This spring, our Sunday school class at BBF has been studying the book, Celebration of Discipline, by Richard J. Foster. If you're not familiar with this book, it is a guide through the "classic disciplines" or practices of the Christian faith - practices like meditation, prayer, study, fasting, service, worship and more. It was originally published in 1978 but remains impressively relevant today.
This week, we are studying the discipline of solitude. Obviously, this is a unique time to be studying this subject as COVID-19 has all but forced us into a solitude of sorts. Our church and Sunday school class have been meeting over video conferencing for a couple of months now just to remain connected through this time. In fact, what many of us are experiencing right now would be better described as isolation or even loneliness.
The discipline of solitude strangely provides not only insight but hope for such a time. The chapter's first sentence reads, "Jesus calls us from loneliness to solitude" - a timely invitation indeed. Foster clarifies that solitude is a practice rooted in a listening silence - a silence where we are attentive to the moments, events, and voices around us - listening for "the echo of the presence of God." The discipline of solitude tends to quiet our unnecessary chatter. Some of the fruits of the discipline are guidance to speak when needed, a relinquishing of the need for external approval, and a settling into the peace of “the silence of God.” It becomes clear in reading the chapter that solitude as a discipline is less a description of our current time and more of a welcome prescription.
Foster does speak to something heavier though called the Dark Night of the Soul - an idea first explored by St. John of the Cross in the 16th century. Sometimes the practice of this discipline can turn into something deeper and darker. It can slip into a time clearly marked with a lack of sensory, emotional, and/or spiritual connection. The “night” in this sense is figurative, as this period can last much longer. Many people who have been on a faith journey, particularly through many seasons, have experienced such a time. St. John of the Cross (and Foster) wisely challenge us not to be tempted to escape from this, but rather to walk steadfast through it, as it is often a time of great spiritual growth. In Foster's words, "Recognize the dark night for what it is. Be grateful that God is lovingly drawing you away from every distraction so that you can see Him clearly."
I leave you with a quote and a song that have been meaningful to me during silent and darker moments in my own journey. May the peace and wisdom of God be cultivated in us as we practice solitude during this time.
Part of the inner world of everyone is this sense of emptiness, unease, incompleteness, and I believe that this in itself is a word from God, that this is the sound that God’s voice makes in a world that has explained him away. In such a world, I suspect that maybe God speaks to us most clearly through his silence, his absence, so that we know him best through our missing him.
-- Frederick Buechner