The first time a friend of mine went to a silent retreat, she brought a suitcase full of books. She was afraid of spending several hours alone, with “nothing” to do. After the retreat, she was pleased to tell me she hadn’t needed all those books. She had enjoyed her time alone with God, including the silence.
I think most people are afraid of silence and solitude. The proof is in the plethora of devices, distractions and diversions available to us – and we all make good use of them, don’t we? It’s especially difficult to get away from them if you’re at home. I made it about ten hours last time I tried a mini retreat – too many distractions within easy reach. But the hours I managed to forget about all of that were great. Solitude and silence are necessary tools in the Christian life.
Henri Nouwen called solitude “a place of conversion – where the old self dies and the new self is born; the place where the emergence of the new man and the new woman occurs” (The Way of the Heart). He also said we must first remember solitude isn’t just getting privacy, time on our own to do our own thing, or simply recharge our batteries. It’s so much more – it’s just me, just you, being vulnerable, weak, sinful, broken, nothing, before God. This is so difficult most of us want to run away, back to the safety of our distractions and devices. But if we can stick it out, we can come to the place of complete surrender. We can face our sin, show our wounds, give up our fears and face our true nature. That’s where we become the new creature.
(I have paraphrased some of Nouwen’s thoughts from The Way of the Heart.) Next week: how to develop a discipline of solitude.