Solitude: Quieting the world and ourselves (part two)

(The second of a three-part posting about seeking times and places of solitude in the midst of our busy lives)

“A life without a lonely place, that is, a life without a quiet center, easily becomes destructive.”Henri Nouwen

Light at the Center of a California Mission, by Steve Givens

We all need times of solitude in our lives for three interconnected reasons: We need to quiet the world. We need to quiet ourselves. And we need to do both of those things so we can better listen for God as he whispers our names and quietly lets us know just what it is we’re supposed to be doing with our lives.

Many years ago, I attended a retreat given by a Marianist priest and writer named Quentin Hakenewerth. With one simple lesson and a flip chart showing a set of concentric circles, he taught me something I have never forgotten and which has largely shaped my approach to prayer and seeking the will of God for the past 30 years.

He said, in essence, that the world (the outermost and largest circle on his chart) is a big, busy, noisy place. It screams at us to pay attention. With the general noise pollution of the world and with a constant barrage of advertising and media and angry, yelling people of all sorts, the world just never shuts up.  Never. And we do it to ourselves, too. We fill every possible moment of silence with noise – with mindless talk, with music, with phone calls and emails and texts and tweets and Facebook postings. Even if some of these things make no audible sound, they are noise nevertheless and obstacles to our solitude and peace.

So if we just live in this world and make no attempt at a more interior life, we will rarely if ever find ourselves in a completely quiet place, and that’s a bad place to be if we’re trying to listen for God.

The next circle in on Fr. Quentin’s chart represented the noise we make all on our own – the noise of our selves, our minds and psyches. We make a lot of noise just by being who we are. We worry, we continually plan our lives, we lust after people and things, we internally justify the things we do or don’t do, and we constantly place ourselves in the company of others so we don’t have to be alone. This is the internal noise of our lives, and it, too, blocks our ability to listen for the voice of God.

Finally, there’s a small inner circle on the chart, which points to the spot where God dwells in us. The problem is, God doesn’t shout. God doesn’t scream or demand our attention. God whispers, and in order to hear God, we need to quiet the world (we need to physically get away to someplace quieter), and then we need to quiet ourselves (we need to pour ourselves into prayer and contemplation and quiet our inner demons). We need silence. We need solitude to find and experience God. We need to empty ourselves so we can be filled with God’s presence. We need to get out of our own way, and solitude gives us the opportunity to do just that.

There are a couple of stories that illustrate this need for quiet and solitude well. The first comes from way back in the Old Testament, in the Book of I Kings. Here we find Elijah standing on a mountain, waiting for the Lord to “pass by.” First a strong violent wind passes by, tearing up the mountain and crushing rocks as it goes, but God is not in the wind. After the wind comes an earthquake, but God is not in the earthquake. After earthquake comes a fire but, you guessed it, God is not in the fire. God is not in any of these big, bold brash things. God is not in the noise and chaos. Finally, Elijah hears the Lord in what is described as a “light, silent sound,” and he knows at last that he has experienced God. He hides his face and stands at the entrance to the cave, waiting for God to speak to him. He finds God in the near-silence of a “still, small voice.”

Lighting the Way in a California Mission, by Steve Givens

My other favorite story about seeking God in the silence of prayer is attributed to St. John Vianney, a 19th century French parish priest from the hamlet of Ars, not far from Lyon. He tells the story of a man who comes to church every day and sits alone in silence. Vianney finally asks him, “What is it you do here every day?” The man answers: “I look at God, God looks at me, and we enjoy one another’s company.” Ah, that’s the power of seeking God in a quiet place and in the silence of our hearts. We get to enjoy God’s company.

In solitude, in the company of God alone, we have the opportunity to become a wrung-out sponge, as St. Ignatius describes us. In solitude we stand before God empty and naked, our most authentic and true selves, completely open to being filled up by the presence and will of Christ. And that is our all in all.

Next Saturday: Some practical tips for making the place and time for solitude in our lives.

Tags: , , , , , ,

6 Responses to "Solitude: Quieting the world and ourselves (part two)"

Leave a Comment