Solitude is the most misunderstood spiritual discipline in our toolbox of Christian practices. As with every spiritual method, solitude has become twisted into shapes that bear no resemblance to the real work of solitude, the facing of our own selves in the mirror of our souls. This revelation is somewhat new to me, and yet not.
My first foray into the realms of real seclusion of the mind and heart came with the knowledge of the inner court ritual as a pattern for prayer. The priests in Solomon’s temple engaged in a prayerful mindfulness every time they gazed at themselves in the bronze lavers and made confession throughout their day. I did not yet realize that I was practicing a form of spiritual isolation, but it bore much fruit as should be the case with true spiritual solitude.
Nowadays solitude is packaged two ways. Self-care is the new sanctuary of the soul. Solitude as me-time looks like mani-pedi’s and a couple hours away from the kids to enjoy a bit of retail therapy. I like my recharging times as much as anyone else, and indeed, I do believe that such times are a necessary act of caring for oneself. I hover between the territories of introvert and extrovert, so alone time often acts as a buffer for overstimulation or a sanctuary for creativity. But make no mistake, me-time is not the spiritual practice of solitude.
The other repackaging is meditation. I do not mean meditation on scripture or on God, but the emptying out of oneself. While I imagine that this can be restful, I see reaching nirvana or any state of nothingness as the spiritual act of denial. As a longtime denier coming from a long line of denial specialists, pretending that everything is ok by simply refusing to look at it has only illusory benefits. Once you rouse yourself from your lotus position or trance, the screaming kids, the bills, the demands of your job are all waiting for you.
I do not ever remember hearing a sermon on solitude. I have heard sermons on fasting, worship, service, and Bible study. The closest I have come to hearing a word on solitude is the devotional time recommended by pastors. The one-hour devotional time I grew up hearing about has become a ten or fifteen-minute check in for the most part. Probably pastors grew tired of giving advice that is never taken. And yet the specter of solitude haunts most of us. Social media has for the most part been successful in helping us avoid the clamoring of our hurting inner selves.
Solitude, like most disciplines, requires the acceptance of discomfort. Because once you silence all the voices clanging for your attention, the one that remains is your own. The ancient church fathers and mothers practiced years of solitude. They simply disappeared from the world and lived in the desert for a decade or more. When they reemerged, they were changed. Powerfully changed.
The Christian life, as lived by Christ and the apostles, bore little or no resemblance to the lives of the people around them. The world has not changed in millennia. Our basic motivations are ever the same. We want approval. We want prosperity. We want to be special, amazing, the best ever fill in the blank. The only way to wean ourselves from that value system that is broadcast on every station, every job, and if we are honest, even our parents is to separate ourselves from those voices.
When Jesus was tempted by the devil, it was in solitude. But he was tempted by those three ever-present desires. Want money? How about power? How about showing off to the world who you really are? Even Jesus had to face down those human passions. If it took him forty days in the desert to do it, how long would it take us?
Isolation for the purpose of growth requires us to look in the dark mirrors of our soul. That takes time, courage and a willingness to feel pain. The void is there for all of us. It dogs our footsteps, swallows up our good intentions, renders our New Year’s resolutions meaningless. Solitude is staring down the great chasm of time that swallows us all and recognizing that our humanity is both glorious and limited. We do not control our circumstances, the world around us, others, nor even, for the most part, our selves.
It is in the vacuum of seclusion that we recognize what is true, what we have been avoiding. We are at once made of dust and our breath is given us by the Holy Spirit. Keeping up with the Jones does not fill that void. Ph.D.’s don’t fill in the great hole, nor successful careers or great kids. The only thing that fills up the vast hole of time and space in the center of our aching hearts is Christ’s life lived in us.
The reason the desert fathers and mothers were transformed by solitude is that they threw themselves wholly into that void. They lost themselves utterly. They turned their backs on the paydays, the admiration, the #winning. In the losing, they found their purpose. When they came back to society, people were healed and transformed. If they were concerned at the prospect of being martyred for their faith, you wouldn’t know it by their courage in the face of persecution.
Forget about the five steps to being a successful Christian. Throw the books on how to be a better fill in the blank away. Take whatever time you have, these precious few moments we have on earth and walk away from the demands of hearth and home. Not forever. Just long enough to toss yourself, all of you, from the beautiful parts to the sniveling coward that lives under your skin into the loneliness that you know follows you.
Deserts are devoid of life. Some people find them scenic but to my mind they are barren. So go into a media desert. Go into a commercial desert or an entertainment desert. Whatever lonely space you can find will do, for whatever time you can wrestle away from the demands of life. Solitude always requires intention. Expect everyone in your life to object. Our greatest spiritual battles are not always the big sins. Sometimes they are found in the urgency of a ringing phone, a knock on the door, or the growl of a hungry stomach.
And go there, where Moses met the great I Am, where Elijah fainted after running from Jezebel, or where Jesus walked, hungry, thirsty and beset by the devil. Then looking into the dark mirror of your selves, both false and true, in one hand and the vast stretches of eternity before you, let God happen. This is where healing and transformation happens. This is where the grip of the flesh loosens and our spirits take wing. Maybe the desert is beautiful after all.
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