Essay / Culture

Solitude and Silence as Spiritual Disciplines (Part III)

Read Part I here, and Part II here.

One final method for practicing silence and solitude is what I call a ‘solitude retreat’.

(3) Once or twice a year, go alone on a solitude retreat from 9 am one day until 5 pm the next day. Go to a retreat center that has as one of its purposes the provision of a place for individual sojourners. Try to find a center that has gardens, fountains, statues and other forms of beautiful artwork. In my experience, Catholic retreat centers are usually ideal for solitude retreats. I recommend that you arrive at the center around 9 am so you will have a full morning ahead of you, yet you won’t have to get up so early that you will be tired your first day. By the way, if you need a nap on your retreat, by all means take one. For your retreat, take a Bible, notebook, and hymnal. A solitude retreat is not a time to catch up on reading. It is a time for quiet, reflection and worship. I also recommend that you take pictures of your loved ones and a picture of Jesus. By focusing on these pictures, your loved ones and the Lord Jesus can become steady objects of focus and love.

After checking in, stay in your room, get on your knees for around fifteen to thirty minutes, and dedicate the next thirty-two hours to God. When you kneel, be sure it is in a comfortable place. If you kneel at your bedside, open the Bible to a favorite passage, read it a few times and pray it to Jesus. Then get up and go for a long, slow, quiet walk. If possible, walk where there are beautiful sounds and sights, for example, near fountains, flowers, beautiful statues.

As you quiet down, most likely, anxious thoughts, worries about things you need to get done, tensions with work, family or responsibilities will surface. Don’t fight them. Like an ocean wave, if you fight against them, they will overwhelm you and you will become fixated on them. Just let them roll through your body, mind and emotions. Pray about your concerns and, after awhile, stop to look at a flower or to listen to a fountain. Or gaze at a statue of Jesus. Or let some pleasant thought, feeling, or memory run through your mind over and over again. While focusing on some beautiful object or some pleasant memory, let joy and thanksgiving for the object or memory well up within you. Begin to sing a song to God. Take a passage you have memorized and which you dearly love and pray it over and over to God. Use this as an occasion to pause and give thanks for specific aspects of your life from the wonderful taste of coffee to more important matters. As concerns spring up, talk again to Jesus about that. If you can’t get worries off your mind, we suggest that you schedule time later your first day, say, one hour before dinner, to do nothing but focus in prayer and meditation on your worries. That way, if a concern threatens to overwhelm you, you can tell yourself you will face it later.

After an hour or so, go back to your room and journal anything that comes to your mind and heart. Then get back on your knees and pray, read scripture, sing, or meditate again for thirty minutes. When finished, sit in a comfortable chair and begin reading a book of the Bible. I recommend that you make it your goal to read an entire gospel during you retreat, not necessarily at one setting. Read until you desire to stop, but be sure to pause repeatedly during your reading to pray, sing, or journal.

Move back and forth between 1) prayer and meditation on your knees; 2) sitting comfortably while journaling or reading scripture; 3) walking and pausing at beautiful sights. This will form the staple of your entire solitude retreat. At various times, go into the chapel, kneel and worship. During the solitude retreat, if it is not distracting, evaluate the last 12-18 months of your life and set some modest goals for the next six months. Be sure to include some habit changes. Make the goals reasonable. And don’t feel guilty if you get sleepy from time to time. Be sure to take naps if needed.

Remember, Jesus Himself frequently engaged in solitude and silence (Mark 1:35; Luke 4:42). As His students in the school of life, it only makes sense that we follow Him in these activities. For more on spiritual disciplines, see my book with Klaus Issler, The Lost Virtue of Happiness (Colorado Springs, Colorado: NavPress, 2006).

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