Tweeting or Texting God? Solitude and Silence Deepen Our Communion with God

by Dallas Willard

In an age when people relate by Twitter and texting with small sound bytes that replace genuine intimacy,  what, then, are some particular activities that can serve as disciplines for the spiritual life? And which should we choose for our individual strategy for spiritual growth?

Quite a few well-known spiritual practices will have a strong claim to be on everyone’s list. On the other hand, there are a number of good activities that may not usually be thought of as disciplines, though they can be, and yet others that have served through the ages as spiritual disciplines but are now largely forgotten. For example, there is the peregrinatio, or voluntary exile, introduced by the Irish St. Brenden (born 484) and widely practiced for some centuries thereafter. There is the vigil or “watch,” where one rejects sleep to concentrate on spiritual matters. The keeping of a journal or spiritual diary continues to be an activity that serves some individuals as a vital discipline, though it probably would not show up on any “standard” list. Sabbath keeping, as instituted in the Old Testament, can be a most productive discipline when adapted to modern life. Physical labor has proven to be a spiritual discipline, especially for those who are also deeply involved in solitude, fasting, study, and prayer. (1 Thess. 4:11-12)

An activity that can be an especially effective spiritual discipline for those who are used to “the better things in life” is to do grocery shopping, banking, and other business in the poorer areas of the city. This has an immense effect on our understanding of and behavior toward our neighbors—both rich and poor—and upon our understanding of what it is to love and care for our fellow human beings.

In our modern society, which proceeds at such a frenetic pace, simple sleep and rest may be disciplines in the sense just described. They will, as we have said, enable us to do what we cannot do by direct effort, including staying in good emotional and physical health, and possibly being loving and sensitive to our family and co-workers. But usually when we rest we would not be practicing resting—though, in the current world, that too may sometimes be needed, for some people actually cannot even rest by simply doing it. Practice is discipline, but there are disciplines which do not amount to practicing.

Now spiritual disciplines are also spiritual disciplines, and not mere bodily behaviors. That is, they are disciplines designed to help us be active and effective in the spiritual realm of our own heart, now spiritually alive by grace in relation to God and his kingdom. They are designed to help us withdraw from a total dependence on the merely human or natural; and, in that precise sense, they help us to mortify the “flesh,” kill it off, let it die (Rom. 8:13; Col. 3:5), and to learn how to depend upon the ultimate reality, which is God and his kingdom.

Thus, for example, I fast from food to know that there is another food that sustains me. I memorize and meditate on scripture that the order of God’s kingdom would become the order and power of my mind and my life.

In shaping our own list of spiritual disciplines, we should keep in mind that very few disciplines can be regarded as absolutely indispensable for a healthy spiritual life and work, though some are obviously more important than others. Also, some are more important than others at different stages of our spiritual life. Always practicing a range of activities that have proven track records across the centuries will keep us from erring. And, if other activities are needed, our progress won’t be seriously hindered, and we’ll probably be led into them.

So, to help us make our way into a life of planned disciplines, let us list some activities that have had a wide and profitable use among disciples of Christ, and discuss how to approach some of them in a prayerful, experimental way. The following list is divided into the disciplines of “abstinence” and the disciplines of “engagement.”

Disciplines of Abstinence

Disciplines of Engagement

As we organize our plan for spiritual growth around some selection of these activities, and as we put that plan into practice, we will see steady transformation of our thoughts, emotions and will—even our body and social context—toward the character of Christlikeness. From the stages of early discipleship, where “the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak,” we increasingly pass to the stages where the flesh—think of that as what we more or less automatically feel, think, and do on our own strength alone—is increasingly aligned with the Spirit and supportive of its deepest intentions in us. This is absolutely essential in a training that successfully brings us to do from the heart the things that Jesus knows to be best.

A further help in understanding what spiritual disciplines are for the disciples of Jesus is to recognize them as simply a matter of following him into his own practices, appropriately modified to suit our own condition. We find our way into a life where the power of inward hindrances to obedience/abundance are broken, by observing what Jesus and others who have followed him actually do, and learning to structure our lives around those same activities. Thus, although scripture does not tell us in formulaic terms what to do in order to build our life upon the rock, everyone who knows anything about Jesus’ life, and that of his most effective followers, really does know what to do to that end, or can easily find out. It is not a secret. Or perhaps it is an “open secret.”

So, basically, to put off the old person and put on the new we only follow Jesus into the activities that he engaged in to nurture his own life in relation to the Father. Of course, his calling and mission was out of all proportion to ours, and he never had our weaknesses. Still what he practiced is, roughly, what we must practice, in order to enter into his heart and character. For example, solitude had a huge place in his life, as the Gospel records show.

Two Disciplines Of Abstinence: Solitude And Silence.

By solitude we mean being out of human contact, being alone, and being so for lengthy periods of time. To get out of human contact is not something that can be done in a short while, for such contact lingers long after it is, in one sense, over. And silence, a gift of many dimensions, is a natural part of solitude and essential to its fulness. Most noise is human contact. Silence means to escape from sounds and noises, other than the gentle ones of nature perhaps. But it also means not talking, and the effects of not talking on our soul are different from those of simple quietness. Both dimensions of silence are crucial for the breaking of old habits and the formation of Christ’s character in us. Silence well-practiced is like the wind of eternity blowing upon you.

Now why, precisely, are these disciplines of abstinence so central to the curriculum for Christlikeness? A primary objective in training in Christlikeness is to break the power of our ready responses to do the opposite of what Jesus teaches: for example, scorn, anger, verbal manipulation, payback, silent collusion in the wrongdoing of others around us, and so forth.

These responses mainly exist at what we might call the “epidermal” level of the self, the first point of contact with the world around us. They are almost totally “automatic,” given the usual stimuli. The very language we use is laden with them, and of course they are the “buttons” by which our human surroundings more or less control us. They are not “deep”; they are just there, and just constant. They are the area where most of our life is lived. And in action they have the power to draw our whole being into the deepest of injuries and wrongs. (“Mob psychology” and “group think” are well-known testimonies to that.)

Now it is solitude and silence that allow us to escape the patterns of epidermal responses, with their consequences. They provide space to come to terms with these responses and to replace them, with God’s help, by different immediate responses that are suitable to the kingdom environment—and, indeed, to the kind of life everyone in saner moments recognizes to be good. They break the pell-mell rush through life and create a kind of inner space that permits people to become aware of what they are doing and what they are about to do.

We hear the cries from our strife-torn streets: “Give peace a chance!” and “Can’t we all just get along?” But you cannot give peace a chance if that is all you give a chance. You have to do the things that make peace possible and actual. When you listen to people talk about peace, you soon realize, in most cases, that they are unwilling to deal with the conditions of society and soul that make strife inevitable. They want to keep them and still have peace, but it is peace on their terms, which is impossible.

And we can’t all just get along. Rather, we have to become the kinds of persons who can get along. As a major part of this, our epidermal responses have to be changed in such a way that the fire and the fight doesn’t start almost immediately when we are “rubbed the wrong way.” Solitude and silence give us a place to begin the necessary changes, though they are not a place to stop.

They also give us some space to reform our inmost attitudes toward people and events. They take the world off our shoulders for a time and interrupt our habit of constantly managing things, of being in control, or thinking we are. One of the greatest of spiritual attainments is the capacity to do nothing. Thus, the Christian philosopher Pascal insightfully remarks, “I have discovered that all the unhappiness of men arises from one single fact, that they cannot stay quietly in their own room.”

Now this idea of doing nothing proves to be absolutely terrifying to most people I speak with. But at least the person who is capable of doing nothing proves capable of refraining from doing the wrong thing. And then he or she will be better able to do the right thing.

And “doing nothing” has many other advantages. It may be a great blessing to others around us, who often hardly have a chance while we are in action. And possibly the gentle Father in the heavens would draw nigh if we would just be quiet and rest a bit. Generally speaking, he will not compete for our attention, and as long as we are “in charge” he is liable to keep a certain distance.

Every person should have regular periods in life when he or she has nothing to do. Periods of solitude and silence are excellent practices for helping us learn how to do that. The law that God has given for our benefit tells us that one seventh of our time should be devoted to doing nothing—no work, not by ourselves or any of our family, employees, or animals. That includes, of course, religious work. This is Sabbath.

What do you do in solitude or silence? Well, sofar as things to “get done,” nothing at all. As long as you are doing “things to get done,” you have not broken human contact. So don’t go into solitude and silence with a list. Can we enjoy things in solitude and silence? Yes, but don’t try to. Just be there. Don’t try to get God to do anything. Just be there. He will find you.

Even lay aside your ideas as to what solitude and silence are supposed to accomplish in your spiritual growth. You will discover incredibly good things. One is that you have a soul. Another, that God is near and the universe is brimming with goodness. Another, that others aren’t as bad as you often think. But don’t try to discover these, or you won’t. You’ll just be busy and find more of your own doings.

The cure for too-much-to-do is solitude and silence, for there you find you are safely more than what you do. And the cure of loneliness is solitude and silence, for there you discover in how many ways you are never alone.

When you go into solitude and silence, you need to be relatively comfortable. Don’t be a hero in this or in any spiritual discipline. You will need rest. Sleep until you wake up truly refreshed. And you will need to stay there long enough for the inner being to become different. Muddy water becomes clear if you only let it be still for a while.

You will know this finding of soul and God is happening by an increased sense of who you are and a lessening of the feeling that you have to do this, that, and the other thing that befalls your lot in life. That harassing, hovering feeling of “have to” largely comes from the vacuum in your soul, where you ought to be at home with your Father in his kingdom. As the vacuum is rightly filled, you will increasingly know that you do not have to do many of those things—not even those you want to do.

Liberation from your own desires is one of the greatest gifts of solitude and silence. When this all begins to happen, you will know you are arriving where you ought to be. Old bondages to wrongdoing will begin to drop off as you see them for what they are. And the possibility of really loving people will dawn upon you.

Soon you will enter into the experience of what it is to live by grace, rather than just talk about it.

These are some of the fruits of solitude and silence. The apprentice will have to learn how to keep in solitude and silence, of course. For most of us, wise and loving practical arrangements must be made with those around us. And we should encourage and help family members and coworkers to enter such spiritual disciplines themselves.

Obviously the effects of these disciplines will greatly benefit our objective of loving God with a full heart. For the usual distractions of life greatly hinder our attention to God, and the habit of thinking about everything else is almost impossible to break in the bustle of life. Time away can help. People often complain that they cannot pray because their thoughts wander. Those thoughts are simply doing what they usually do. The grip of “the usual” is what must be broken. Appropriate solitude and silence are sure to do it.

Excerpts from Living A Transformed Life Adequate To Our Calling,

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