Thursday, January 10, 2013

Solitude and Spiritual Transformation

I'm teaching Spiritual Formation to Payne Theological Seminary M.Div. students this week. I'm sending them to pray for an hour, using Psalm 23 as their meditative focus. I'm going to find a place to pray after I post this teaching, which I'll give this afternoon.


Spend meaningful time in solitude and you will be transformed.[1] Solitude is not “loneliness.” Entering into solitude for the sake of drawing near to God is a spiritual discipline. Solitude takes us into the “deep waters of the heart” more than does fellowship. To prove this, go alone to a quiet place away from your home, work, and place of ministry for a day. Leave your cell phone and blackberry behind. Take only with your Bible and some paper to write on. Then watch what happens. As Thomas Merton said, there will be an encounter with the subconscious depths of your will, where ancient selfish motives move comfortably like forgotten sea monsters in waters where they are never seen. In regard to the challenges solitude brings Dallas Willard notes that the most challenging environment in a prison setting is solitary confinement.[2] Solitude is dangerous and threatening. For many it is punishing to be alone with themselves.

The deepest of the great lakes is Lake Superior. The deeper the lake the more turbulent and majestic is the surface. Thus Lake Superior is known for its dangerous waves that have sunk many a ship. If Lake Superior were only ten feet deep it wouldn’t have huge waves. It would be far less threatening and dramatic. Its great depth makes possible the great dangers and possibilities that lie on its surface. This is also true in a human heart that has great depth. Solitude has the potential to move a person into the deep and potentially dangerous waters of the human heart. In solitude deepens a shallow life.

1. Jesus Spent Time Praying in Solitude.Why choose times of solitude? Isn’t it an option that might be good for some but not needed for others? The answer to this is that Jesus spent time in solitude. Jesus began his ministry by spending 40 days alone in solitude (Mt. 4:1-11). Before choosing the 12 he spent the entire night alone in the desert hills (Lk. 6:12). When he heard of John the Baptist's death he "withdrew from there in a boat to a lonely place apart" (Mt. 14:13). After feeding the 5000 he dismissed the crowd and "went up into the hills by himself" (Mt. 14:23). After a long night of work, "in the morning, a great while before day, he rose and went out to a lonely place" (Mk. 6:31). After healing a leper, Jesus "withdrew to the wilderness and prayed" (Lk. 5:16). Before his time on the cross he went alone to the Garden of Gethsemane (Mt. 26:36-46).
If our Lord took times of solitary prayer out of his own need to be in contact with the Father, should we do any less?

2. Our World Does Not Value Solitude.In our world, "doing" is more important than "being," and speaking is more important than silence. I have met many people (mostly men) who work “7 – 12s”; that is, 7 days a week for 12 hours each day. Henri Nouwen has said that we live in an increasingly "wordy world." My experience is that the constant barrage of words that come at us day after day not only do not serve to enrich our souls, but actually produce a kind of spiritual deadness, an insensitivity to the things of the Spirit.
I believe that what the Bible calls "wisdom" is largely cultivated in solitude. I like the way Eugene Peterson expresses this: "All speech that moves men was minted when some man's mind was poised and still.”

3. In Solitude There Is An "Unmasking of Ourselves."When we go to pray alone with God we leave behind the "masks": viz., those things that are devices for covering up the self. We leave behind the people with whom we pose and posture, perform before, and trivialize with. In solitude no one is there to affirm us or challenge us or shame us. No one, of course, except for God. In solitude we leave behind all those activities we hide behind and which keep us from facing ourselves. What is left? Things such as: our temptations, our fears, our reactions and reactiveness, our own unfaithfulness and disbelief, our own lack of trust in God, and our own demons. What is left is who we truly are, what we truly have become. It's really hard to by a hypocrite when it's just you and God.

4. In Solitude We Encounter Our Own Powerlessness and Need.Psalm 40:17 says, "Yet I am poor and needy, may the Lord think of me. You are my help and my deliverer; O my God, do not delay." Only the person who recognizes he is needy can seek the Lord with all his heart, soul, mind, and strength. Only the person who feels thirst will crave water. In solitude we see how powerless and needy we are. We see more clearly our need for transformation. This brings humility. At this point we begin to turn to God.

5. In Solitude We See That Being Is Spiritually Prior To Doing.Henri Nouwen writes that, "In solitude we become aware that our worth is not the same as our usefulness."
[4] In The Genesee Diary Nouwen says that solitude teaches us to develop a "presence" before people rather than having to give them a "performance."
In his solitude in the desert Jesus was tempted to do three things:
- Be relevant! ("Turn stones into loaves.")
- Be spectacular! ("Throw yourself down.")
-Be powerful! ("I will give you all these kingdoms.")
In solitude we see the reality of temptations like these. We see how easily we are tempted by far less trivial things than these. We see the reality of spiritual battle.

7. In Solitude We Develop Compassionate Solidarity.In solitary times of prayer God will show us the reality and depth of our own hatred, envy, jealousy, cruelty, lust, and so on. We will see within our selves these "seeds of destruction" and "the violence within."
[5] In the great devotional literature there is the near-unanimous opinion that the spiritually mature person will have more compassion towards all kinds of people because God has identified the seeds of sinful behaviors within themself. We see that we are "those kind of people" too. We realize we need the help, mercy, and grace from the Lord if we are not to give in to the violence within.[6]
Solitude is the foundation of all meaningful corporate spirituality. Why? Because in solitude one gets re-related to God. To return home after a solitary time with God means that many fearful, anxious burdens have been placed upon Him. What Kierkegaard called “the crowd” and Nietzsche denigrated as “the herd” becomes an unreal, phony place to be if people have not taken the time to be stripped away by God.
Richard Nixon used to appoint someone to enter a room filled with waiting people to “prepare the room for his entrance.” The end result of people being around a Christian leader should be an experience of being, not in a great person’s presence, but in God’s presence.

8. Our time in meaningful solitude affects others.A friend of Henri Nouwen’s was leaving for a three month retreat in solitude. Nouwen writes: “I asked God that Sarah’s time in solitude would bear fruit not only in her own heart but in the hearts of many people. Sarah looked gratefully at me and said, “Yes, my time away is a time for others.” Then she drove off.”
[7] (Nouwen, Sabbatical Journey, p. 20) Our ministry to others becomes more relevant as our time away with God increases both temporally and spiritually.
As Nouwen writes that "the great illusion of leadership is to think that man can be led out of the desert by someone who has never been there."

[1] Most of what I know about solitude comes from my own experience and the writings of Henri Nouwen.[2] Dallas Willard, The Spirit of the Disciplines[3] Citing R.E.C. Browne, in The Contemplative Pastor (1999: Christianity Today, Inc.), p. 30.[4] See Nouwen, Out of Solitude[5] See Thomas Merton, Seeds of Destruction; and Paul Tournier, The Violence Within[6] One of Merton’s most powerful spiritually transforming experiences occurred in Louisville as he[7] Nouwen, Sabbatical Journey, p. 20[8] Nouwen, The Wounded Healer,