When the moms in our book club read and discussed Where the Crawdads Sing*, I had to laugh because we envied the main character instead of pitied her.
In the story (don’t worry: no spoilers), Kya survives alone in the marshes of North Carolina. Her contact with people is limited and her only friends are the birds who share her home. We all understand that the human soul is made for connection, and this solitude takes its toll on Kya. But the moms in our group confessed that there was something about this situation that seemed ideal: no one else making demands on your time, no noise and chaos of a busy household, no little ones begging for your attention and your touch every minute of the day. “Think about all that alone time!” we said with a sigh.
But solitude involves a deliberate choice. When you are disengaged from others—and NOT by choice—that’s when it can feel lonely.
Solitude is a spiritual practice
Solitude is another spiritual practice that can help us grow closer to God. It’s what we need in order to quiet our souls and our minds long enough to hear His gentle whisper. Jesus often retreated to a solitary place to pray (see Mark 1:35 and Luke 6:12). He invited his disciples into solitude to rest (Mark 6:31-32). In the Old Testament, both Elijah and Moses retreated into solitude to hear from God.
Practicing solitude involves disengaging from others in order to narrow our focus on God. Oftentimes as an introvert, I want solitude to recharge and replenish, and my purpose isn’t necessarily to grow spiritually.
When the pandemic first hit, both of my boys had been in school all day for the first time. And suddenly—when they weren’t— I found that I was losing sleep. Eventually I realized that because they were now home all day every day, I was staying up later and later, and waking up earlier and earlier in order to get some quiet space alone. As an introvert, I needed this solitude to recharge. And as a Christian, I needed this solitude to connect with God.
Richard J. Foster says in his book Celebration of Discipline: “The purpose of silence and solitude is to be able to see and hear.”
If seeing and hearing from God is the goal of solitude, then I must be willing to ignore distractions. In pursuit of solitude, I started taking solo walks around our neighborhood. It was difficult to keep my earbuds at home and resist the temptation to listen to a podcast. Those friendly voices are a companion in my ear when I’m trying to make space for solitude. Instead, I turned my attention to the flowering bushes along the sidewalk, the seagulls squawking overhead, the rhythm of my breath.
Honestly? It was a little boring. And sometimes off-putting. And I wondered if maybe I would have been better off running an errand.
The barriers in our way
There are obstacles that prevent us from engaging in solitude, and not just the obvious one facing moms stuck at home with young children.
In our world of constant entertainment, it can feel boring to have little to no stimulation. Being quietly by yourself is a hard sell. It doesn’t sound very exciting or even interesting. We grow restless. We fidget. Maybe we think about all the things we should be doing instead of engaging in solitude.
- Fear of facing ourselves
When we are able to be alone without competing distractions or trying to perform for others, we are faced with ourselves: all of our longings, desires, disappointments, and doubts. We remove any crutch we’ve been using to hide from ourselves. I love how Henri Nouwen puts it in his book The Way of the Heart:
“In solitude I get rid of my scaffolding: no friends to talk with, no telephone calls to make, no meetings to attend, no music to entertain, no books to distract, just me—naked, vulnerable, weak, sinful, deprived, broken—nothing. It is this nothingness that I have to face in my solitude, a nothingness so dreadful that everything in me wants to run to my friends, my work, and my distractions so that I can forget my nothingness and make myself believe that I am worth something.”
This obstacle is rooted in a misconception: we think we need days and days cloistered in a monastery in order to engage in solitude. But instead of thinking in terms of days (or even hours) we can think in terms of how we plan our time. When we want to be intentional about seeing and hearing from God, we can set aside small chunks of time in which to practice solitude.
The benefits of solitude
As I got into the habit of my solo walks—and more disciplined about leaving my phone at home—solitude came more easily. Sometimes I prayed, sometimes I engaged in self-reflection, but mostly I let my thoughts come as they were. At times, I could sense the presence of God with each footstep. Other times, I thought I could hear His voice. Always I came back home ready to face my family with more energy and love.
Richard J. Foster notes: “The fruit of solitude is increased sensitivity and compassion for others. There comes a new freedom to be with people. There is new attentiveness to their needs, new responsiveness to their hearts.”
In addition, solitude provides us with a chance to find clarity in our decision-making, to freely be ourselves apart from our relationships to others, to listen to God’s voice, and to retreat from the demands of our everyday lives in order to replenish our strength.
And solitude is great for multi-tasking! You can use solitude to journal, pray, meditate or self-reflect.
How you can engage in solitude
- Each of us can cultivate a spiritual practice of solitude, even when we don’t have a cabin in the woods to hide in.
- If you are surrounded by very young children, think in terms of 1-5 minute retreats. Find a small contained space (on the floor of your closet, in your car, in your laundry room) and bring your words to God in the form of a prayer or a pen and notebook (or just invite Him to speak to you as you sit quietly!)
- Take a solo walk and keep your earbuds at home.
- Try working out without any podcasts or music in your ear.
- Take a few deep breaths and recenter your focus on God.
- Wake up a few minutes earlier, or stay up a few minutes later.
The important part of this practice is not the outcome, but the habit. Hold these times of solitude loosely, not thinking in terms of success or failure, but rather as cultivating a habit of showing up—fully yourself and only yourself. God will meet you there.
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