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“And let us be wise, so that we do not wed another’s madness and then make them in debt to us for the deep gash their helpless, raging lance will cause.” This statement by Francis of Assisi is a motive that draws me to silence and solitude. When I am surrounded by noise and commotion, I am tossed to and fro by the fast pace of life. I seem to lose the ability to listen to God and find that I am unable to maintain a constant sense of God’s presence.
My desire is strong, but I become distracted by the ambitions and anxiety that seek to lead me. This to me is how silence and solitude is a blessing. In the twenty years that I have been taking silent retreats, I have without exception been able to return to my center, Christ, during my focused time with Him.
It is thus with a deep sense of joy that I invite you to the Breathe Retreat. For the past five or six years, Patrick Chappell and I have led the Breathe Retreat. It is a time to let go of our everyday lives and focus on our relationship with God. About 12-15 Otter Creekers with a few non-OCers in the bunch. We gather first in a home on Friday night and then meet at the Pavilion for morning prayers and to head out to Sewanee. This is a life-changing retreat—not because of what Patrick and I do, but due to the opportunity to pull away and rest in God’s embrace.
In this writing, I have paired the practices of silence and solitude. We are, of course, in solitude with God in order to be open to what it is God would have us be. If I have noise (external and/or internal), I will not be able to be entirely attentive to God’s message. I need both silence and time alone with God to reap the full benefit. This practice has played a significant role in my life. The retreat will allow you to learn and experience it. Whether you are new to this discipline or a seasoned veteran, I trust that the time with God will bless you. God knows best what it is we need. Our role is to be open to God’s shaping.
The primary impetus for this discipline is Jesus. We as Christians imitate his practices, but often overlook the inclusion of silence and solitude that was a mainstay in his three years of ministry. The gospels are filled with illustrations of Jesus spending time alone with God. In the gospel of Mark, Jesus spends time with God at the start of the day. “Very early in the morning, while it was still dark, Jesus got up, left the house and went off to a solitary place, where he prayed.” He had spent a long day in ministry the day before, but rather than resting as long as he could, he goes to a solitary place. Luke tells us that “One of those days Jesus went out to a mountainside to pray, and spent the night praying to God.” The next day he was choosing his twelve close companions and needed this time alone with his father to make this important decision. Luke reiterates after many examples that “Jesus often went to a lonely place to pray.”
Another example by the Apostle, Matthew, speaks of a day in the life of Jesus in chapter 14. John the Baptist was beheaded and his disciples came and told Jesus. In verse 13, Matthew states, “When Jesus heard what had happened, he withdrew by boat privately to a solitary place. “ This was a terrible blow to Jesus. He lost his cousin, his forerunner, and the man who baptized him. John was probably the only living person who had a firm grasp on who Jesus was and what he was about. What a terrible loss! Unfortunately, he didn’t have time to grieve--the busy day overtook him. Jesus was not able to get to a solitary place. He had compassion on the people and spent the day healing and teaching. When evening came, he told his disciples to feed the crowds. I’m certain it took a while to feed 5000 plus and clean it up. But then finally, finally, Jesus has his chance. “Immediately Jesus made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead of him to the other side, while he dismissed the crowd. After he had dismissed them, he went up on a mountainside by himself to pray. Later that night, he was there alone,” The inclination of Jesus was to go to a solitary place to be with his father. This was where he was sustained, made important decisions, and gained comfort when he was troubled.
We are given a glimpse of a beautiful relationship in the portrayal of this day in the life of Jesus. This was not an obligation or a check on the list of godly activities. We see Jesus making repeated attempts to be alone with his father. God was his go-to person. I’m sure others would have been sympathetic—perhaps John, the disciple, or his mother. But, it is ludicrous to think they would substitute for the living God!
This relationship illustrates two assumptions that undergird the practice of silence and solitude. First, that I recognize that God is alive. I cannot take a deist approach and believe that God set the world in motion and then left us to our own devices. If that is the case, God is not available to commune with me. It is a sad reality that I often live this way. I act as if I must bear the burden of my life or the world all alone. How unfortunate! The truth is that God is living and active and present each moment of my day. God knows me more intimately than I know myself and has invited me to be in constant communion with him. Unbelievable!
The second assumption is that I really want to be with God. I examine the way I feel about God. If there is any hesitation or fear that hinders me from being in relationship with God, I will not be successful in spending time with God. I first need to heal that image. God loves us without condition, but we are often taught that he is more focused on our sin than on how he loves us. One exercise to heal this image is the following: Read Mark 10:13-16—the time that Jesus blessed the children. Close your eyes and imagine yourself as a child crawling up into the lap of Jesus or sitting next to him. Use all your senses in this image. See him look at you with a smile and put his arms around you and hug you. Stay with this image for a few minutes. Place yourself in this image as you drop off to sleep each night. Allow your last thought to be of Jesus holding you and smiling at you.
With these assumptions as a foundation, we also recognize that we are dealing with the God of the universe. It is no small thing to be in the presence of the living God. This may seem in contrast to the previous paragraph, but that is not the intent. I remember that God is God. I am not worthy of God’s attention, nor do I have the right to be in relationship with him. However, God has chosen to love me and I stand in awe of this precious gift!
One of the benefits of being in silence and solitude is that I have the luxury to look at myself with God’s help and work through my struggles. When I am in the middle of my busy routine, I am able to distract myself from looking too closely. It is when I slow down that these things come to the surface. The pattern is a familiar one to me. When I go on a silent retreat, I take the time to let go of my life and then as I settle in to the silence, these behaviors or habits begin to come to the surface. It feels like a wire-brush scrubbing. It feels good like a cleansing, yet is painful at the same time. I sense God’s gentle chiding; yet it is always that—gentle. God invites me to let go of those things and together we move forward. Sometimes it takes a while as I wrestle with whether I want to accept the invitation. When I do accept it, I have a tremendous sense of freedom. I do not realize the bondage until I let it go.
Thus, you will find that if you truly give yourself to being with God in this silence and solitude, it will not necessarily be easy. When I return from my annual eight-day retreat, people ask me if I enjoyed my vacation. They are surprised to hear me say that it is the most wonderful and difficult work I do all year. God digs deep into my soul, yet there is nothing better! It is impossible to carve this time out each year, but I am absolutely committed to it. I will not do without it. It has become so important to me.
Dr. Jackie Halstead has been experiencing silence and solitude and leading silent retreats for the past twenty years. She is the Executive Director of Selah.