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Solitude and Silence
(August/September 2012 - Volume 18, Issue 4)
In a world filled with noise, many of us long to “unplug” and find a quiet spot far from the hum of technology, the demands of work, the cries of children, the ubiquitous call of advertisement, the hype of politicians and the bombardment of world news. To escape, even for a few minutes, and find rest for our souls is an almost universal longing in modern times, especially in the West. When this rest is accompanied with time alone with God, it provides the refreshment and strength that we need to face the pressures of everyday living in a fast paced age. For these reasons, when spiritual leaders start talking about silence and solitude, our ears perk up and we yearn to adopt the teachings and techniques they recommend. For most of my lifetime I have heard people refer to their habit of regular prayer and Bible study as a “quiet time.” And while the term “quiet time” does not completely describe this valuable occasion alone with God, it does depict one aspect of it – a time set apart to quietly meditate on the Word and pour our hearts out to God. All this to say that I treasure quiet and solitude as much or more than most Christians. I constantly recommend it to the church I pastor. I would not be able to function spiritually without time alone daily with the Lord and I suspect the same is true for all of us.
But when the leaders of the Spiritual Formation Movement speak of quiet and solitude they are referencing something very different from a “quiet time” comprised of Bible reading and prayer. In the previous two papers, we have documented how the spiritual formation leaders redefine prayer and Bible study and they have done the same with silence and solitude. We need to keep in mind that spiritual formation is the movement which makes certain disciplines absolutely essential for spiritual development. The problem lies in the fact that these disciplines, as they are being defined, are not drawn from Scripture but mostly from ancient Catholic mystics. As a result, even as spiritual formation leaders use some of the same terms found in Scripture, they are actually calling for activities that are not rooted in the Word. We have already seen in previous papers that the two principle disciplines recommended within spiritual formation are prayer and Bible reading, and who would argue with that? But biblical praying has been twisted into “contemplative” prayer which is an attempt to experience mystical union with God through certain methods never found in Scripture. The same is true of Bible reading which is turned into lectio divina (sacred reading), a mystical form of approaching the Bible that is very similar in technique and aim as contemplative prayer and again is missing in the pages of the Bible. Within spiritual formation, contemplative prayer, and lectio divina are foundational. Everything else in its teachings rests on these two disciplines. But flowing from these is a host of other lesser disciplines which vary from writer to writer. I want to focus the remaining articles in this series on these lesser disciplines beginning with silence and solitude which find support in all contemplative authors and leaders. As we will see, when spiritual formation speaks of these two disciplines, they do not mean what most of us would expect and they do not base much of what they teach on the Word of God.
Silence and Solitude in Scripture
Before we delve more deeply into the spiritual formation teachings on silence and solitude, we should first confirm that the Bible does in fact teach the value of both. We find that Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness for forty days of testing (Luke 4:1ff) and that He was in the habit of going alone to pray (Matt 14:23; Mark 1:35; Luke 4:42). The Lord apparently taught Paul in the Arabian desert for three years before He launched him into ministry (Gal 1:17-18). It was on the Island of Patmos that John received the Revelation (Rev 1:9-10). Virtually every one of the major Old Testament prophets, right through the time of John the Baptist, were men of solitude. It would appear that the Lord does some of His best work in our lives when we are separated from the crowd and in a place where we can quietly reflect on Him. At the same time, as Bruce Demarest remarks, there are no entries under “quietness,” “silence,” or “solitude” in the popular Nave’s Topical Bible. Also there exists no command in Scripture to seek solitude in order to be spiritually transformed. The individuals mentioned above were either taken into solitude by the Lord or chose for whatever reason to seek solitude. But a pattern we discern in a biblical character does not demand a practice on our part, unless the Scriptures specifically tell us to do the same. An example may provide some helpful instruction and insight but it does not constitute a mandate.
Spiritual formation teachers often attempt to establish a biblical requirement for solitude/silence by turning to passages they either take out of context or clearly misinterpret. Psalm 46:10 is a favorite which in the KJV is translated, “Be still and know that I am God.” However, the immediate context has nothing to do with solitude or silence but instead carries the idea that we should cease striving in our attempts to overcome our enemies and recognize the Lord’s sovereignty over all things. This is why the opening words are translated “cease striving” in the NASB, “be still” in ESV and “stop your fighting” in HCSB. Demarest attempts to proof-text the mandate for solitude/silence with an out-of-context quote from Isaiah 30:15 which is a warning to Old Testament Judah not to rely on Egypt for aid. He also misinterprets Habakkuk 2:20 and Zechariah 2:13, both of which call on us to trust God but have nothing to do with the disciplines of silence/solitude. And he seriously misapplies 1 Peter 3:4 which calls for wives to be known by their gentle and quiet spirits, not be silent for the purpose of spiritual formation.
Of course every mystic’s favorite passage on this subject is Elijah’s “still small voice” (1 Kings 19:12-13). For example, Ruth Haley Barton tells us, “Elijah’s willingness to enter into solitude and silence opened room for God to minister to him in ways he had not yet experienced” (p. 19). Even a cursory reading of the account finds that Elijah had no desire to enter into solitude and silence as Barton describes it. He was running for his life from Jezebel, depressed and ready to entirely give up his life as a prophet. God graciously reached out and restored His man, but Elijah wasn’t looking for an experience with God. Additionally there is no command anywhere in Scripture to try to duplicate Elijah’s example. Simply put, while seeking a quiet place to be alone with God is without question a good idea and is exemplified in Scripture, it is not commanded and is never taught as essential for discipleship.
The Goal of Silence/Solitude
It is important to understand that in using the discipline of silence/solitude, spiritual formation leaders are looking for something beyond discipleship; they are looking for a personal word, a message, a revelation, from the Lord. This is why Elijah’s experience is so prominent in all contemplative writings. The idea is, if Elijah went alone and heard the “still small voice of God,” then if we follow in his footsteps we will experience the same.
The attraction of silence/solitude within contemplative circles is the belief that in silence God will show up and speak to us independent from the Scriptures. M. Basil Pennington says it like this,
God is infinitely patient. He will not push himself into our lives. He knows the greatest thing he has given us is our freedom. If we want habitually, even exclusively, to operate from the level of our own reason, he will respectfully keep silent. We can fill ourselves with our own thoughts, ideas, images, and feelings. He will not interfere. But if we invite him with attention, opening the inner spaces, with silence, he will speak to our souls, not in words or concepts, but in the mysterious way that Love expresses itself—by presence.
This goal of hearing the voice of God through use of these disciplines will be documented below. For now let’s take a closer look at solitude.
While many attempt to distinguish between the two disciplines Richard Foster, in his groundbreaking book Celebration of Discipline, does not believe this is possible: “Without silence there is no solitude,” he informs us. And while he is no doubt correct, I will attempt to distinguish between the two for the purpose of our analysis. Donald Whitney, who does not advocate contemplative spiritual disciplines, as defined by Foster and Willard, defines “the discipline of silence [as] the voluntary and temporary abstention from speaking so that certain spiritual goals might be sought,” while “solitude is the Spiritual Discipline of voluntarily and temporarily withdrawing to privacy for spiritual purposes.”
Dallas Willard elevates the value of solitude when he states, “Solitude frees us, actually. This above all explains its primacy and priority among the disciplines…Nothing but solitude can allow the development of a freedom from the ingrained behaviors that hinder our integration into God’s order.” In the forward to Ruth Haley Barton’s book Invitation to Solitude and Silence, Willard adds,
Solitude and silence are the most radical of the spiritual disciplines because they most directly attack the sources of human misery and wrongdoing. To be in solitude is to choose to do nothing. For extensive periods of time. All accomplishment is given up. Silence is required to complete solitude, for until we enter quietness, the world still lays hold of us.
If solitude is such a powerful discipline what exactly is the goal behind it? For one thing, the mystics believe the power of transformation is found in solitude. Henri Nouwen wrote, “Solitude is the furnace of transformation.” Just how does solitude produce transformation? This is far more complicated than one might expect. We need to back up and recall that the ultimate goal of all mysticism is an unmediated encounter with the divine being (e.g. God in the case of Christianity, the universe in the case of Buddhism, the spirit world in the case of animism, Allah in the case of Islam). With this in mind, Ruth Haley Barton informs us that “the longing for solitude is the longing for God. It is the longing to experience union with God unmediated by the ways we typically try to relate to God. By ‘unmediated’ I mean a direct experience of God with nothing in between, an encounter with God that is not mediated by words, by theological constructs…” Solitude, as spiritual formation leaders understand it, is a tool that aids in bringing about union between our souls and God. What complicates the process is that our souls are not fond of such encounters. Parker Palmer tells us,
The soul is like a wild animal—tough, resilient, resourceful, savvy, self-sufficient. It knows how to survive in hard places. But it is also shy. Just like a wild animal, it seeks safety in the dense underbrush. If we want to see a wild animal, we know that the last thing we should do is go crashing through the woods yelling for it to come out. But if we will walk quietly into the woods, sit patiently by the base of the tree, and fade into our surroundings, the wild animal we seek might put in an appearance.
How Palmer is so knowledgeable of the behavior of the soul is a bit of a mystery, given that nothing like this is even remotely taught in Scripture. Nevertheless, the idea is that if we want to get our shy soul to cautiously come out to play, we will need to coax it with solitude. Barton equates the soul with ourselves and writes, “The longing for solitude is also the longing to find ourselves…This is our soul, that place at the very center of our being that is known by God, that is grounded in God and is one with God. But it’s tricky to get the soul to come out.” It is through solitude that an encounter with God is brokered for, as Teresa of Avila promises, “Settle yourself in solitude and you will come upon Him in yourself.”
One of the ultimate experiences of mysticism, and a direct goal of solitude, is to stumble upon the “dark night of the soul.” The dark night of the soul originated with a Counter-Reformation monk known as St. John of the Cross. His book, by the same title, is considered one of the most important and influential texts within contemplative circles. Richard Foster promises that to take seriously the discipline of solitude will mean that at some point or points along the pilgrimage we will enter ‘the dark night of the soul.’” The dark night is not a period of depression; it is “a divine appointment, a privileged opportunity to draw close to the divine Center.” What is involved in this dark night?
We may have a sense of dryness, aloneness, even lostness. Any overdependency on the emotional life is stripped away…When solitude is seriously pursued, there is usually a flush of initial success and then an inevitable letdown—and with it a desire to abandon the pursuit altogether. Feelings leave and there is the sense that we are not getting through to God…the darkness of the soul…put the sensory and spiritual appetites to sleep…it binds the imagination and impedes it from doing any good discursive work. It makes the memory cease, the intellect become dark and unable to understand anything, and hence it caused the will also to become arid and constrained, and all the faculties empty and useless. And over all this hangs a dense and burdensome cloud which afflicts the soul and keeps it withdrawn from God.
This rather numb, mindless, emotionless, trance-like state is supposedly necessary in order for the Lord to transform us. St. John of the Cross tells us that “by walking in darkness the soul…advances rapidly, because it thus gains the virtues.” And yet all of this is drawn from a sixteenth century monk and not from the inspired Word of God. I trust that little more needs to be said. Why should the child of God seek an experience that is neither authorized nor patterned in the Scriptures but was invented by a man who spent much of his life attempting to win back to the Catholic Church those who had left during the Reformation?
Even writers who differ a great deal about what the Bible teaches in these matters--such as Foster and Whitney quoted above--affirm that silence and solitude work in tandem. Solitude without silence is ineffective and silence without solitude is anemic. Dallas Willard tells us, “Silence and solitude do go hand in hand, usually. Just as silence is vital to make solitude real, so is solitude needed to make the discipline of silence complete. Very few of us can be silent in the presence of others.” However, silence seems to trump solitude for Willard writes, “Silence goes beyond solitude, and without it solitude has little effect. Henri Nouwen observes that ‘silence is the way to make solitude a reality.’”
The two disciplines, however, supposedly work together for the same purpose – encountering God and hearing His voice apart from Scripture. Willard says, “Only silence will allow us life-transforming concentration upon God. It allows us to hear the gentle God whose only Son ‘shall not strive, nor cry; neither shall any man hear his voice above the street noise’ (Matt. 12:19).” As is common, Willard is ripping a verse out of context to attempt to prove his point. Matthew 12:19 is about the incarnation and ministry of Jesus during His time on earth and has absolutely nothing to do with the discipline of silence. Willard uses the verse however to try to press upon his readers the need to become silent enough to be able to hear the apparently quiet voice of Jesus. John of the Cross (d. 1591) agrees, “The Father utters one Word. That Word is his Son, and he utters Him forever in the everlasting silence. In silence the soul has to hear him.”
This may sound strange, even incomprehensible, and it is but, according to Mark Yaconelli, “Silence is God’s first language” and, “Silence leads to prayer. Prayer leads to faith. Faith leads to service. Service leads to peace.” But more than this, “Silence is how we learn to listen and discern the voice of God.” The value, importance and draw of silence in contemplative circles is this promise that God will speak to us out of the silence. Richard Foster writes, “In the quiet of those brief hours, listen to the thunder of God’s silence.” I am not sure what the “thunder of God’s silence” could even be, but apparently it is at such times that God supposedly speaks to us.
Most involved in any form of mysticism are quick to downplay these revelations from God by saying they are not on par with Scripture. Yet, while I will agree that not every revelation that God has given, even in biblical times, was recorded in Scripture, I reject any notion that any form of revelation from God is inferior to another. When the Lord speaks it is with absolute authority; it is inerrant, it is infallible, it is to be obeyed. So-called fresh words from the Lord today, communication not found in the Bible, would be every bit as inspired as Scripture. The Lord does not have two forms of communication – one that is totally His Word, coming with complete authority, and one that is somewhat less than His Word and lacking authority. Nevertheless Foster tells us to “keep a journal record of what comes to you.” This seems suspiciously similar to authoritative Scripture to me. We are now told to journal what God is saying to us, apparently for future reference. So is God speaking to people who practice the discipline of silence? If so, is this revelation inspired (is there any other kind of revelation from God)? And if we are now writing down these inspired revelations and keeping them in a journal, in what sense are they not Scripture, at least to us? This whole concept is a slippery slope.
Barton tells of times when God has spoken to her specifically (e.g. p. 101), but this begs the question, and she realizes it, of how one knows the voice of God when she hears it (p. 118). The author never really answers this question, retreating first to assumptions: “One of the basic assumptions of the Christian life is that God does communicate with us through the Holy Spirit.” Why she assumes that the Holy Spirit speaks to the Christian directly is not explained, especially since the inner voice of God that she is championing is never once found in any scriptural account. Yet Barton promises us “through practice and experience we become familiar with the tone of God’s voice [and] we learn to recognize God’s voice.” Since this really doesn’t answer the question, she assures us that learning God’s voice will “take experience and practice.” Therefore, in order to support an unwarranted and biblically indefensible idea that God speaks to us apart from Scripture, and often without words in our inner being, the best that Barton can offer is that eventually we will be able to distinguish God’s voice from our own if we just keep practicing. This is disappointing at best. But to make things worse, apparently God “is speaking to us all the time” and we are obligated to obey what He says. This puts an unsustainable burden on those who accept Barton’s ideas as they must not only hear the inner, wordless voice of God, they must also obey it. If they do not they would of course be in sin.
If a person desired to practice the discipline of silence how should they go about it? Demarest offers the following exercises for “stilling the soul”: listening to classical music, taking a quiet walk in nature, and other more disciplined regimens such as focusing on our breathing. More specifically he recommends to “sit comfortably, and just breathe normally. As you breathe, focus attention on the air as it enters and leaves your nostrils. Should your mind wander, gently bring the focus back to awareness of your breath. Continue this for several minutes…Its benefits are heightened emotional composures and, more importantly, greater receptiveness to God.” Demarest also recommends another similar quieting exercise:
Again breathe normally. As you exhale, imagine with God’s help that you are breathing spiritual and emotional impurities out of your life. These might include worry (see Luke 12:22, 25-26), fear (see 1 John 4:18), or anger (see Psalm 37:8; Colossians 3:8). Focus for a few moments on one impurity, then on another. This act of the will aids conscious release of sinful impulses – a silencing of the false-self that Scripture describes as the “old man”(KJV) or the evil nature (see Romans 6:6; Ephesians 4:22, Colossians 3:9). Focus on your inhalations. Imagine, with God’s help, that you are breathing in positive graces commended by Scripture…This act of the will amounts to a conscious appropriation of biblical virtues—an enhancing of the true self that Scripture calls the “new man” (KJV) or the “new nature” (see Ephesians 4:24; Colossians 3:10). Physically and emotionally, these exercises promote realization. Spiritually, they facilitate dismissal of the sinful self and enhancement of the new nature in Christ. Such exercises acknowledge our created humanity—that God made us as souls in physical bodies.
We can glean from this lengthy quote, as well as the previous ones from Professor Demarest, two important things. First, the techniques recommended are not drawn from Scripture; at best they are optional. If listening to classical music or talking a walk in nature is comforting and helpful to you there would be no reason not to do these things. However, the Lord never mentions such exercises as needed to prepare our hearts for spiritual formation. The breathing exercises have much closer ties to Eastern mysticism than anything found in biblical Christianity. Secondly, and more importantly, these breathing exercises are not prescribed in Scripture as a means of putting off the old man or putting on the new man. They do not, as promised, “facilitate dismissal of the sinful self and enhancement of the new nature in Christ.” The promises given are simply false. If it calms you to concentrate on your breathing there is nothing in Scripture that prohibits you from doing so. However, the spiritual claims being touted cannot be substantiated by the Word. These ideas were invented by mystics centuries ago and are now being passed on by their disciples. But neither Jesus nor any of the apostles practiced these methods nor, more importantly, taught others to do the same.
Barton also adds the use of a mantra (although she never calls it such) in our time of silence in order to facilitate hearing the voice of God. She tells her readers to “ask for a simple prayer (from God),” such as “Here I am,” or “Come, Lord Jesus.” She writes, “It is best if the prayer is no more than six or eight syllables so that it can be prayed very naturally in the rhythm of your breathing…Pray this prayer several times as an entry into silence and also as a way of dealing with distractions.” Mantras play an important role in all forms of mysticism and they do so here as well, but are never taught in the Word of God.
A word about monasticism is appropriate in this context, since most of the spiritual disciplines and especially solitude/silence were invented and perfected by the hermits and monks in ancient Christianity. The roots of monasticism were formed when Christianity became the state religion and persecution ceased. Until the time of Constantine, believers often battled persecution and martyrdom. In such an environment the differences between the church and the world were quite clear. But when Christianity was legalized and adopted as the official state religion in A.D. 311, impurity entered the church quickly. Some longed to separate themselves from this corruption and chose to do so by becoming hermits – many of whom were later called “desert fathers” since they moved into the Egyptian desert for refuge in an attempt to pursue holiness. The best known of these hermits was Antony whose life was chronicled by Athanasius (d. 396). However, living alone under such circumstances was quite dangerous and soon these hermits created communities in which they could practice solitude in safety (even though it is quite ironic to think of a community of hermits). These communities were enclosed by protective walls for safety but each hermit had his separate dwelling in order to live in solitude. From this arrangement, what we know as monasteries eventually emerged.
In recent times, as the spiritual disciplines and spiritual formation become more popular, so does monasticism. The term “new monasticism” is becoming common on the Internet and among emergent and mystical-oriented writers such as Richard Foster, Tony Jones and Brian McLaren. The Winter 2007 issue of Christian History and Biography is devoted to the monasticism of sixth century monk St. Benedict and states, “No topic touches young evangelical students more than monasticism.” Why would this be true? On the one hand the fragmented, success oriented, materialistic age is running out of gas for many. Something more is needed, something with depth, something beyond the superficial entertainment-oriented Christian tradition to which many have grown accustomed. Between the combination of restlessness/disillusionment and the promise of better things in solitude, asceticism and a life of spiritual discipline, monasticism has a certain draw. To be sure, this is a “new monasticism” with a 21st century twist. The origin of early Christian monasticism came in the fourth century following the legalization of Christianity. Until then martyrdom was
the ultimate test of devotion, [but at that point]… the Christian ascetic inherited the mantle of the martyr…[becoming sort of a living martyr]...Monks sought to live an angelic life on earth, neither marrying nor having children. By refusing to participate in the continual process of physically repopulating the earth, they recognized that Christ’s coming had initiated a new age and believed that their lives could help usher in his kingdom.
Contemporary young people attracted to monasticism are not likely to abandon conventional life and live as hermits in caves or even monasteries. More commonly they will continue to keep their jobs, live in standard dwellings with family or friends and carry out the normal activities of modern society. But they, as do so many of us, are yearning for some sense of serenity, quieter and simpler times, and therein lies the pull of monastic and ancient practices. Desire can be a harsh taskmaster whenever it is not focused on truly biblical pursuits.
As more evangelicals become familiar with the disciplines that are drawn from the monks and nuns who originated these exercises, there has been a growing interest among a number to have a similar experience. Some, such as Larry Crabb and Leighton Ford, are going to monasteries for a week or more to spend time in silence and solitude. Others, such as Bruce Demarest, have participated in spiritual retreats at monasteries led by Catholic monks, to learn more about this way of life. It is from exposure to these influences, not new findings in Scripture, which has brought these Protestant evangelicals into the Spiritual Formation Movement. Brian McLaren is right (I don’t say that often) when he acknowledges, “Many Christian leaders started searching for a new approach under the banner of ‘spiritual formation.’ This new search has led many of them back to Catholic contemplative practices and medieval monastic disciplines.” This statement constitutes a good warning to those who think they can imbibe in the contemplative spiritual disciplines and not be taken in by the theology behind them.
Donald Whitney, Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life (Colorado Springs, NavPress, 1991), p. 184. In private correspondence to me Dr. Whitney clarified his position. He wrote, “Regarding silence and solitude, that's a chapter that will receive a great deal of revision when the book is revised. Please don't assume that I would still express things as written in 1991… Basically I just want to argue that we do need times to be alone with the Lord, for the Scripture teaches this by example throughout. Furthermore, some disciplines, such as meditation on Scripture and personal prayer, seem to imply it. And with silence, essentially I am arguing that it is a corollary to times of being alone with the Lord, and that there are times where we need to "be silent before Him" as the prophets say. Before the Lord, I believe there's a time to be silent and a time to speak. I listen to Him speak through His Word (at which time my mouth usually needs to be shut) and I speak to Him through prayer and praise. Whatever those admonitions to "be silent before Him," is what I want to mean and teach. Rather than "turn inward," I want to shut my mouth sometimes in a God-focused silence.”