Today's "thought" is about the need for times of solitude in our lives. In our busy society, where our schedules tend to dictate nearly every moment, it becomes difficult to carve out times for solitude. Yet (and I do know I speak as an introvert) they are necessary for our spiritual formation.
I once worked in a wilderness program up in Northern Canada dealing with inner city Chicago teens. It was rugged. One of the exercises was to drop the teens off on a small deserted Island in the middle of a huge lake, for three days, with very minimal supplies. They would need to build their own shelter, find their own food, etc. I would check in on the boys daily (morning and evening). After they had gone the entire three days, I returned by canoe to pick up each teen. Most did well, but one boy in particular simply could not bear the three days of silence, alone time, and the complete lack of the things he normally used to distract himself from himself and the thoughts that would run through his head. What the author calls, the "confusing ideas, disturbing images, wild fantasies, and weird associations that jump about in one's mind like monkeys in banana tree," when we enter into solitude. Normally he was able to block them out with music, activities, conversations, and such, but not this time.
This thought comes to you from a book I have looked back to often since purchasing it in seminary way back in 1982. It's called, "The Way of the Heart" by Henri Nouwen. In a society that places very little value on the traditions of Christian contemplation, Christ-focused meditation, or purposefully prolonged times of prayerful solitude, his words act as a good counter-balance. He shares some of the benefits of such disciplines, so I won't. Yet I must say that when I have set aside such times, I have benefited greatly from them. One seven day long stint in the Dominican Republic (combined with fasting) helped guide me into my future calling, and another seven day stint (with the support of my very gracious wife Nancy who realized my need to get away and be with God) saved me from leaving the pastorate back in 1992. Enjoy.
The Furnace of Transformation
"Solitude is the furnace of transformation. Without solitude we remain victims of our society and continue to be entangled in the illusions of the false self. Jesus himself entered into this furnace in the wilderness. There he was tempted with the three compulsions of the world: to be relevant (“turn stones into loaves”), to be spectacular (“throw yourself down”), and to be powerful (” I will give you all these kingdoms”). There he affirmed God as the only source of his identity (“You must worship the Lord your God and serve him alone”). Solitude is the place of the great struggle and the great encounter – the struggle against the compulsions of the false self, and the encounter with the loving God who offers himself as the substance of the new self.
This might sound rather forbidding. It might even evoke images of medieval ascetical pursuits from which Luther and Calvin have happily saved us. But once we have given these fantasies their due and let them wander off, we will see that we are dealing here with that holy place where ministry and spirituality embrace each other. It is the place called solitude... We say to each other that we need some solitude in our lives. What we really are thinking of, however, is a time and a place for ourselves in which we are not bothered by other people, can think our own thoughts, express our own complaints, and do our own thing, whatever it may be. For us, solitude most often means privacy… In short, we think of solitude as a place where we gather new strength to continue the ongoing competition in life… [Yet] solitude is not a private therapeutic place. Rather, it is the place of conversion, the place 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…
In solitude I get rid of my scaffolding. I have no friends to talk with, no telephone calls to make, no meetings to attend, no music to entertain, no books to distract, just me – naked, vulnerable, weak, sinful, deprived, broken – nothing. It is this nothingness that I have to face in my solitude, a nothingness so dreadful that everything in me wants to run to my friends, my work, and my distractions, so that I can forget my nothingness and make myself believe that I am worth something. But that is not all. As soon as I decide to stay in my solitude, confusing ideas, disturbing images, wild fantasies, and weird associations jump about in my mind like monkeys in banana tree. Anger and greed begin to show their ugly faces. I give long and hostile speeches to my enemies and dream lustful dreams in which I am wealthy, influential, and very attractive – or poor, ugly, and in need of immediate consolation. Thus, I try again to run from the dark abyss of my nothingness and restore my false self in all its vainglory.
[Yet] the task is to persevere in my solitude, to stay in my cell until all my seductive visitors get tired of pounding on my door and leave me alone… The struggle is real because the danger is real. It is the danger of living the whole of our life as one long defense against the reality of our condition, one restless effort to convince ourselves of our virtuousness. Yet Jesus “did not come to call the virtuous, but sinners” (Matthew 9:13). That is the struggle. It is the struggle to die to the false self. But this struggle is far, far beyond our own strength. Anyone who wants to fight his demons with his own weapons is a fool. The wisdom of the desert fathers is that the confrontation with our own frightening nothingness forces us to surrender ourselves totally and unconditionally to the Lord Jesus Christ. Alone, we cannot face “the mystery of iniquity” with impunity. Only Christ can overcome the powers of evil. Only in and through him can we survive the trials of our solitude… Only in the context of the great encounter with Jesus Christ himself can a real authentic struggle take place…
We enter into solitude first of all to meet our Lord and to be with him and him alone. Our primary task in solitude, therefore, is not to pay undue attention to the many faces which assail us, but to keep the eyes of our mind and heart on him who is our divine Savior. Only in the context of grace can we face our sin; only in the place of healing do we dare to show our wounds; only with a single-minded attention to Christ can we give up our clinging fears and face our own true nature. As we come to realize that it is not we who live, but Christ who lives in us, that he is our true self, we can slowly let our compulsions melt away and begin to experience the freedom of the children of God."
As with all things we read, merely being brought to think of the things spoken of is not enough. One benefits most by putting such suggestions into practice. As with the Word of God, it is the doers who receive the greatest benefit. I can believe with all my heart that exercise is good for the body, but if I don't get out and actually do it, it benefits me little. Will you do a half day? A day? A few days? No phone, no Facebook, not Twitter, no texts, no movies, no magazines... just you and God alone in a forced time of solitude. There are few I've spoken with who have done it, who have not testified to the benefit of the time spent having to confront their compulsions, needs, insecurities, brokenness, and nothingness. For in confronting their own insignificance, they (like myself) have found it reinforces their dependence upon God and can bring us face to face with Jesus.
With prayers that you will seriously consider this lost Christian discipline and schedule forced times of solitude, Pastor Jeff