Modern life in our context, as we discussed in the last post, is dominated by noise. We have lost the ability to be quiet, to be in silence: the “awkward” gap in noise requires a joke, or an iPod, or simply moving on to the next thing that will keep our diminishing attention. Oh, that every moment of our lives might be filled with entertainment! Who could imagine a life that is—horror of horrors—boring?
To take time for silence, to remove oneself from the perpetual noise of the world, is truly one of the most countercultural acts Christians can practice. To say, “Not now; it can wait. This world does not turn or endure based on the amount of work I can accomplish when awake. God lives. God sustains. God is in control. Because of that happy fact, I will go and be with my God, and have all my frantic passions healed. I will go and be with the one who gives true rest, true pleasure, true peace."
Henri Nouwen, in his remarkable little book The Way of the Heart, says, “Solitude is the furnace of transformation.” For, as we must remember, these practices are not ultimately about us; they are about God! We take time away from noise and busyness not to “catch a break,” but to give ourselves more fully over to the God who, in the power of self-giving love, desires more than anything to be our all in all, to heal us of our distorted desires, to foster new life in wounded hearts. And the gift of silence and solitude is that, even if we are not in the mood, they put us in a place where we have no more excuses before God—no remote control, no cell phone or laptop, no book or activity or “Pause/Play” button. We are alone and without recourse before the living God, before the creator and redeemer of all things, before the relentless lover who refuses to give up on us until we find our rest in him.
So it is right on the mark when Ruth Haley Barton says in her book Invitation to Solitude and Silence, “Solitude and silence are not self-indulgent exercises for times when an overcrowded soul needs a little time to itself. Rather, they are concrete ways of opening to the presence of God beyond human effort and beyond the human constructs that cannot fully contain the Divine.” We go into solitude and silence with the real expectation that God will be there waiting for us. That does not mean he will speak directly, or that we will have extraordinary spiritual experiences each and every time, or any other claim that would only apply to an idol or a robot under our control. Rather, we go knowing that we must relearn again, by the guiding of the Holy Spirit, what it is to speak, what it is to be quiet, when each is appropriate, and how to incarnate in our lives the silence and speech of the eternal Word of God.
Therefore our working definition will be:
Silence and solitude (1) call us out of the noise and chaos of our busybodiedness, (2) remind us of the insanity of believing that the world revolves around us or will halt if we don’t keep moving, (3) carve out space for us to listen to God alone and in the quiet, and (4) call us back, renewed and stilled and transformed, into service in the midst of a tired, noisy, and busy world.