One Day of Silence and Solitude | Part 1
I didn’t want to write this article. My inner world is too noisy. I depend on my distractions too much. How could I write about silence and solitude when I know so little about either? Then the Spirit spoke: “Spend a day with us, alone and quiet, and journal what happens. Let that be your article.”
So that’s what I’ve done. I’ve written what follows, in journal style, to myself. But you’re welcome to listen in.
It’s now 8:15, Saturday morning, June 30, 2007. I’m sitting at the desk in room 419 of the San Diego Marriott Mission Valley Hotel, a day and a half into my first ever C.S. Lewis Institute conference.
I returned to my room yesterday afternoon by 5 o’clock after listening to five thoughtful, provocative presentations Thursday evening and all day Friday, exhausted, stirred, my mind swimming in deep waters and my heart drinking in huge gulps of the life-giving liquid. My soul was full but my stomach empty. So I had dinner then returned to my room and read 30 daily reading from Walter Hooper’s The Blessings of Heaven, a well selected anthology of 365 excerpts from the pen of Lewis. Without clearly deciding to, I skipped the evening session and fell fast asleep by 8:30.
I awoke at 5:30 with no need for the alarm, and laid in bed long enough (about 15 minutes) to hear the Spirit (I sincerely believe it was Him) suggest the idea to my mind of skipping all today’s meetings and spending the whole day in silence and solitude. The quiet suggestion felt like a gentle command that I could freely and with delight obey. So I decided to do what I was told, with regret for missing more provocative teaching but with curiosity about what the Spirit had in mind.
By 6:30, I had been writing for perhaps 40 minutes putting on paper whatever I was aware of within myself. The time ahead felt like an adventure into unfamiliar terrain. I’ve never before done what I’m setting out to do today. I’ve spent days with the Lord and many parts of days, but never with the Spirit – directed plan to journal whatever develops as I sit still in God’s presence for one entire day, and to journal throughout the day as whatever happens unfolds. I felt a little nervous. Will anything happen? Will I recognize whatever the Spirit is doing if it’s different from what I’m wanting? The choice is clear: obey or disobey. Jump in the water or turn on the TV. Obeying seems exhilarating, though in a quiet, dangerous sort of way.
Time to begin; the clock announced 6:47. Resolutions came first. Whether I’d fast after breakfast, I wasn’t sure. Right then, a decision to skip lunch and dinner seemed manipulative, techniquey, something like my effort to get it right so God shows up and cooperates with my hopes. I decided to not turn on the television. The fact that Tiger Woods is not competing in the Buick Open this weekend and that Wimbledon finals (hopefully a Federer/Nadal rematch) are next weekend makes the decision easier. I was off to a slow start. Oh well.
It’s now 8:15. I’m showered, dressed, breakfasted, during which I read 6 chapters in Daniel. No newspaper was another decision. Funny. My mind is fixed on the oatmeal, skim milk and fruit I just ate. I can discern a hint of pride. I would have preferred bacon and eggs. But no, I want to deny myself to make room for God, so I ate what was good for me, not what I wanted. Is the day starting? Will a day of silence and solitude slide into nit-picky obsessiveness about subtle imperfections? Lewis warned against that. But Calvin taught that we need to see our inner self in all its ugliness in order to see God in all His beauty. But didn’t he say it works the other way round, too? It would be a nice switch, at least for me, to see beauty first and then selfishness. I guess that’s not my call to make.
I’ve been sitting quietly, wondering how to proceed. Do I just sit? Comfortably? Uncomfortably? I find myself reflecting on the Spirit’s selection of this day. Why now? It all seems rather planned. Silly thought. Of course it is. My mind drifts to a meeting with my ministry team several months ago. We all agreed I was running on near empty and was in critical need of re-fueling, soon and regularly. Plans were made. I felt hopeful, and grateful for my family and colleagues. A month later, I felt freely compelled to open myself to an audience with a level of authenticity I had never before reached. To 300 people at a spiritual formation conference, I disclosed five recently identified struggles in my life. One, I was living on borrowed convictions, resolutely reading spiritual giants hoping that their passionate beliefs would ignite the dying embers of mine. Two, I was deliberately too busy, working to avoid feelings of emptiness, to numb the ache of a dry soul. Three, I was defining myself by a reactive identity, depending on (and quietly demanding) affirmation in order to see myself as having something worthwhile to say. Four, my relational interactions were too often energized by contrived compassion, by a choice to care that wasn’t backed up by any felt passion to care. And five, I felt myself in a precarious place, terrified of easily threatened self- sufficiency. The lack of nearness to God left me on my own, and worried that my resources would be exposed as pathetically inadequate. I didn’t see that possibility as an inevitable mercy.
Looking back on it now, as I sit in room 419, I think I was facing, as one theologian whose name I forget put it, “the shock of possible non-being.” That terror is awakening new levels of desire for God, and new levels of repentance for turning to other sources for the experience of being, for a legitimate sense of personhood.
A trickle of excitement is dripping into me: Maybe the Spirit is responding to my renewed appetite to know the Father, to be more like Jesus. I was stirred yesterday and the evening before in ways, perhaps, that only rich community can provide. But I sense – could it be? – that I’m being invited now to meet my Father in ways that can only (or at least can best) happen in silence and solitude.
Immediately, the fear of disappointment looms. I disguise it as cynicism. It shows itself in jadedness, indifference, lethargy. I feel like taking a nap, like sulking in comfort. Larry, shake yourself. Remember what you believe. I do believe in a self- communicating God who will stop at nothing to give me Himself. He just seems to go the long way around. I must surrender my expectations, all of them, of what it would feel like for Him to reveal Himself. I must give up my timetable and follow His. And that, if history proves anything, means waiting.
The digital clock by the bed tells me it’s 9:38. I’ve done nothing so far but think and write. My current Bible time has been given to Daniel. I’ve brought with me a wonderful little commentary whose author seems more concerned to hear God speak to his soul than to help him figure out dates. I want to read and just think for a while.
The time flew. It’s now nearly 11. I’m getting the idea that I’m to think about how to live near God in a world that’s far from him. Daniel’s resolve to not defile himself with the king’s food hit a chord. The other commentary I bought, the one that seems more intent on pushing one eschatological view than drawing me nearer God, thinks Daniel was refusing to eat food already dedicated to idols. Perhaps. But I wonder if Daniel felt the need to draw the line somewhere, and God’s written concern to never profane sacredness made Daniel choose the matter of food as a way of expressing a heart that belonged to Jerusalem, not Babylon. Where have I drawn a line? Have I become insensitive to subtle ways in which I let myself be squeezed into the world’s mold? I bought 2 new shirts last week. Why? I already have plenty. Am I obsessively nit-picking again? Or is the Spirit leading me closer?
I was struck, too, when Daniel said to Nebuchadnezzar “As you were lying there, O king, your mind turned to things to come…” I never stopped there before. Nebuchadnezzar was worried, the way I sometimes fret over what may lie ahead. Reinhold Neibhur called it a “darkly conscious reality of the insecurity of his existence.” I guess it all depends on my goal. If my goal is a blessing-filled life till l die, a life protected from the big awful things, then living for that goal, depending on it for my soul’s well-being, will make me nervous.
Neibhur went on to say, “Man is tempted by the basic insecurity of human existence to make himself doubly secure.” That’s exactly what Nebuchadnezzar did. After hearing that the statue in his dream with the gold head (which was him) would collapse, he builds a whole statue of gold, a real one, and requires everyone to bow before it. That’s when Shadrach, Meschach, and Abednego got in trouble. Am I doing the same thing? Have I built a gold statue – my plans, my dreams, my hopes – and required others to cooperate? And if they don’t, into the fiery furnace with them. Is that my attitude? Who have I written off? I think I’m more like the proud king then the three faithful Jews.
I thought, too, of how God kept after the great king until he fully repented of self- sufficiency, until he gave up self-protection as a way of life. God loved that man, a pagan king. Does He love Iran’s president? The leader of North Korea? The politicians in our country who I disdain? The former friends I’ve fallen out with, the ones I’m waiting on to repent?
He treated Nebuchadnezzar severely – 7 years of living like an animal – but it was all to His loving purpose. How did Irenaeus put it? “The glory of God is a human being fully alive.” God, do what needs to be done to make me fully alive, so I can be an ingredient in the divine happiness. In this moment, I feel that prayer.
It’s coming up on noon. When I’m thinking about all these thoughts from Scripture, I’m stirred, alive, excited. But within minutes, seconds, of putting down my Bible and pen, the passion dissipates, and I’m back to mundane emotions. I wish I had an Isaiah 6 experience or a burning bush revelation. Isaiah and Moses charted a direction for their whole lives based on those epiphanies. But I’m still in room 419, feeling very ordinary. I take some comfort from Peter who saw the Lord transfigured and soon after denied Him. Maybe the goal is not to feel differently, but simply to ask, What can I do right now that would bring pleasure to God? That feels like a shift from demand to surrender, from narcissism to worship.