About thirteen years ago, I began an unanticipated journey into the practices of what I would now call solitude and silence. It has been a long and winding journey, and it continues. Our journeys become a part of our stories, and thus my story includes significant chapters on solitude and silence. By sharing a bit from those chapters of my life, I hope something will stir in you; perhaps something that God is inviting you to explore.
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In September 2005 I quit my job and 20-year career. Others called it a retirement, but I viewed it as quitting. Quitting in the most positive sense – freeing my time, resources and vision to look towards what Abba had in store for me. The problem was, I had no idea what God had in store for me. For some time I’d been wrestling with the question: What did God want me to do with the rest of my life? I had to jump off a proverbial cliff to be able to pursue answers. I had some safety nets, but it still felt like a leap.
So, while recharging my physical and emotional self, I began to consider that question in earnest. I did a couple of smart things to start (and many dumb things). I started spending time in prayer and contemplating scripture – about an hour a day. I’m a thinker, planner and organizer, so at the end of those solitude times, I would write down my thoughts, make lists, evaluate my strengths and weaknesses, consider what I knew about the desires of my heart, etc. And I would talk to my wife and other men in my life about what I was thinking.
Then I had it all figured out. No, that’s not true. Two years later I still lacked clarity on what to do, and had busied myself with other things. My spiritual life was in a much better place – through my solitude practices and time spent connecting with others pursuing God, but my questions still burned within me. I tend to measure myself by doing things, and…
I had also begun to make time to take personal retreats. I was fortunate to have a home in the mountains in Montana, where I could withdraw and contemplate. In doing so, I began to experience a whole new level of connection to the Trinity. I brought my deepest questions. I didn’t often hear answers to my questions, but I had conversations with God. God’s voice wasn’t audible in a human sense, but it was undeniable. I believe I was beginning to experience what scripture refers to as the still, small voice of God. Once I learned to listen, we had wide ranging conversations. At times it could be weighty, tense, or even heated conversation, and other times it could be funny and playful. Prior to this I understood intellectually that God loved me. Somewhere during these times I came to know deep in my heart that God loved me. There was great intimacy with God during these times. In fact I’ve discovered that every time I choose to withdraw for a personal retreat, I experience wonderful intimacy with the Trinity. I have come to believe that all of us (yes, you!) can experience this.
On the subject of asking deep questions, Henri Nouwen affirms the importance of taking our deepest questions to God. He reminds us that scripture implores us to ask, seek and knock until the door opens (Matthew 7:7-8), and describes how we do this by “living with our questions” through life rhythms of solitude and community. And then he adds this: “Sometimes, in living the questions, answers are found. More often, as our questions and issues are tested and mature in solitude, the questions simply dissolve.” (Spiritual Direction, Henri Nouwen)
Looking back now at my deepest questions at that time, they have indeed largely dissolved. When new questions arise, my experiences offer me peace and enable me to hold those questions more loosely, no matter how important they may seem.
What advice could I give you from my experiences? I would say that finding your own way to occasionally experience silent solitude is indispensable in your spiritual journey. Our daily or weekly solitude practices are vital to us. And usually they are limited by time and not designed to be truly quiet. It takes some intentionality to actually withdraw into a silent place and listen – for many hours or even days.
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How do you start? As we say among the True Pursuit team, put a stake in the ground. Open your calendar, set aside a specific day or two (or more), and then chose a place that works for you, and go when you said you would go. You may or may not hear answers to your deepest questions, but I suspect the most beautiful thing you will hear is the still, small voice of God speaking directly to you.