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Why We Need Silence and Solitude

We don't realize the weight of Christian expectations until we quiet ourselves and get alone

When I started practicing silence and solitude, I lasted ten minutes, eventually twenty, then a half an hour. Finally someone led me into an all-day silence and solitude retreat. I'd never experienced an all-day time of silence and solitude, so it was kind of daunting.

The morning felt similar to what I had done in the past on my own. But when it came time for lunch, we were told we were going to eat our lunch in silence. As we ate in silence in the retreat house dining room, I just fell to pieces. I started to weep and thought, What is this? What is happening here? I'm a pretty in-control kind of person. I won't usually let that kind of emotion overwhelm me.

And because we were in silence, because none of us were allowed to talk to each other, nobody could come and try to fix me. So all I could do was be by myself with God. He was my companion for lunch. And as I stayed with my experience, I began to be aware of the weight of Christian expectations on me—of being a good Christian, a good neighbor, a good mother, a good wife, a good person in ministry, a good leader.

I realized that my Christian life had become such a heavy weight. The tears were purely tears of relief that I wasn't going to have to go into this lunch and talk to somebody, that I wasn't going to have to figure out some sort of a social interaction, that nothing was expected of me. I didn't have to fix it. I didn't have to serve it. I didn't have to socialize over it. I didn't have to do anything but allow someone to serve me lunch in the presence of God.

Then I realized this was ridiculous. My Christian life had gotten to the place where it was so weighty that when I got to this moment in which I was allowed to be quiet and to be served, I became an emotional wreck. I was now aware of the level of exhaustion I never knew existed within me—a direct result of the way I'd been living my Christian life. It wasn't anybody's fault but my own.My life wasn't working at this level. That realization was profound.

The Rhythm of Silence and Word

Silence is the time when we withdraw from our addiction to noise, words, and activity. And so in silence we withdraw from our own inner compulsions, not just the expectations of other people, but from our addiction to our own thoughts and words. And so we develop this rhythm of silence and word.

Bonheoffer says right words come out of right silence, and right silence comes out of right words—an interplay between silence and word. Scriptures also tell us that in a multitude of words, there is much transgression. What's the solution to that? To shut our mouths every so often, so that we can hear a word from the Lord. One of the reasons we don't hear a word from the Lord and yet long for one is that we never stop the flow of our own words. How in the world are we going to hear something from God if we're always talking?

A Soul in God's Presence

Silence challenges us on every level of our being. When we're silent, we have to face ourselves. We might notice our own discomfort and anxiety, and we don't want to do that. We feel if we can just fill up the time, we don't have to face our true selves.

The human psyche is very good at distracting us and finding ways to keep us from being aware of those things we'd rather not be aware of—our loneliness, our emptiness, relationships that aren't working, questions that make us uncomfortable. That's one reason why silence before God makes us uncomfortable—because we have to face what's real and what's not real between us and God. I have to face my questions, my loneliness, my brokenness. It's much easier for us to identify with our achievements, skills, personas, titles, and roles. That's a much more comfortable arena. And there's a lot of fodder for the ego in that arena. To feel that I can do something about this, that, or the other feeds my ego. Silence actually starves the ego, because the normal things that the ego loves to feed on aren't there anymore, and now we're just us—a soul in God's presence.

No Evaluations

We evaluate everything. We even bring it into our relationship with God, which is a travesty. We come into solitude and say, Okay, God, we're going to be together for this amount of time. I'm giving you my full, undivided attention. And whatever happens here I'm going to believe is what you intended because I'm not in control here; you are. And then we leave that time and evaluate it. We judge it and say, "I didn't get anything out of that."

Think about being with your spouse in a time of intimacy. Then you look back on it, evaluate it, and say, "That didn't do anything for me." How does that cheapen the relating? We don't do that with a person we love. We just receive the time for what it is and are grateful for it.

That's the way I see solitude and silence—a time to be with God very intimately, and whatever it is, we're grateful for it. It's meaningful because we are with this person that we enjoy and love.

Ruth Haley Barton is the author of Sacred Rhythms , Invitation to Silence and Solitude , and Longing for More . The article is adapted from a Kyria interview with Ginger Kolbaba.

Read more articles that highlight writing by Christian women at ChristianityToday.com/Women

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