As we enter the Lenten season, I’m happy to offer some practical advice on the various disciplines which will enable us to grow in our intimacy with Jesus, as we follow in his footsteps, learning to subject our will to the will of Another, for our own good and the good of the world. I’ll start with solitude.
Years ago I had a conversation with someone about trust. It was quickly apparent that we’d both fallen off the trust wagon, but in different directions. She’d felt that God had let her down too often, too unpredictably, too painfully. In response, she’d turned to people, finding huggable, visible, flesh and blood, far easier to access and trust than a God who allowed horrible seasons of trial and darkness in her life.
I on the other hand, didn’t trust people. Maybe it has something to do with adoption and rejection by birth parents, for though there’s nothing but profound admiration for my adoptive parents (who I never thought of as anything less than real parents), the soul is shaped early, and my early days, I’d come to discover, were marked by rejection. Then, when I was in high school, my dad died. Then a friend of mine from band was hit and killed by a drunk driver when he was 16. Then my favorite grandma died. Then my aunt, unexpectedly, during a minor surgery, after I’d turned down her offer of a pre-surgery supper at her house while I was in college, then my sister, of a heart attack, at 43. People? Are you kidding me? They’re here today and gone tomorrow.
For some strange reason, rather than blaming God for all this loss, I’d come to accept that loss is part of living in this messed up world. This isn’t Disneyland after all, where Mickey, and Goofy, and Cinderella are ageless, and the only things that change on main street are the prices. This is the real world. Stuff happens. My early suspicions have, of course, only been confirmed as I’ve grown older. I climbed with a friend one weekend. The next weekend he climbed with someone else, and died. What kind of world is this anyway?
It’s an unstable one is my answer. Yet, in the midst of that, at a retreat, I heard someone offer the hope that God is knowable and, by virtue of God’s unchanging and eternal nature, a steady, predictable being who loves me and wants to walk through all the messes of life with me. God was caste as the one being in the universe who’ll always be there for me, and let me tell you, as one who’d lost more than his share of people he loved during his young life, that sounded pretty good to me. I prayed at the retreat, in the snow, and told this God that, per God’s declaration in Jeremiah 9, I wanted to make knowing God the main pursuit of my life.
That moment was a turning point for me. It’s not like I became of monk or a hermit, but it did mean that solitude became, slowly, a place of comfort, because it wasn’t a place of isolation. Instead, as God became less of an ethical system, or theory, or basis of a philosophy, and more of a real being, solitude became a place of withdrawal from the uncertainties of life into the one relationship upon which I can count. Withdrawal into the wilderness (often literally in my case) became a context where I could pour my heart out to God authentically, without fear that God would ever be ‘too busy’ to see me, or that God would be having a ‘bad day’ and thrash out at me.
My guides in this journey to the companionship of solitude are many: Abraham, Moses (40 days), David (with the Psalms being perhaps the very best pouring one’s heart out to God), and of course, Jesus, who rose early and went off to mountains for a little time with “the Father”. When people accuse those who make time for solitude of self absorbed narcissists, I respond by pointing to this friends from the Bible who, by the way, include God in human form, the ultimate servant of humanity. Far from being narcissists, it’s clear to me that those who faithfully pursue time alone with God are building a foundation from which they’ll serve humanity.
I don’t have time, in a single blog post, to name the challenges that make the companionship of solitude real for people. I’ll address them, though, during this Lent season, in subsequent posts. For now, though, I’ll note the basic mindset and tools you need to make solitude your source of endless companionship.
1. Remind yourself that you’re not alone. Even though there’s no other physical person with you during your moments of solitude, you are not alone. You’re meeting with Jesus. “Thanks for meeting with me Jesus” might be a good opening line.
2. Flee technology. E-mail pings, phones, and facebook posts kill solitude. If you can’t look and not respond, then turn it all off. It’s rude to ignore company to answer the phone, and that includes invisible company.
3. Listen to God. This is my favorite book these days for helping me on this listening journey, but our church does a seasonal booklet as well which is marvelous, and it’s available here on our website or phone app (both free).
4. Respond. Speak out loud to God, or write things down. Sing a song of praise. I respond to what God’s saying by writing prayers in my prayer journal or just talking to God. The important thing isn’t the method, it’s that your relationship with God becomes dialogue.
5. Take it outside the devotional time, so that red lights, good powder, long drives, night flights, airport delays, become places of companionship – little gifts of grace, rather than stinking delays that cause us to fret and get type-A angry.
The point of solitude isn’t escape from life’s demands. The point is to deepen our connection with the source of life which enables us to live well in the midst of those demands. Ironically, this source is teaching me how to love and trust people, though I’m a slow learner. Knowing the “Source” is a life of faith, which means a life of companionship with one who is “present… yet not seen”. Once I get beyond the challenge of “not seen”, even just a little bit, the “ever present” part becomes one of life’s greatest gifts.