Recently I was invited to participate in a Silent Retreat. After supper on Thursday evening until lunch on Friday, we were engaged in silence, with the hope that by being silent we could hear the still small voice of God.
Most of those who participated chose to participate, at least for some time, in solitude. While I will comment on the silent aspect of the retreat in a separate post, I want to talk in this post about the practice of solitude.
Prior to the retreat I was able to read from two books about the discipline of solitude, one from Henri Nouwen and the other from Dallas Willard. This discipline has intrigued me for the past year when I read Paula Huston’s book called The Holy Way: Practices for a Simple Life, which focused on a search for simplicity in her life. She drew heavily upon the lives of the Desert Fathers in her exploration, and I have been intrigued with the Desert Fathers ever since. This post will focus on Dallas Willard’s thoughts on solitude in his book The Spirit of the Disciplines: Understanding How God Changes Lives.
Jesus and his initial followers made extensive use of solitude. Solitude is the most radical of the disciplines for life in the spirit. In penal institutions, solitary confinement is used to break the strongest of wills. It is capable of this because it excludes interactions with others upon which fallen human personality completely depends. The life alienated from God collapses when deprived of its support from the sin-laden world. But the life in tune with God is actually nurtured by time spent alone. (100)
Solitude frees us. The normal course of day-to-day human interactions lock us into patters of feeling, thought, and action that are geared to a world set against God. Nothing but solitude can allow the development of a freedom from the ingrained behaviors that hinder our integration into God’s order.
In solitude we find the psychic distance, the perspective from which we can see, in the light of eternity, the created things that trap, worry, and oppress us. Thomas Merton writes:
That is the only reason why I desire solitude – to be lost to all created things, to die to them and to the knowledge of them, for they remind me of my distance from You: that You are far from them, even though You are in them. You have made them and Your presence sustains their being and they hide You from me. And I would live alone, and out of them. O beata solitudo!
But solitude, like all the disciplines of the spirit, carries its risks. In solitude, we confront our own soul with its obscure forces and conflicts that escape our attention when we are interacting with others.”Solitude is a terrible trial, for it serves to crack open and burst apart the shell of our superficial securities. It opens out to us the unknown abyss that we all carry within is…[and] discloses the fact that these abysses are haunted.” We can only survive solitude if we cling to Christ there. And yet what we find of him in that solitude enables us to return to society as free persons.
Solitude will also pain and threaten our family and friends. Others need us to keep their lives in place; and when we retreat, they then have to deal with their souls. True, they need God more than they need us, but they may not understand this. We must carefully respect their pain and with much loving prayer make wise arrangements on their behalf; and we must do all possible to help them understand what we are doing and why.
Locked into interaction with the human beings that make up our fallen world, it is all but impossible to grow in grace as one should. (160-161)