Social Distancing and Spiritual Discipline

More specifically, the disciplines of Solitude and Silence

Let me start by saying that this piece is not for everyone.  I am not writing for those of you who are living on the front lines and are as busy as ever, and perhaps not for parents of students who are learning a new reality of school from home either. For you, a conversation about self-care is probably more relevant.  I am writing for those of us who find ourselves at home and, even if we are working, have no commute, no evening outings and no sports to follow.

Last week I suggested that we look at social isolation as an opportunity for mindfulness.  Today I am going to attempt to describe a few practices that might be helpful in transforming mere isolation into the spiritual discipline of solitude.  I share these both because I have tried them all and because the operative word there is “tried.”  They are work; they take effort; they are trying.  Solitiude is about slowing your pace, releasing from a focus on accomplishment, letting down your guard and letting God in to shine light on your soul – even the rotting parts.  Solitude is a fast (in our present circumstances an enforced fast) and like all fasting it exposes us as highly dependent people.  It exposes that our dependence tends to be on people, places and practices and then perhaps on God.  Like the people in Gideon’s time, we will worship God but want to add Baal and Asherah (food and fun) or worship through a golden ephod (our personal preferences for pleasure).

So here are a number of ways to practice solitude.

  1. Slow down intentionally.  The challenge of our world is actually being somewhere fully.  I suspect most of us have lost the ability.  Slow down and be present to whoever else is in your house.  Linger, look, listen and love.  Pay attention.  It is called “pay” I suspect because it costs.  The cost is time and energy.  Pay attention to details.  Look out a window and see how many things you can see that you have never noticed before. Slow down when you travel.  For your rare outing, giddy to go for groceries because at least you are out, try not to overtake other vehicles.  When walking, pause regularly to really look at what is around you.  Sit on a park bench, weather permitting and in a context where it doesn’t look creepy, and stay there observing.  And all the while pay attention not only to the infinite variety around you, but to what is going on within.Slow down your mind.  Slowing down your body and your movement will help do this.  But focus on slowing down your mind.  If you need to write a list of things so that you can let them go, do that first, and then just let your mind wander and settle on something simple and stay there.  As I write I am looking out the window and paying attention to how the snow settles on the branches.  On one retreat, an artist guided us in paying attention to detail.  Consider taking a pencil and paper and, even if you are not good at drawing, try to capture what you see.  The exercise may not produce art, but it will slow you down
  2. Sit in Scripture.  Take a verse, maybe two, and internalize it.  Memorizing is the act of getting the words in your mind so you can repeat them.  Internalizing goes beyond memorizing by getting the meaning in your heart so that it moves you.  So as you try to memorize the passage emphasize each word in your mind in turn.  What does each word mean and why is it important?  Then try to picture this passage.  What would the passage look like if you were there or if it was enacted in you?  For example, years ago I internalized the beginning of Isaiah 6 and was thrilled to share the experience of the throne room with Isaiah and frightened with him at the prospect of a live coal touching my lips. As you internalize a passage, remember #1 above.  Slow down.  You don’t need to do this on one sitting.  You don’t need to do one every day.  If you find a life shaping passage take a few days to get it in your soul and then let it work on you.  Let it work on you for at least a week.  Each day you may find yourself noticing something else in the passage.  Have a running conversation with God about the passage. And ask God when he releases you from this passage to move on to another.
  3. Journal.  If you don’t like journaling try writing an email to someone, or blogging. If you really don’t like writing at all, find someone to tell.  Invite them into the solitude practice of pausing and paying attention to you. The point is that we take the time to put into words what we are experiencing.  This too is an act of slowing down.  Trying to articulate what is going on in and around us is a spiritual discipline.  Internalizing Scripture gets the Word in, this is us letting the words out.  All the while being aware of what God is up to in our hearts and minds, allowing the Holy Spirit to touch us and point us to Jesus.

Let me end by giving a warning.  I have made this sound pretty straightforward, peaceful even.  But make no mistake, this can be difficult and frustrating and lead to all kinds of strong emotion.  Slow down there too.  That is what the journaling or emailing or conversation is about:  letting out what is inside.  Spiritual discipline is about practicing something that allows you to be in touch with what God is up to in your life.  So pray through this.  This is all prayer.  Whatever you see in slowing down, hear in Scripture or say in journaling, it is all prayer.  As the old hymn said, “as I breath I pray.”

     Final ending.  This is a spiritual practice.  It takes practice.  As you master it you will find your own way of doing it.  Experiment.  Enter and enjoy what works.  Ignore what is not for you.  The key is that you find a way to practice your spirituality in your present reality.  My prayer is that this helps you go there.

ES