March Exercises

Solitude and Silence

Most of us struggle to spend time in solitude and silence, either because we can’t find the time, or more commonly, we don’t want to find the time because we dislike the sensation! Living in a culture dominated by busyness and background noise, we simply don’t know how to function without them. Consider the following quote: 

I have often said that the sole cause of man’s unhappiness is that he does not know how to stay quietly in his room… What people want is not the easy peaceful life… but the agitation that takes our minds off it and diverts.. That is why men are so found of the hustle and bustle.

That observation should not surprise us. What might surprise us is that it was written by mathematician and Catholic philosopher Blaise Pascal in the 17th Century. 

This is clearly not a new problem. Our culture’s methods of distraction might be unique, or perhaps new, but our reasons remain the same. This is how Henri Nouwen describes the modern-day experience:

As soon as we’re alone, without people to talk with, books to read, TV to watch, or phone calls to make, an inner chaos opens up in us. This chaos can be so disturbing and so confusing that we can hardly wait to get busy again… The distractions we have used to drown out our anxieties, fears and bad memories, unresolved conflicts, angry feelings, and impulsive desires are gone… and we want them back!

Very few of us will be able to read that description without recognising our own experience in it. We know that inner chaos well. But Nouwen does more than describe the symptoms; he also give some clue as to their cause. We don’t like being alone because we’re afraid of what might surface when we are. Indeed, we are mistaken if we think that solitude and silence are simply skills we haven’t yet learned. For most of us, this is an area of insecurity that is yet to be addressed. God is waiting to address it with us— alone. 

Learning to be alone well is an essential ingredient of a number of the other spiritual disciplines. Just as we will never learn to hear God well if we are constantly in crowds, neither will we learn to rest well, or serve well, or wait well. That is why it is so important that we first learn to be alone well. 

Community has a vital role to play in our lives, as we will discuss next month. But some of us use community as a distraction from questions or struggles that can only be answered in solitude. As we learn to exchange some of our time with others for time alone, we will find ourselves being comforted, shaped and encouraged in ways that simply could not have happened otherwise. 

Of course, there is no real solitude without silence. Earpods in and on, listening to a podcast or your favourite music is not really solitude. The posture required for the comfort and encouragement of solitude rules out multi-tasking and our ‘security blanket’ sounds of text messages arriving, notifications keeping us immediately in touch with the digital world, or the familiarity of music. As Nouwen notes, even reading can be a source of unwanted ‘noise.’ No matter how pressurised and chaotic your family life, there is a way for you to creatively find times of solitude and silence— and the weekly exercises this month aim to help you explore them.