Creating Silence and Solitude

Many of us, I think, understand and appreciate the idea of silence and solitude.  What we lack, really, is the understanding of how to create time for it in our day.

Personally, I am the kind of person who can think about silence and solitude all day long, but putting it into action is much more difficult  for me, because there’s always “something else” that seems like it needs to be done instead.

If, like me, you suffer from this desire to always be reaching for the next thing on your list, here are a few simple ways I’ve discovered I can “make room” for silence and solitude even on the busiest of days.     I will warn you right now it is far from perfect.  I have read many books and articles about setting aside a certain amount each day for prayer and meditation.  While there is certainly nothing wrong with that, I found that I needed to take baby steps to get me there.

I know for years I thought, “If only I could get away to a monastery and spend a long weekend, then I would surely make the time to pray!”   But the truth is, many of us have either missed our calling as monks or have (more likely) found our calling amidst the hustle and bustle of everyday life.  If you are striving to be a monk then I suggest you join a monastery;  but the rest of us, I think, would find it much more beneficial to look for ways of bringing the “monastery” into our everyday lives.

As a busy wife and mother, this is a sampling of what I’ve found works for me:

  • Look for the moments when silence and solitude naturally occur:  Impossible!  You have no idea how busy I am!  You may think.  I won’t argue.  It’s true.  I do not know how busy you are, but… do you take a shower each day?  Do you spend time commuting around in your car or another form of transportation to get to work or run errands?  Are you ever waiting in a checkout line or waiting for an appointment?  Do you make the time to crawl into a bed each night for sleep?  If you answered yes to any of these questions, pay attention to what you do with that time.  Are you jamming with the radio, checking emails, calling friends, or playing online games on your mobile device?  Or… are you soaking in the silence?  Observing others around you (or saying a prayer for them)?  Observing your breathing, your mood, and your thoughts?  As you prepare for sleep, do you fall asleep to the TV, or do you take time to unwind and relax with no distractions?
  • Use your time differently.  Once you’ve made some observations about what you do with the times that you are alone and or it is naturally quiet, set your sights on using those times for the purpose of silence with God.  (You can even begin with just one of those times—the one that seems easiest for you—i.e.,  every time I’m alone in the car I will not turn on the radio.)   For me, I rarely have the radio on in the car, and I try to use any time I’m forced to wait (stop lights, checkout lines, waiting rooms) as God’s invitation to observe and pray for those around me or to mentally count my blessings.  I have found that shower time and bedtime are actually much more difficult times for me to embrace the moment, but perhaps you would find it easiest to start there.
  • Set your alarm ten to fifteen minutes earlier than usual.  I am a morning person by nature, so when I am the last one to wake up I tend to feel as though I’m already behind.  This is not a good way to start the day!  I’ve learned that during the week it is important to me that I am up before my kids whenever possible.  That means I set my alarm for 5:30 AM or sooner.   During that time I make myself a cup of hot tea and sit down to read the Bible, but for a moment (sometimes a few minutes, sometimes ten or twenty), I sit with the quiet.  I do not pray with my thoughts or words.  I just sit.  Yes, inevitably my mind tries to speed up, flood itself with thoughts, worries, concerns, and distractions, but I try to just observe them and let them float on out of my brain the same way they floated in.  I choose not to embrace them!  This is the moment of the day when I feel united with the psalmist to, “Be still and know that I am God.” (Psalms 46:11)  It is an amazingly calm and refreshing way to start the day!

 

  • Schedule your day.  For years as a housewife, I didn’t think this was all that important.  There were things to get done and I had faith that I would get them done as I went about my day.  But, over the years I had the same complaint…there was never enough time for the same three things: exercise, fixing a healthy meal, and spending time with prayer.  I eventually realized that I made myself the victim of my schedule instead of the creator of it.  Many of us know the story in Genesis of how God made the world in six days and rested on the seventh (Genesis 2:2)…so why do we think we are so special that we need to keep doing and doing and doing with no rest or down time to care for ourselves at all?  Once I realized this, I made a commitment to change.  Now, I schedule my days in a simple notebook.  I pencil out the timeframes that are reasonable for certain chores and when my time is up, I am either done with the chore or (*gasp*) I make myself STOP!  Admittedly, this is not a perfect system, but if I at least stop long enough to reassess the rest of what I had written down for the day, I can make a more informed decision about whether it makes sense for me to continue past the allotted time and finish the task, or whether it is more important to move forward and reschedule the remainder of the task at hand for tomorrow.  (This works better than you might think!)
  • Hold your tongue.  I am a self-professed windbag, so this is a true struggle for me.  But, over the years I have come to realize that not every comment needs a reply from me, not every story that pops in my mind needs to be shared with the person next to me, not every anecdote, quip or silent moment needs to be filled with my chatter.  Silly as it sounds, this was a real shocker for me!  For years, I thought my chatter and input showed others that I was enthusiastic and interested in the conversation we were having.  And sometimes chatter does that.  But, you know what shows even greater interest?  Listening!  I realize that shouldn’t have been the shocker it was for me when I first started applying it, but it really was.  I thought for sure if I didn’t fill every silence with some sort of story or question or comment that the conversation would be full of awkward silences and dissolve.  What I found instead was that it gave others the opportunity to contribute more!  (Go figure.)  This also meant that I didn’t have to do all the work.  What a relief!  If, like me, quieting down is a struggle, try to let just one or two comments pass through your mind without passing out of your mouth.  This, I believe was probably one of my first real exercises in that wonderful fruit of the Spirit:  self-control.
  •  Finally, be patient with yourself!  Many of us do not live in a country or culture that embraces or even encourages silence.  It takes a certain self-awareness and discipline to bring silence and solitude to the forefront of your consciousness, so berating yourself or trying to hold yourself to some high standard of “perfecting” the silence and solitude in your life will probably only backfire.  Instead, have fun with it!  Consider it a challenge or a new adventure and you will find yourself much more likely to enjoy the many hidden moments of silence and solitude that await you.

This list is far from complete, so if you have other ideas or examples from your own experiences, I’d love to hear them!

A Lesson in Solitude

“Today I went into my laundry room, shut the door, filled three buckets of water, and lined them up against the door to keep it shut,” my friend said as soon as she picked up the phone, knowing it was me.  “What in the world happened?” I asked with some alarm.  “Oh, nothing really,” my friend replied, “it’s just that sometimes Mommy really needs a Time Out and there are never enough locks on the door.”

No doubt, few people can know the desperation and longing for solitude like mothers of young children. We go from being our own people, on our own schedules, doing our own thing and dreaming about the joys and beauty of motherhood, only to find that day after day, hour after hour, year after year without any time to ourselves, the reality of raising children can leave us feeling ragged, weary, and sometimes forgotten.  What we fail to realize is that very often, the first one who neglected to take care of us, was ourselves!

There are valuable lessons for everyone, though, found in the spirituality of motherhood.  For us onlookers, it is obvious that in order to be effective in what she does, the mother must always be sure to take some time away—in whatever form she can find it.  Jesus demonstrates this so well throughout his ministry.  In order to heal others he must separate himself from the crowds and pray.  Matthew tells us that Jesus withdrew “in a boat to a deserted place by himself” after hearing of the murder of John the Baptist, but the crowds follow him and gather on the shore.  After taking his time away, he returns to shore and is able to perform a miracle—the feeding of the five thousand (Matthew 14:13-23).  And Luke tells us after Jesus cleansed a leper “many crowds would gather” to hear him and be cured of their diseases, “but he would withdraw to deserted places and pray.” (Luke 5:16)

What is going on here?  We may wonder.  Why doesn’t he just heal them all at once?  While that is a question best answered by God in your own quiet time of solitude, I can share that, for me, it has become obvious that silence and solitude are the food and fuel for my soul.  The more I let my soul rest in silence “away from the crowds” with God, the more I am filled with patience and compassion for others.  For years, I was mistaken in my thinking that as a young mother my life of sacrifice and service to my children and family was, while a wonderful blessing, also my “cross to bear.”  I neglected to see that making time (because it is up to us to create the schedule, after all) to be alone in silence with God was not, in fact, my “cross to bear” but rather, the God-given “daily bread” of my human journey.  Many of us mistakenly view our service to others in this same way, in whatever way we serve.  We think the service itself is the “cross,” but I think that’s because we neglect to fuel up for the journey!  In its proper order, we soon come to realize that our service to others is not the cross we bear, but rather, the fruit we share that ripens through our time spent “laboring” in silence and solitude. What kind of labor is that?  You may wonder.  Sitting around and doing nothing?  I’d love to do that if I had the time!  (I invite you again to take that very question to God.  I would love to hear what you discover!)

Perhaps, like me, you have avoided silence and solitude for such a long time because somewhere in your depths you already know what you will discover.  It is the same thing that Jacob discovered when he was left alone and “a man wrestled with him until daybreak.” (Gen 32:24)  But, there is hope for all of us in Jacob’s story, too.  For at the end of the struggle we realize it was never God’s demand for Jacob to hold on, but rather Jacob’s refusing to let go of God, that resulted in his being blessed. (Gen 32: 26-28)

A Lesson in Silence

“Silence is God’s first language.”  – St. John of the Cross

Years ago, my husband and I read the book The Five Love Languages by Gary Chapman.  We weren’t far into the book at all when we learned that while a kind or heartfelt word or sentence for me is the equivalent to a warm embrace, my husband would much prefer the physical embrace of a hug to loving words of affection.  What we learned from the book was that each of our primary “love languages” (the gestures and behaviors in which we best understand love) differed for each of us.  With that new awareness, we began to make an effort to “speak” each other’s primary love language more often.  While our marriage had been strong before, we found that understanding this about each other and making a few changes to the way in which we behaved towards each other took us to a deeper level of appreciating and understanding our marital connection.

That’s why, when I read the words of St. John of the Cross defining God’s “first language” as silence, I believed that if I wanted to get to experience God on an even deeper level, I needed to make some adjustments to my habits and behaviors.   I understood that making time for silence in my life  was the equivalent to making time for God.  As a result, over the past several weeks, I’ve changed my behavior in such a way that I’ve deliberately “penciled in” quiet time with God.   And by that, I mean I spend time in absolute silence.  It is time spent outside of my “normal” time with God (the times when I read Scripture and pray or meditate), so when I started I hardly knew what to expect.  It seemed silly to be nervous, but, at the same time, absolute silence is really not something many of us are used to.  What if I started hearing voices?  Or, even worse, what if I drove myself mad?

No doubt, silence can be uncomfortable.  Especially in comparison to the “normal” hustle and bustle of our daily lives.  Most of us hit the alarm clock in the morning, swing our legs out of bed and go, go, go all day long hopping from one task to another with hardly a breath in between.   In addition, electricity and technology make it all too convenient for us to spend any time in solitude (silence’s close friend).  As a result, when we do stumble into a moment without being “plugged in” to something outside ourselves, it is understandable why we may quickly grow uncomfortable, restless, and fidgety.  In addition, even if our body has built-in times of rest throughout our day, our minds usually still zip around checking off all the things we got done, the things we still need to do, and things that we plan to do “some day.”

When I embraced the idea that God’s primary language is silence, I realized that while I’d spent my life fully expecting (and at times, even demanding) that God come to me and speak my primary language of love (“Just give me a sign! Any sign!”), the thought had never occurred to me to make time to learn to “speak” His language.

I had doubts that I was even up for the task.

I quickly learned, however, that my “faith the size of a mustard seed” (Matthew 17:20) was all I needed to bring.  That is why, with great confidence, I encourage and invite you to make time– even if only a little– to spend with God in His “first language.”  I have found silence with God to be not only a welcome–but also a very necessary– part of my daily life.  By implementing this practice into our daily lives, it is my prayer that we will grow to learn what Job has known from the beginning, “If you would only keep silent, that would be your wisdom!”  (Job 13:5)