For God alone my soul waits in silence; from him comes my salvation. He alone is my rock and my salvation, my fortress; I shall never be shaken. (Psalm 62:1-2, NRSV)
So far this week, we have considered three practical ways of waiting on God, each of which requires action on our part: prayer, reading the scripture, and receiving the Lord's Supper. Today, we'll look at another way of waiting which is related to those and enhances them. Today's way of waiting is perhaps the most radical of any of the practices I'm recommending for Advent, and will likely be the most difficult for many of us. This is ironic because this is the discipline that actually asks the least of us––rather than asking us to wait on God by requiring our action, today we'll consider how we might wait on God by our inaction.
To be precise, today I am tying together two practices for waiting on God that have been recommended for centuries by those who have waited on God before us: silence and solitude. (Don't panic, extroverts, you'll have your day tomorrow.)
Here's an interesting thing about these two practices, and for the moment we'll focus on solitude: we read about the priority it played in the lives of many people in the scripture, including Moses, Elijah, John the Baptist, Paul, and Jesus himself. Yet we somehow think that in our day it's a practice that's only useful for monks or contemplative-types who are particularly into "that sort of thing."
Dallas Willard describes this well:
"The life alienated from God collapses when deprived of its support from the sin-laden world. But the life in tune with God is actually nurtured by time spent alone. John the Baptist, like many of his forerunners in the prophetic line, was much alone in the deserted places of his land. Jesus constantly sought solitude from the time of his baptism up to the Garden of Gethsemane, when he even went apart from those he took there to watch with him. It is solitude and solitude alone that opens the possibility of a radical relationship to God that can withstand all external events up to and beyond death."(1)
I suspect, though, that the last sentence of the paragraph above identifies the issue for many of us: is the kind of "radical relationship with God" that would include regular practices of silence and solitude really necessary? Can't we get by fine without them?
It's possible that you're strong enough to lead the kind of life with God that enlivens your soul and blesses the world through you without practices as drastic as silence and solitude, but I certainly am not. I wither without them. I readily admit that part of the reason for that has to do with my personality, and that these practices are perhaps more necessary for people as introverted as I am than for most people, but I think the issue goes deeper than our personality preferences.
Here's my theory: as a generalization, we have stopped using the lives of Jesus and the great ones of his way as our practical standard for how we can live our lives. We look at them, admire them, think about the ideas they talked about, and usually begin to use some of those ideas in our conversations, but we rarely consider the obvious option of taking on their lifestyle–seeking to do the kinds of things they did in order to become the kinds of people they were. So, when it comes to Jesus and Paul, or more recent figures such as John Wesley or even people we have known and loved, we tend to admire them, but we treat them as oddities–eccentric people who had been zapped by God with special abilities to go to such great lengths.
Particularly in the case of Jesus, treating him like that may be a form of admiration, but it isn't a form of trust. It's a way of keeping our lives at a distance from his, a way of associating ourselves with Jesus without giving him control, a way of avoiding waiting on God like Jesus did.
"Our modern religious context assures us that such drastic action as we see in Jesus and Paul [in their use of practices such as solitude] is not necessary for our Christianity––may not even be useful, may even be harmful....Both the secular and the religious setting in which we live today is almost irresistibly biased toward an interpretation of these passages that condones a life more like that of decent people around us than like the life of Paul and his Lord. We talk about leading a different kind of life, but we also have ready explanations for not being really different. And with those explanations we have talked our way out of the very practices that alone would enable us to be citizens of another world."(2)
Because these practices are so radical for us, it's wise to approach them in an experimental manor (not to mention that it's wise to approach them at all!). Something that is true of all spiritual practices–which particularly comes into play with silence and solitude–is that we need a long-term view of them since our practice of them is more about the way that they shape us over months, years, and decades of engaging them more than it is about practicing it on one day and then wondering whether we got anything out of it or not. Remember–after all–this is about waiting on God and allowing him to work how he wants, when he wants, whether we even end up being aware of it or not.
So here are the simple, but very challenging, suggestions for waiting on God this Advent through silence and solitude:
- Silence: Waste five minutes per day with God, accomplishing absolutely nothing. You aren't studying the Bible nor going through a prayer list, but just being quiet and seeking to increase your awareness that God is with you. You can go on a walk or drink a cup of coffee, but do something with your body that will remind the rest of you that you're spending this time with God. (In other words, doing laundry or paying bills probably wouldn't help.) Your mind will become distracted, but don't let that concern you. That's more of a bother to you than it is to God.
- Solitude: Option A: Semi-Radical: Take advantage of the "little solitudes" that are already in your normal days. In other words, when you find yourself alone and able to choose what to do, don't waste the opportunity by turning on the TV immediately or checking Facebook one more time. Leave the radio off in the car while you're driving, or take whatever opportunities present themselves to enjoy being alone with God in the course of your normal days. Option B: More Radical: Take a full day sometime between now and Christmas to be alone with God. I've written up some brief guidelines for how to do so here.
A Prayer for the Day:
Almighty God, whose most dear Son went not up to joy but first he suffered pain, and entered not into glory before he was crucified: Mercifully grant that we, walking in the way of the cross, may find it none other than the way of life and peace; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.*
A Prayer for the Week:
Almighty God, give us grace to cast away the works of darkness, and put on the armor of light, now in the time of this mortal life in which your Son Jesus Christ came to visit us in great humility; that in the last day, when he shall come again in his glorious majesty to judge both the living and the dead, we may rise to the life immortal; through him who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.*
Readings for the Week*:
*Prayers are from The Book of Common Prayer and readings are from the Revised Common Lectionary. (1) Dallas Willard, The Spirit of the Disciplines: Understanding How God Changes Lives, (New York: HarperCollins, 1988) 101. (2) Ibid. 107-108.