Solitude is defined by the dictionary as the state of being alone. However, in Christian spirituality, we refer to the spiritual practice or discipline of solitude as being alone for the exclusive purpose of fellowship with God. We do not seek to be alone because we are uncomfortable being with people and wish to avoid them. Nor is the purpose “me time” – being alone to do my own thing, to have a time-out, whether it be a Netflix binge, a café visit, shopping, or being absorbed in a hobby or sport. The practice of solitude is about time alone with God, being alone and free from all distraction of people, amusement, things or tasks. “Go to your room and pray in secret”(Matt 6:6) was Jesus instruction on discipleship and prayer. To pray in secret is to pray alone. Room (Gk tamion) is a chamber, an inner room for one to retire, to have privacy. In effect Jesus was encouraging a practice of solitude and prayer.
Why Solitude Frees Us
When we are alone we feel free of the need to meet up to people’s expectations. We do not worry about having to impress people with our eloquence or our breadth of concerns for the world. We are able to be ourselves and express what is in our hearts of hearts: our deepest desires, the darkest secrets, the abysmal failures, our exalted hopes and dreams without fear of a confidentiality leak or condemnation or evaluation. Solitude means being alone with Someone who loves us like no other. It creates a sacred space for God to meet with us, and for us to be changed by our encounter with him.
In this state of aloneness with God there are no scaffoldings: no activities to keep us occupied, no people or smartphone to keep us engaged, no Netflix or YouTube to keep us entertained, no work to keep us numb towards feelings we have unknowingly suppressed. There is no one to get LIKES from, no one to impress so that they FOLLOW us. It is only the solitary soul and God.
When we give God such exclusive attention the meeting with him is bound to impart life, invite change, initiate action. We are available to reflect on and receive communications from God through the many way he messages us in our daily life, through the Bible, dreams, impressions and the stirring of our desires and imagination.
When we are alone with God we find ourselves inevitably facing ourselves. Often this may be uncomfortable as the Lord surfaces for us things in us that needs his cleansing, reforming, and purifying power. Suppressed fears, anger, resentment and other insights about our true selves are able to surface because the blocks that keep us from seeing or dealing with these have been removed by the practice of solitude.
WHAT DO WE DO
We wait in silence before God, resting in the knowledge that he looks on us in love, kindness and gentleness. We breathe slowly and deeply. We still our body and our inner selves and silence all the noises in our mind. We quiet ourselves and present ourselves to him, like saints of old, “Here am I, Lord, waiting before you in solitude and silence”.
We can then turn to a passage in the Bible and read it slowly and meditatively. Or reflect on the day or week that had past. Or tell him what the day was like as a friend to a friend. Or tell him how we feel right there and then.
To help us continually be aware of his presence and our purpose, we could light a candle. We could place a cross before us, or hold a cross, or have the Bible in our hands. We could even have an empty seat or additional mug to remind us we have Jesus with us. “If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me”(Rev 2:20).
We could start with an hour, and gradually increase it to longer periods of solitude and prayer, perhaps to a morning and later to a whole day with set times of 45 minutes to one hour of prayer with breaks in between. The day of solitude could then grow to two or three days in a retreat house with the help of a spiritual director to guide our prayer. This progression is not to be forced but the fruit of the grace of God at work in the soul that makes a soul hunger for more solitude, more time with God in prayer.