Busyness besieges our lives. To do lists grow. Calendars overflow. Voices constantly chatter. We are always connected, yet always on the cusp of empty. Everything wars for our attention. We ride a
never-ending rollercoaster: frenetic, overstimulated, yet hollow, stressed, and starved.
In the book of Isaiah, we glimpse a better way: “This is what the Sovereign Lord, the Holy One of Israel, says: ‘In repentance and rest is your salvation, in quietness and trust is your strength...’” (Isaiah 30:15). Repentance, rest, quietness, and trust lead us to what our busyness, noisiness, and self-drivenness can never achieve.
For nearly two millennia, followers of Christ have relied on two interrelated practices to cultivate prayer amid the dehumanizing tug-of-war of daily life: Solitude and Silence.
Solitude simply means being alone for a set amount of time for the express purpose of being alone with God in prayer. We give up the presence of others for a time to cultivate our awareness of the presence of God.
Silence is simply making the conscious choice to remain still and quiet for a set time in order to turn our undivided attention to God, to listen to the quiet while staying prayerfully attentive.
These practices are not about fixing ourselves or our circumstances. Instead, they allow us to be ourselves without hurry or self-criticism before God. If there is any fixing to do, God will do it in God’s timing. Our role is simply to be present to God: “Be still, and know that I am God; I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth” (Psalm 46:10).
Practicals for solitude and silence
- Although solitude and silence are conceptually separate practices, they are perfectly suited to be exercised together. Here is a description of what that might look like.
- Overall, start small. Begin by practicing 5 minutes or 10 minutes per day. Try it for a week.
- Find a calm place, where you can be alone without interruption. Turn off televisions and computers. Put phones on silent, out of sight, and if necessary in another room. If it helps, close the blinds and turn off the lights.
- Pick a posture that will help you focus or that helps communicate your prayer with your body. This might mean sitting in a chair or on the floor, but it can also mean lying prostrate, sitting on your knees, or standing reverently. You might have your hands in your lap or lifted in surrender.
- Take a few deep breathes and allow yourself to remember that God is present to you and all your circumstances, choices, and cares. Do you find yourself resistant? Bored? Confused? You might notice that you’re physically tired or tense. Acknowledge to God whatever you’re feeling.
- You will quickly notice your mind at work, and most likely it will be spinning relentlessly. Remember that your mind has been trained to spin by grasping and solving, but in solitude and silence there is nothing to grasp and no problem to solve.
- In God’s presence, you have no need to accomplish anything, reach anything, prove anything, or decide anything. This is time to BE with God. Now-sit and breathe. Just sit and breathe.
- Distraction is a normal part of solitude and silence. Prepare a word or very short phrase as a prayer that will help you turn your attention back to God. Some suggestions include simply saying the name of Jesus or “Lord, have mercy on me.” Brennan Manning advocated praying “Abba, I belong to you.” The writer Ruth Haley Barton has used the words, “Lord, here I am.” It can be a word or phrase from the Bible or from a written prayer. Whatever you choose, let it be something that helps express yourself honestly to God.
- When you come to an end of the time, offer thanks, perhaps read a psalm, or respond to what God has shown or spoken to you. Resist the urge to scrutinize. Allow yourself to experience whatever you did or didn’t.
A few things to remember about solitude and silence
• Practicing solitude and silence can seem rather stark: sitting by ourselves quietly, doing little else but redirecting our distracted attention back to God. But that stark simplicity is what makes these spiritual practices so profound. Solitude and silence disarm us to be ourselves-to simply be-with God.
• For some, practicing solitude and silence happens more easily outside in nature or during physical exercise or both.
• It is not easy to be alone and quiet for long stretches of time. You might find yourself hesitant, reluctant, or even dreading the moment. These are normal feelings and, in fact, are good places to begin from. It is always appropriate to ask a pastor or spiritual companion for insight or encouragement.