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Spirituality for Our Time: Solitude, Silence & Stillness by Phileena Heuertz

Phileena Heuertz, founder of The Gravity Center writes, "Many of us are constantly plugged into the Internet, email and social media leading to digital addiction and an inability to be present to the here and now of our life." How can we make time for solitude, silence and stillness? What's the benefit? Heuertz argues that "historical prayer practices—practices marked by solitude, silence and stillness—address our struggle to be present, to listen and to respond to life with grace and ease."

It’s 7:00 am. My alarm sounds its lofty “Constellation” melody and ushers in a new day. How I would love to stay in bed. But the soul-muscle-memory of years of contemplative practice wins out. So instead of ignoring my alarm and rolling over onto my right side to drift back into dreamland, I roll over to the left, place both feet on the floor, and slide my feet into cozy slippers. First stop, the bathroom. I take care of nature’s duty and then instinctually stumble into the library for my morning twenty-five minute prayer sit, centering prayer to be precise.

As a young person growing up in the Evangelical church, I was well acquainted with the concept of “quiet time.” But if I’m honest, “quiet time” was rarely quiet. More often it was filled with thoughts and reflections and other discursive activities of the mind.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m grateful for the gifts of the mind that allow me to read Scripture and other spiritual texts and reflect on them. I’m thankful to be able to compose prayers that help me to be in conversation with God. Such activity is essential for nurturing relationship with God, but that kind of practice isn’t really about being quiet. “Quiet” suggests a different quality of interaction with God, a quality of being that incorporates elements of solitude, silence and stillness. Elements that are interwoven in historical Christian practices.

Ancient practices like Centering Prayer, Lectio Divina, The Jesus Prayer and the Prayer of Examen may be old, but they’ve never been more relevant.

In our overdeveloped society, historical prayer practices—practices marked by solitude, silence and stillness—address our struggle to be present, to listen and to respond to life with grace and ease.

Many of us are constantly plugged into the Internet, email and social media leading to digital addiction and an inability to be present to the here and now of our life.

With so many options, opportunities and distractions, many of us are challenged more than ever to understand the meaning and purpose of our life. We are desperate for the ability to sift through the chatter and hear and listen to the still small voice of God.

Modern technology has its gifts, but our unchecked attachment to it leaves most of us struggling to balance work and rest. We are overworked, overtired, and on edge. We tend to react to life and its unexpected circumstances, instead of respond to life from a place of freedom.

By incorporating practices of solitude, silence and stillness, ancient prayer practices address our personal and societal sickness, offering a kind of correction to the imbalance and depletion we live with.

So let’s look a little closer at Solitude, Silence and Stillness.

First, Solitude.

Though we’re constantly dialed into social media, more connected with people around the planet then ever before, ironically many of us have never felt more alone. While we may be digitally connected we’re not really present to one another, leaving us feeling terribly separate and isolated.

The feeling of aloneness makes most of us very uncomfortable, leading our society to boast the highest rates of depression, anxiety and suicide. So, what is the cure for our anxious-ridden loneliness? Ironically, practicing solitude.

Now certainly, there are important ways to address clinical depression and anxiety—like counseling, psychotherapy and medication. But if we look at the trajectory of our so-called developed society, we’ll see that modernization has crowded out a healthy dose of solitude (as well as silence and stillness).

We need to bring balance to what is sorely out of balance.

We must learn how to be alone—how to be alone with ourselves and with God. For significant moments in our day, we must dare to detach from our digital appendages and deal with the anxiety it produces in us. God wants to meet us right there, in our uncomfortability, loneliness, isolation, anxiety and depression.

Avoiding the inner darkness by keeping busy, hyperactively plugged in doesn’t make the pain go away. It only grows and secretly drains the life of our true self.

In first century Palestine, Scripture reveals that Jesus “often withdrew to places of solitude to pray.” (Luke 5:16) If the Son of God acknowledged his need to withdraw from the busyness of life to be alone with himself and God, who are we to resist such a practice?

In solitude, we learn to be present. We learn to be present to our self, to God and to one another. As we let God heal our hidden neediness, anxiety and pain, we experience more authentic connection to our self, to God and to others.

Secondly, Silence.

If being alone is difficult. Try being quiet, right?

Most of us don’t know how to be quiet. Even if we’re allowing someone else to speak, while that person talks, we’re often composing in our mind what we’ll say when the other finally stops talking. We’re not truly listening.

Even now, for some of you, “listening” to me. Are you truly listening? Or are you distracted by a myriad of other competing thoughts and distractions?

If it’s this difficult for us to truly listen to one another, how much more difficult must it be for us to listen to God. Do we even know what God’s voice sounds like?

God’s voice is a sacred voice calling, leading us in our vocation. The English word vocation is derived from the Latin word vocare (“vocara”), which means to name or to call and vox (like “box”) meaning voice.

The meaning of vocation centers on this—-our vocation is marked by listening to the Voice calling us.

But we can’t listen if we’re not quiet. And to get quiet, I mean really quiet from the inside out, we need to practice Silence.

Speaking to the burden of our human condition and our need for silence, the writer of Lamentations writes (3:25-28 TIB),

“The Most High is good to those who hope in God, to all who seek God’s presence; It is good to wait patiently for YHWH to set us free…Let those who bear such a burden, sit in silence.”

Practicing silence helps us develop the ability to listen and discern God’s voice and leading.

Third, Stillness.

“Be still and know that I am God” the Psalmist passionately writes.

Be still.

And know.

Know that I am God.

Many of us are so busy trying to change the world that we’ve neglected to change ourselves, to let ourselves be transformed by God’s grace. And as our frenetic activity brings time to pass, we may find that many of our so-called good deeds actually cause more harm than good.

Consider our sordid collective history as Christians.

It’s easy to look back and indict those before us who exploited and enslaved our African brothers and sisters—in the name of God. And those who decimated an entire nation of people when colonizing the Americas—in the name of God. And we can’t forget the Crusades and the Inquisition—acts of exploitation, violence, and murder—all in the name of God.

How will history indict us?

Practicing stillness teaches us impulse control or restraint. Restraining us from the impulses of our human nature that are secretly out of control—misdirected impulses that covertly influence even our so-called good intentions.

We may not recognize these compulsions and probably don’t, but they enslave us nonetheless. These unconscious impulses feed our hidden obsessive need for affirmation, control and security, and keep us from freely giving of our highest and truest self to make our world a better place.

Take a moment to consider how much you stew over what others think of you or say about you—many of us have a compulsive need for affirmation.

Consider the last time things didn’t go the way you wanted or planned. How did you react? Did you experience surges of anger, frustration, fear or anxiety? Many of us have a compulsive need for control.

How about concerns for your future? Do you ever obsess or worry about your marriage, family or job? Many of us have a compulsive need for security.

Over time, as we practice stillness, we gain freedom from misguided impulses and are led to make greater impact for good in our family, community and society.

Last year I visited Rwanda where my husband, Chris, and I guided a group of pilgrims through the pain and hope of this remarkable country. That year marked the 20th memorial of the genocide that threatened to decimate a nation of people.

Perhaps you remember. 20 years ago during Easter Week, a systematic plan to kill every Tutsi man, woman and child was unleashed.

During the following 100 days, 1 million people were slaughtered with machetes, hammers, blunt objects, rocks and guns by Hutu extremists, while the international community watched on our television sets and listened on the radio. Even though there was reported evidence of the genocide the international community did nothing.

During this gruesome display of human wickedness, a young Tutsi college student, named Emmaculee Ilibigaza hid in a 3ft x 4ft bathroom with 7 other women. Day by day, Emmaculee was forced to keep complete silence and stillness in the solitude of a tiny bathroom.

Crammed on top of one another, the women lived hour by hour in sheer terror as their would-be-killers lurked outside the window and the hidden door. For ninety days, there was no peace, no relief from fear.

Given only scraps of food, Emmaculee grew more and more emaciated as time went on, her muscles atrophied and she contracted bodily infections. You can imagine the fear and anxiety she endured and the subsequent anger and hatred toward the killers that emerged. Thoughts of revenge and punishment tormented Emaculee.

But by God’s grace, early on Emaculee gave herself to prayer and meditation. Hour by hour, minute by minute, Emaculee prayed a prayer of desperation. And that prayer of desperation turned to a prayer of oneness with God—a prayer beyond words and thoughts. It’s how she stayed alive.

When she finally was able to leave the secret bathroom that had been both a prison and a prayer cell—a forced solitude, silence & stillness—Emaculee emerged with great faith & clarity for her life’s purpose.

Even though she soon learned about the brutal torture and murder of her father, mother and beloved brothers, the prayer and meditation she experienced in hiding transformed her vengeance to forgiveness and hatred to love.

Emaculee emerged from her captivity a physically and spiritually free woman with vision for not only her people but for all people to live together in harmony & peace. She’s devoted her life to sharing the message of love, forgiveness and unity. To encounter her is to encounter a person radiating the presence of God.

Having survived such a horrifying experience in Rwanda, Emaculee writes and speaks all over the world helping to elevate human consciousness in an effort to prevent another genocide.

The United Nations defines genocide as “acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group.” Given that during the 20th century alone there were thirty-one genocides and alleged genocides that took place across the planet, Emaculee’s message is critical.

The loss of her family and friends and home; the physical and psychological trauma she endured do not define her. She is free. And the Spirit of God flows effortlessly through her to heal the world. Having literally descended the grave in her life circumstances, she was resurrected and given her divine purpose.

Certainly we would benefit from solitude, silence and stillness—allowing particular time set apart to offering our body as a living sacrifice; practicing total devotion and surrender to God. Being willing to descend the grave of our own life in hopes of resurrection.

By God’s mercy, we won’t be forced into solitude, silence and stillness under horrific circumstances. But if we want to live with the clarity, vision, love and forgiveness that Emaculee lives with, we will heed the wisdom that comes from adopting an ancient prayer practice.

During the 2nd century, the Church Father and bishop, St. Irenaeus, said, “The glory of God is a human being fully alive.” Are you ready to be fully alive?

Then do yourself a favor and make room for solitude, silence and stillness.