In the life of a Christian, we often hear sermons on the spiritual disciplines of the rhythms we need to practice—prayer, worship, Scripture, mission, and community. But the process of contemplation is unique. It requires us to lay down our desperate need for a life filled with busyness.
Unfortunately, humans often attribute value to our lives with the number of things we fill it with. The more hours in our calendar we can fill with activities, even good and much-needed activities, the more fulfilled we feel. When our days are busy and our hours are occupied, there is a perverse sense of fulfillment; when exhaustion hits, we feel a sense of exhilarated accomplishment.
I am guilty of such busyness, and while I have in the past prided myself on having a calendar filled with activities, I have also realized that we humans build our lives around our preferences. We pick and choose to do the things we like, and while that is human nature, I realized I also needed to dig deeper into myself to discover my soul’s desires. I lived in comfortable oblivion and needed to find what made me uncomfortable to grow spiritually.
The Definition of Contemplation
Contemplation can be defined as the action of looking thoughtfully at something for a long time or to be in deep reflective thought.
In the Christian interpretation, contemplation means concentrating on spiritual things during private devotion. A manner where we slow down, honing in on a nugget of Scripture, and take the time to meditate on it.
But how do we find the deeper desires of our soul if we never sit still? How do we be still? In Psalm 46:10, God tells us to be still, but finding that inner calm, practicing being comfortable in solitude, and being contemplative is hard.
It is easy for us to constantly pull away from our innermost selves and look for wisdom and answers from outside sources. Those sources might be reliable and good, but why do we avoid looking into our own innermost being for wisdom? The quick answer is that we’re afraid of what we’ll find there. But if we will take the time, we can find what we’re looking for deep inside: The presence of God.
When we embrace solitude, we allow ourselves to also embrace contemplative silence. In today’s world, contemplative silence is hard to find, and we need to be ruthless, dial down the world’s noise, and be willing to die to ourselves and our plans.
When we think of solitude, we often think of withdrawing from the world around us, retreating from our surroundings, and escaping the constant noise surrounding us. The desert fathers of the 4th and 5th centuries often retreated to the wilderness to find a place without distractions where they could focus on the presence of God.
It is not as much about escaping the world’s distractions as it is about escaping the noise from within us. All too often, our heart and minds’ constant noise and distractions prevent us from embracing solitude.
How Solitude Builds Connection with Others
In his book Reaching Out: The Three Movements of the Spiritual Life, Henri Nouwen writes about Trappist monk Thomas Merton’s experiences with solitude. Merton wrote in his diary, “It is in deep solitude that I find the gentleness with which I can truly love my brothers; the more solitary I am, the more affection I have for them. It is pure affection and filled with reverence for the solitude of others.” (Henri Nouwen, Reaching Out, The Three movements of the Spiritual Life, p. 42.)
Merton clearly saw that solitude did not separate him from his contemporaries but brought him into a deep communion with them.
Merton found that not only did his affection for others grow in his times of solitude, but also his heart grew rich for community.
What mattered for him was not physical solitude but the solitude of the heart, without which intimacy or friendship, marriage, and community life could not be cultivated well.
When we always seek others to fulfill our needs, when our hearts and minds are never quieted, our relationships become needy and greedy. We never take the time to listen to our hearts or express our hidden needs to ourselves. We live in a world clamoring for our attention and filled with stimulation, and we rarely take the time to listen to our heart, let alone to God’s voice, during times of solitude.
We don’t have to look too far for examples of those who practiced the discipline of solitude and the contemplative life. Our Lord Jesus continually spent time away from his disciples and the others who surrounded him to get away to be with his Father.
He was not lonely, but he did make time to be alone. We often confuse loneliness and solitude, but Jesus calls us from loneliness to solitude.
Fear of Being Alone
Today, we are afraid of being alone with ourselves and our thoughts. Our minds race constantly; we are bombarded by content, podcasts, TV shows, Instagram and TikTok reels, the constant FOMO, and even the most artistic presentation of Scripture and Bible truths coming at us through Facebook from our favorite Bible teacher!
We dare not stay silent. We carry our phones to every room of the house, even in those rare moments when our homes are quiet. Somedays, we cannot remember what silence sounds like.
In his book Celebration of Discipline, Richard Foster says, “Solitude is more a state of mind and heart that it is a place. There is a solitude of the heart that can be maintained at all times. It is quite possible to be a desert hermit and never experience solitude, but if we possess inward solitude, we need not fear being alone. Inward solitude has outward manifestations. There is a freedom to be alone, not to be away from people, but to hear the divine Whisperer better.” (Richard Foster, Celebration of Discipline: The Path to Spiritual Growth, page 96-97)
Jesus lived in inward heart solitude. The Scriptures are filled with examples of the number of times he went away to be silent, to be in silence, to listen for the voice of his Father.
When Jesus spent 40 days alone in the desert ( Matthew 4:1-11) before beginning his ministry. Before he chose the 12 disciples, he spent an entire night alone (Luke 6:12). After the miraculous feeding of the 5000 ( Matthew 14:23), Jesus went away by himself to the hills. And of course, in the Garden of Gethsemane as he prepared himself for his greatest work ( Matthew 26:36-46).
There are so many more instances where Christ practiced the discipline of solitude. He did not avoid being with people but always had compassion for the masses that followed him. But instead, he practiced inward solitude by constantly being with his Father.
We cannot practice solitude without contemplative silence. We can still hear the noises in our world, but we must also tune our hearts to God. We need to listen to his voice.
What Changes in Solitude and Silence
Something intrinsic changes in us when we practice silence and solitude. We can see and hear better when we can control our tongues. In James 3:1-12, we read about the person who can control his tongue, and that person is perfect. When we can discipline ourselves into silence and solitude, we know when to speak and when to refrain. In chapter 3:7, the author of Ecclesiastes tells us, “There is a time to keep silent and a time to speak.” We learn control when we practice the discipline of solitude, and when we finally speak, we speak aptly.
Today, there is respect and admiration for those who speak up, speak boldly, and speak their mind. We admire them and want to be like them. If we don’t speak up, we risk being invisible and relegated to the background as unwanted. To be seen is what human nature longs for. All the self-help books and training material the world sends our way are about making ourselves seen! But that is in direct contrast to what Christ shows us. He made himself humble, not speaking back or using his words, but we see his power in the silent humbling of his spirit.
When we are silent, we feel helpless. Our words have power. When we use words, we are in control and control others. But if we stay silent, who has the power? Who has the control? Humans are desperate for control and forget that God is always in control. Being willing to walk into solitude and contemplative silence requires us to trust and surrender. When we can surrender and immerse ourselves in the silence of God, we will finally be able to hear the deepest longings and even cravings of our hearts.
The world around us will always be noisy. We are called to live in this world but not be of this world. The luxury of getting away to a retreat, a monastery, or even nature might not always be available to us. We might be in seasons where circumstances may not always afford us to escape, but we can practice contemplative silence and solitude right where we are. We can turn off the radio while driving home from work or taking a walk on our street without headphones and music. We could turn off all music and podcasts at home while we work or for a few moments of quiet before bed. We can be creative in finding moments when we still our hearts and minds and seek inner solitude.
The solitude of the heart and the discipline of contemplation are within our reach; they needn’t overwhelm us. Because once we have tasted solitude and heard the divine Whisperer better and clearer than we ever have, we will discover the ties that bind us to this world, loosening and growing in an ever-deeper attachment to our Heavenly Father. We will deeply feel and embrace his presence as we immerse ourselves in his solitude.