the hardest part was to be alone with her own thoughts…because when you are alone, you unfortunately bring you with you. Nouwen writes, “As soon as we are alone…an inner chaos opens up,” which is exactly what that candidate experienced. We can normally sate our personal chaos with tasks and busyness, but not when we experience true solitude.
When Jesus goes into the wilderness for 40 days he is alone, while “facing temptations” and being “waited on by angels.” The strange paradox here is that I think Jesus went into the wilderness to be alone, but also to be in solitude before God. He had the discipline to stay in the wilderness in the midst of temptations and stay strong in the midst of the challenges of aloneness, facing himself, but also preparing him for his next three years of ministry. St. Teresa of Avila says, “Settle yourself in solitude and you will come upon Him in yourself.” This is the paradox of being alone, but also before God. I believe this is what Jesus was doing in the wilderness…settling himself in solitude, in order to be, just be, with his Father.
So this week, I decided to be intentional about solitude. I have only had one period so far. And I want to set it apart from meditation, which is focused on some thing. Many people meditate on an idea, or a scripture, or a piece of art, or some thing. I daily practice guided meditations on an app that walks you through different mindfulness techniques, and would recommend this as well. But to just be, before the Lord—not reciting prayers, or asking God for help, or having any sort of agenda—to have a period of “uselessness” simply dwelling on God, is much more difficult.
I thought I could easily spend an hour or two in this sort of head space on my day off. I sat down somewhere comfortable, trying to push aside the many earthly to-dos that I had all around me, and settled into being before the Lord. And though my mind wandered back and forth a bit, I settled into focus eventually, waiting for God to speak something to me. And eventually, in the silence, in the solitude, I felt a stirring as I waited and listened, and eventually started to understand the type of stillness I crave so deeply. When my heart finally settled into this place for what seemed like hours, perhaps days, I stirred back slowly to attentiveness, opening my eyes to what was around me—dirty dishes, a to-do list a mile long, my half-eaten breakfast, and the clock.
All of that energy had taken me through nine minutes! in solitude. For nine minutes, I sat there with my soul. I guess it is much harder than I thought. To be, to simply be, requires energy and time; possibly much greater energy and time than to do. It will be an uphill battle to learn this practice of solitude.
As I go about the week, I plan to continue this practice of solitude each morning, not prayer in the active sense, but prayer in the passive sense. Prayer in the active sense is thanking God, requesting of God, even adoring God, which is necessary and good. But this prayer in the passive sense, of listening to and being with God is just as necessary, and profoundly more difficult for me.
I think ten minutes a day is a good place to start, asking God to still your heart and reveal something to you in this time. Join me in this endeavor this week if you dare. Find a quiet place, away from roommates, and spouses, and children, and activities to still your heart before God for ten minutes a day for a week, and see what happens.
Jesus found his identity rooted in his Father in heaven. But a one-time act of connecting was not enough to develop a relationship. Jesus had to be in solitude before his Father in preparation for his ministry, and he continued to be in solitude often throughout his ministry.
Here are a few things to think about as you reflect on times of solitude this week:
- Where is your identity rooted—work, family, Christ, a traumatic event, success and performance, etc? (If you aren’t sure, consider where the majority of your energy is focused. Or consider if something went wrong in one of these areas of life, which would derail you the most?)
- Is your identity rooted where you want it to be? Why or why not?
- What changes would have to take place in your life to realign your core identity?
- What is God stirring in you in the solitude?