Invitation to Solitude and Silence [A Review]

…all the unhappiness of men arises from one single fact, that they cannot stay quietly in their own room.

So says scientist and Christian philosopher/theologian Blaise Pascal. And I tend to agree with him. Silence and solitude are on the endangered list of our society. For many, they are relics of a bygone era, antiquated practices obstructing efficiency and productivity. As I have said elsewhere, our love of noise is equaled by our disdain of silence.

Yet for the Christian, rest found in silence and solitude is essential to what it means to be human. Christians have long held to humankind being made in the image of God; we are God’s ikons, taking our posture and practices from the One we find incarnated in Jesus of Nazareth. I recently heard that in our culture “Yet these three remain: productivity, efficiency, and speed, but the greatest of these is speed.” (Phil Kenneson, Slow Church Conference, 2014). If this is true, living lives that incorporate silence and solitude into intentional rhythms of life are truly subversive.

Silence and solitude are countercultural ways of life.

Taking her cues from 1 Kings 19:1-19, Ruth Haley Barton leads us into a guided journey she has taken herself. Or, more accurately, and to use her language, it is an invitation extended to us by God.

For it is a wonderful thing to be invited. Not coerced or manipulated, but truly invited to the home of someone you have looked forward to getting to know, to a party with fun people, on a date with someone who is intriguing. There is something about being invited that makes the heart glad. Someone is seeking me out, desiring my presence enough to initiate an encounter. (p. 16)

A beckon, a question, a search: God is in the pursuit business.

It is a particular invitation to coupling of solitude and silence. This is intentional in that it forces us beyond the stereotypical understanding of Christian spirituality, namely Scripture and prayer. Yes, these are integral and make their way through the book. However, for Barton

…I have chosen to write about solitude and silence because I believe silence is the most challenging, the most needed and the least experienced spiritual discipline among evangelical Christians today. It is much easier to talk about it and read about it than to actually become quiet. We are a very busy, wordy and heady faith tradition. Yet we are desperate to find ways to open ourselves to our God who is, in the end, beyond all of our human constructs and human agendas. (p. 18-19)

With bringing us theology and practices girded in solitude and silence as her goal, Barton sets off and does just that.

Beginning with her own story of busyness, productivity, and noise, she gives her own narrative that sounds familiar; I’d venture to say a good majority of Americans could have written it. The difference, however, is the approach she took through reflection and allowing her desperation to be an invitation, not a roadblock. As she says,

As strange as it may sound, desperation is a really good thing in the spiritual life. Desperation causes us to be open to radical solutions, willing to take all manner of risk in order to find what we are looking for. Desperate ones seek with an all-consuming intensity, for they know that their life depends on it…Here [in solitude and silence] we give in to desperation and desire until God comes to us and does for us what we cannot do for ourselves. (p. 30, 33)

From here Barton lays out a scaffolding of how to enter into solitude and silence. Time, space, and posture all come into play in these exercises. Again, in a faith tradition (over)emphasizing intellectual assent to the point of becoming synonymous with following Jesus, being aware of the importance physical elements of solitude and silence can be somewhat jarring. Being aware of the posture we take when sitting, what time of day works best, and when our contexts best give themselves to us for silence are essential. We are not following Jesus and accepting God’s invitation in a vacuum. These things matter.

As we follow these general guidelines, Barton wants us to find rest for body, mind, and soul alike. Our propensity to gnosticize (material = bad, spiritual = good) Christianity is rampant, leaving us bewildered by what it could mean to love God with our bodies. Can we rest ourselves to the point of being still? Can we allow ourselves to face our limitations only brought about by a silent mind? Is it possible to allow ourselves to simply be?

For Barton, these disciplines are not ends in themselves. They are the means by which we prepare ourselves for the further journey. Like Elijah in the wilderness, solitude and silence develop and equip us for what is ahead. Facing our emptiness and powerlessness are both the results of these practices and the prerequisites for facing the storm ahead. And through them, we find the presence of God alive and well, beckoning us back into the world “for the sake of others.” “Not only does the love of God come to us in solitude, the love of God begins to pour through us to others.” (p. 133) This disorients us and reorients our ideas of success in relation to others:

Success for me now is measured by whether I am living within the rhythms of work and rest, solitude and community, silence and word necessary so the quality of my presence with God and with people and tasks is characterized by love and attention, wisdom and discernment. (p. 133)

In other words, solitude and silence are both personal and public, both for the revitalization of the individual and the community.

If you are like me – swimming (and perhaps drowning) in the waters of productivity and busyness – this will be a book of respite. I know for me it is a resource akin to a balm after a scorching sunburn. I began reading it and couldn’t put it down as her personal stories, subversive theological perspective, and practices at the end of each chapter pricked a place in my heart and soul. If you were to see my copy of this book, you’d see highlights and stars in the margins on nearly every page. I’d like to share many, many more quotes from this book, but space would quickly run out.

Go get this much needed book. Buy it here.

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