Lent Notes on Silence and Solitude
These notes are taken from Richard Foster’s Celebration of Discipline (pages 84-95); Donald S Whitney’s Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life (pages 173-194) and David Runcorn’s Space for God.
There are many reasons for seeking silence and solitude in order to be able to focus on God, but they boil down to these three: Jesus did it (eg Mark 1:35), it can help us to communicate more clearly with God, and we show a greater dependence on him by allowing him to explain our actions to others, not we ourselves.
This is the time of year when leaflets advertising cruises drop out of magazines. For most of us, the idea of spending time in solitude or deliberately being silent has the same immediacy as the idea of going on a cruise – it’s something that only a few people do, but something we might contemplate later in life. But I want to suggest that, far from being a postponable luxury, a time of silence to be with God is easily affordable now.
To change the image entirely, Whitney says this: “As sleep and rest are needed for the body, so silence and solitude are needed each day for the soul. These Disciplines have a way of airing out the mind and ironing out the wrinkles of the soul.” (page 191, SDCL)
“I have stilled and quieted my soul” (Psalm 131:2), I have switched off the phone, mobile phone, music, the radio, the television – now what?
Richard Foster suggests that we take advantage of the “little solitudes” that fill our day, brief times of inner quiet that help us to be “genuinely present where we are.” : These are samples from his day:
the quiet before the family wakes up,
the morning cup of coffee before starting work,
the enforced stillness of being in a traffic jam,
the unexpected sight of a tree or flower.
Silent grace before a meal.
And this poetic-sounding suggestion for the close of the day: “Slip outside just before bed and taste the silent night.” (page 93, CD)
All of these, and others you find for yourself (waiting for the kettle to boil, or a computer to start up, a trip to post a letter?) can be used to enable you to focus on Jesus’ presence with you.
Suppose you have a little bit longer. David Runcorn and Richard Foster offer this suggestion for setting aside a short time to spend in Jesus’ presence. I’ve tried to write it so that you can follow the sequence easily. The phrase used in this ‘breath prayer’ (a prayer that can be said in one breath) comes from prayer of the tax-collector in the parable recorded in Luke 18.
First, find a quiet place. Sitting comfortably on an upright chair, begin by breathing in and out. As you begin to relax, take slightly deeper breaths. Speaking quietly (or perhaps just in your head), breathe in with the words “Lord Jesus Christ”, and breathe out with “Have mercy on me, a sinner”. Repeat this prayer on the rhythm of your breathing. When you are ready, be completely silent for a moment. Finish with a prayer offering to God the concerns and longings that are part of your life at present, for him to hold them for you.
Fortunately for his credibility, David Runcorn talks of the possibility of encountering mental turmoil as silence lifts the lid on our hither-to neglected inner world and we come face-to-face with “all the hopes, insecurities, emptiness and frustrations [that are] the raw materials of who we are.” (page 21, SfG)
If this is the case for you (and I have to say that the phrase “be completely silent for a moment” is a simple phrase to write but one I found close to impossible to carry out) then Richard Foster has another suggestion that you may find you can manage more easily. (Prayer: Finding the Heart’s True Home, pages 128-30).
Again, find a quiet place at a time when you will not be interrupted. After a few moments, allow God to call you by name. Next, answer the question “What do you want?” as simply and directly as you can with a word (eg “Peace”) or a phrase (eg “to know your love”). Then, connect your prayer with your most comfortable form of address for God. Lastly, write down your prayer (“Father, let me know your love”).
Keep using the prayer whenever you find your thoughts jostling in your head. Over the first few days you may find that the form of the prayer changes slightly as God adjusts it (“Father, let me feel your love”: your head knowledge of God’s love is fine, but He knows that your heart needs to catch up). Keep using the prayer until God makes it clear that the work He intended by it has been accomplished. Richard Foster wrote of a prayer of his that, 8 months after its creation, was showing no signs of ceasing to be effective.
Although this prayer may be conceived in a quiet place, you could try taking it out walking or running.
Silent prayer can be solitary, or undertaken in a group. I belong to a small prayer group that has been meeting for the last few years. All of us feel called to be there, all of us have reached a point where we are carrying on only because it is the right thing to do. The last time we met, I had just read Space for God so I suggested that we prayed in silence instead of praying aloud for each topic.
To provide reassurance that we would not be drifting into the ether for an unspecified length of time, I used our kitchen timer to mark 10, or 5, or 2 minutes, as the topic required. As an aid to concentration, I put a lit candle where we could all see it.
The result was a truly sparkling prayer time, when God was (for once!) doing more talking than we were! We recorded the impressions of what we felt that God was saying, and we were left with an unprecedented level of enthusiasm for persisting in our meetings. I would go as far as saying that we really enjoyed our time, a chore had become something more desirable than going to a favourite restaurant.
Where to go for ultra mini- and mini-breaks:
Messrs Foster, Whitney and Runcorn offer these as suggestions: a corner of a room, a special chair, a park, a church building, along with two that sound a bit desperate – a storage closet and a bathroom.
I’ve tried most of the above, but I’ve wondered about this one. Our city has a wealth of church buildings. For myself, I want to make a ‘solitude sampler’ – to take nothing but a notebook, to sit in each place for a little while to see if the quality if silence is different in each place.
I rang each of these to check: Bristol Cathedral, open 8am-5pm, always has somewhere you can sit and be quiet; St Stephen’s in the city centre is open from 9am-3.30pm, Monday to Saturday (but beware of lunchtime concerts) and St Mary Redcliffe is open from 8.30am-5pm, Monday to Friday. Perhaps you might be able to slip in for a moment’s quiet before or during the working day. More adventurously, Dave Winfield suggests ‘country’ walks, and leaning meditatively on five-barred gates in locations such as Tintern, Blaise, Ashton Court and Purdown.
How to get there:
All the authors warn that anything longer than an ultra mini-break needs to be planned for, put into our calendars and protected – our daily schedule can easily rush in to swamp our intentions.
This is a suggestion, made by both Richard Foster and Donald Whitney, which I have yet to test for myself. They suggest that, several times a year we plan a protracted time when we withdraw from routine for three to four hours (after work, at home or a quiet corner of a public library, or at a retreat centre) to re-evaluate our goals and objectives in life -for this year, for the next 10 years.
Richard Foster says this: “You are going to go somewhere, so how much better to have a direction that has been set by communion with the divine Center.” (page 95, CD)
He says that the tendency is to overestimate what is possible in one year and underestimate what is possible in ten. But it does open the door to all sorts of exciting possibilities that God might have in mind for you: learning new skills in work or leisure, reading works of Christian authors you admire.
For those with dependants, Donald Whitney gives hints on carving out time for silence and solitude: to arrange with a spouse or a friend that you will cover for one another. And, if you are the one responsible for food preparation, to have a meal ready to heat up when you come home so that the benefits of your time alone with God aren’t immediately swallowed up by having to deal with a hungry family.
Again, I haven’t tried this myself but all the writers recommend trying a retreat as a means of seeking God, either DIY (making sure that you plan your time in advance so as not to waste it), or in a specialist retreat centre. Looking up “Christian Retreat Centre UK” on the internet to provides a long list of possible venues and times.
I believe these exercises to be extremely valuable in gaining God’s perspective on our lives. As with all the others, it would be marvellous to supplement them with others’ real-life experiences