I didn’t want to write this article. My inner world is too noisy. I depend on my distractions too much. How could I write about silence and solitude when I know so little about either? Then the Spirit spoke: “Spend a day with us, alone and quiet, and journal what happens. Let that be your article.”
So that’s what I’ve done. I’ve written what follows, in journal style, to myself. But you’re welcome to listen in.
It’s now 8:15, Saturday morning, June 30, 2007. I’m sitting at the desk in room 419 of the San Diego Marriott Mission Valley Hotel, a day and a half into my first-ever C. S. Lewis Institute conference.
I returned to my room yesterday afternoon by 5:00 after listening to five thoughtful, provocative presentations Thursday evening and all day Friday, exhausted, stirred, my mind swimming in deep waters and my heart drinking in huge gulps of the life-giving liquid. My soul was full, but my stomach empty. So I had dinner, then returned to my room and read 30 daily readings from Walter Hooper’s The Blessings of Heaven, a well-selected anthology of 365 excerpts from the pen of Lewis. Without clearly deciding to, I skipped the evening session and fell fast asleep by 8:30.
I awoke at 5:30 with no need for the alarm, and lay in bed about 15 minutes, long enough to hear the Spirit (I sincerely believe it was him) suggest the idea to my mind of skipping all today’s meetings and spending the whole day in silence and solitude. The quiet suggestion felt like a gentle command that I could freely and delightedly obey. So I decided to do what I was told, with regret for missing more provocative teaching, but with curiosity about what the Spirit had in mind.
By 6:30, I had been writing for perhaps 40 minutes, putting on paper whatever I was aware of within myself. The time ahead felt like an adventure into unfamiliar terrain. I’ve never before done what I’m setting out to do today. I’ve spent days with the Lord and many parts of days, but never with the Spirit-directed plan to journal whatever develops as I sit still in God’s presence for one entire day, and to journal throughout the day as whatever happens unfolds. I felt a little nervous. Will anything happen? Will I recognize whatever the Spirit is doing if it’s different from what I’m wanting? The choice is clear: obey or disobey. Jump in the water or turn on the TV. Obeying seems exhilarating, though in a quiet, dangerous sort of way.
Time to begin; the clock announced 6:47. Resolutions came first. Whether I’d fast after breakfast, I wasn’t sure. Right then, a decision to skip lunch and dinner seemed manipulative, technique-y, something like my effort to get it right so God shows up and cooperates with my hopes. I decided to not turn on the television. The fact that Tiger Woods is not competing in the Buick Open this weekend and that Wimbledon finals (hopefully a Federer-Nadal rematch) are next weekend makes the decision easier. I was off to a slow start. Oh, well.
It’s now 8:15. I’m showered, dressed, and breakfasted, and I’ve read 6 chapters in Daniel. No newspaper was another decision. Funny. My mind is fixed on the oatmeal, skim milk, and fruit I just ate. I can discern a hint of pride. I would have preferred bacon and eggs. But no, I want to deny myself to make room for God, so I ate what was good for me, not what I wanted. Is the day starting? Will a day of silence and solitude slide into nitpicking obsessiveness about subtle imperfections? Lewis warned against that. But Calvin taught that we need to see our inner selves in all their ugliness in order to see God in all his beauty. But didn’t he say it works the other way round too? It would be a nice switch, at least for me, to see beauty first and then selfishness. I guess that’s not my call to make.
I’ve been sitting quietly, wondering how to proceed. Do I just sit? Comfortably? Uncomfortably? I find myself reflecting on the Spirit’s selection of this day. Why now? It all seems rather planned. Silly thought. Of course it is.
My mind drifts to a meeting with my ministry team several months ago. We all agreed I was running nearly on empty and was in critical need of refueling, soon and regularly. Plans were made. I felt hopeful and grateful for my family and colleagues. A month later, I felt freely compelled to open myself to an audience with a level of authenticity I had never before reached. To 300 people at a spiritual formation conference, I disclosed five recently identified struggles in my life. One, I was living on borrowed convictions, resolutely reading spiritual giants, hoping their passionate beliefs would ignite the dying embers of mine. Two, I was deliberately too busy, working to avoid feelings of emptiness, to numb the ache of a dry soul. Three, I was defining myself by a reactive identity, depending on (and quietly demanding) affirmation in order to see myself as having something worthwhile to say. Four, my relational interactions were too often energized by contrived compassion, by a choice to care that wasn’t backed up by any felt passion to care. And five, I felt myself in a precarious place, terrified of easily threatened self-sufficiency. The lack of nearness to God left me on my own and worried that my resources would be exposed as pathetically inadequate. I didn’t see that possibility as an inevitable mercy.
Looking back on it now, as I sit in room 419, I think I was facing, as one theologian whose name I forget put it, “the shock of possible non-being.” That terror is awakening new levels of desire for God and new levels of repentance for turning to other sources for the experience of being, for a legitimate sense of personhood.
A trickle of excitement is dripping into me: Maybe the Spirit is responding to my renewed appetite to know the Father, to be more like Jesus. I was stirred yesterday and the evening before in ways, perhaps, that only rich community can provide. But I sense—could it be?—that I’m being invited now to meet my Father in ways that can only (or at least can best) happen in silence and solitude.
Immediately, the fear of disappointment looms. I disguise it as cynicism. It shows itself in jadedness, indifference, lethargy. I feel like taking a nap, like sulking in comfort. Larry, shake yourself. Remember what you believe. I do believe in a self-communicating God, who will stop at nothing to give me himself. He just seems to go the long way around. I must surrender my expectations, all of them, of what it would feel like for him to reveal himself. I must give up my timetable and follow his. And that, if history proves anything, means waiting.
The digital clock by the bed tells me it’s 9:38. I’ve done nothing so far but think and write. My current Bible time has been given to Daniel. I’ve brought with me a wonderful little commentary whose author seems more concerned to hear God speak to his soul than to help him figure out dates. I want to read and just think for a while.
The time flew. It’s now nearly 11:00. I’m getting the idea that I’m to think about how to live near God in a world that’s far from him. Daniel’s resolve not to defile himself with the king’s food hit a chord. The other commentary I bought, the one that seems more intent on pushing one eschatological view than drawing me nearer God, thinks Daniel was refusing to eat food already dedicated to idols. Perhaps. But I wonder if Daniel felt the need to draw the line somewhere, and God’s written concern never to profane sacredness made Daniel choose the matter of food as a way of expressing a heart that belonged to Jerusalem, not Babylon.
Where have I drawn a line? Have I become insensitive to subtle ways in which I let myself be squeezed into the world’s mold? I bought two new shirts last week. Why? I already have plenty. Am I obsessively nitpicking again? Or is the Spirit leading me closer?
I was struck, too, when Daniel said to Nebuchadnezzar, “As you were lying there, O king, your mind turned to things to come…” I never stopped there before. Nebuchadnezzar was worried, the way I sometimes fret over what may lie ahead. Reinhold Niebuhr called it a “darkly conscious reality of the insecurity of his existence.” I guess it all depends on my goal. If my goal is a blessing-filled life till I die, a life protected from the big, awful things, then living for that goal, depending on it for my soul’s well-being, will make me nervous.
Niebuhr went on to say, “Man is tempted by the basic insecurity of human existence to make himself doubly secure.” That’s exactly what Nebuchadnezzar did. After hearing that the statue with the gold head in his dream (which was him) would collapse, he builds a whole statue of gold, a real one, and requires everyone to bow before it. That’s when Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego got in trouble. Am I doing the same thing? Have I built a gold statue—my plans, my dreams, my hopes—and required others to cooperate? And if they don’t, into the fiery furnace with them? Is that my attitude? Whom have I written off? I think I’m more like the proud king then the three faithful Jews.
I thought, too, of how God kept after the great king until he fully repented of self-sufficiency, until he gave up self-protection as a way of life. God loved that man, a pagan king. Does he love Iran’s president? The leader of North Korea? The politicians in our country whom I disdain? The former friends I’ve fallen out with, the ones I’m waiting on to repent?
He treated Nebuchadnezzar severely—seven years of living like an animal—but it was all to fulfill God’s loving purpose. How did Irenaeus put it? “The glory of God is a human being fully alive.” God, do what needs to be done to make me fully alive, so I can be an ingredient in the divine happiness. In this moment, I feel that prayer.
It’s coming up on noon. When I’m thinking about all these thoughts from Scripture, I’m stirred, alive, excited. But within minutes, seconds, of putting down my Bible and pen, the passion dissipates, and I’m back to mundane emotions. I wish I had an Isaiah 6 experience or a burning bush revelation. Isaiah and Moses charted a direction for their whole lives based on those epiphanies. But I’m still in room 419, feeling very ordinary. I take some comfort from Peter, who saw the Lord transfigured and soon after denied him.
Maybe the goal is not to feel differently, but simply to ask, What can I do right now that would bring pleasure to God? That feels like a shift from demand to surrender, from narcissism to worship.
It’s now 12:03. I want to pray.
Twenty minutes have passed. Almost 12:30. I’ve been on my knees, believing God enjoys seeing me there. I’ve been slowly praying and thinking about Lewis’ “festooned” version of the Lord’s Prayer. The words were in my conference packet. It goes like this:
I join with all the angels and the saints in hallowing Thy name.
May Thy Kingdom,
there in obedient nature,
there in the lives of the most obedient humans,
and there in heaven,
May Thy will be endured, obeyed, and celebrated;
May it be done, by me, now;
I humbly submit to all future afflictions,
And I open myself to receive all future blessings.
Give us all we need today.
Help us to go on forgiving and confessing;
and help us to ignore an uneasy conscience
or uneasy feelings
which may either vaguely accuse or vaguely approve,
and to go about our business.
Make straight our paths;
and spare us, where possible, from all crises,
whether of temptation or affliction;
and even from our previous prayers
if we have asked anything
which would be for us a snare or sorrow.
For thine is the sovereign goodness which claims
thine is the sovereign power;
thine is the beauty so old and so new,
and thine is the light from behind the sun.
I prayed the words again just now as I wrote them. Almost 12:30 now is 12:30. I’m off my knees, back on the chair by the desk in room 419. No visions. No overwhelming joy. No deep sense of bringing God pleasure. Maybe some awareness that I’m on a good path, but nothing more.
George MacDonald was right: “…The better the gift we pray for, the more time is necessary for its arrival.” I want expensive gifts. I’m already saved. That gift’s all paid for. But now I want to be so immersed in the rhythm of Trinitarian life that I feel no pressure to “pull it off” when I teach or write or counsel, that I am, rather, consumed by a fiery, relaxed yearning to represent the kingdom well for the pleasure of the Father.
That’s the gift I want. Apparently its arrival will take more than the several weeks it took God’s angel to reach Daniel with the gift he prayed for.
Time for a nap. I’m tired.
Five minutes later, I just had to get up and write this: two noisy kids have been happily (for them) playing in the hallway. I felt annoyed, put upon, interrupted by their noise. I don’t think Paul would include this intrusion into my comfort under “momentary afflictions,” those severe but somehow still light and passing trials that the hope of glory empowers us to endure. And yet it still required teeth-clenching restraint not to yank my door open, scold those ill-mannered pests, and, to make my point, slam the door shut again. I guess my goal of a spiritually formed soul is still a long way off.
As I’m writing this, I just noticed the kids are gone. The thought crosses my mind: God just honored my self-restraint. I am so superstitious, so manipulative, so obsessive, so possessed by the spirit of entitlement. While I’m beating myself up, it just occurred to me—I picture God patiently smiling. Back to bed, in welcome silence.
I just woke up. It’s 1:20, a short nap. But I feel refreshed. What next? Exercise!
That was a good decision. It’s now 2:30. I returned to my room a few minutes ago after a pretty good workout in the hotel’s fitness center. For 40 minutes on the treadmill, I read as much as I could (not hurriedly) in my favorite commentary on Daniel. Good thoughts flowed into my mind as I treadmilled, so that I now want to “lectio.”
I’m a bit leery of two things: one, “lectio-ing” unstudied passages of Scripture. Unboundaried imagination too easily produces eisogesis. It runs the risk of perverting the Bible into a Rorschach inkblot or, worse, into a Ouija board. Two, emptying one’s mind as part of the discipline of silence. I certainly don’t want to give the Spirit a map I charted for him to follow, but neither do I see value in stepping off foundational convictions and then listening with a blank-slate mind that believes nothing and with a lost heart willing to go in any direction. When my mind is thinking over something I’ve seen in Scripture, and my heart is stirred in a direction determined by that thought, then I seem to approach silence neither mindlessly nor aimlessly, thus minimizing the risk of “hearing” God say something he may not be saying at all, but providing greater confidence that I’ll see the next step on the narrow road and get excited about its destination.
An hour (almost) of simply sitting in God’s presence, letting Daniel launch my spirit in whatever direction had energy, has left me with quiet hope. I think it has to do with realizing that no Jew in Daniel’s day anticipated that Jerusalem would be destroyed, the temple torn down, and David’s throne left empty. I can see how, naturally, I expect God to conform to my expectations, to my “wisdom” about what my journey toward maturity should look like. In nearly 10 hours so far of silence and solitude, one epiphany would not be an unreasonable request. Instead, I have a headache, and I feel an almost irresistible urge to see if I can find an episode of Law and Order to watch.
The good thing is the unfamiliar sense that the Father is enjoying my struggle, not sadistically, but the same way I enjoy watching my grandkids struggle to eat their vegetables. What’s even better is the dim awareness that what looks like broccoli to me is really apple pie. That awareness helps to keep my hand from reaching for the TV remote and instead keep my pen in writing position. I’m feeling quiet hope that what I’ve believed is really true, that God is up to something good, whether I experience his presence or his absence.
It’s now pushing 4:00. My mind drifts, as if being pulled by a threadlike rope, toward a sermon I heard a few weeks ago. The Lord’s point in the parable of the good Samaritan is not, the pastor suggested, that we should go looking for poor people in the ditch that we can pull out, but rather that we, all of us, are the ones in the ditch. We are in desperate need of rescue by the only Good Samaritan who can lift us to solid ground. I recall that morning jotting in the church bulletin the words “ditch of deceit.” I’ve not fallen into the ditch of adultery or pornography or integrity-compromising materialism, but I’m lying in an even deeper ditch.
Like everyone else (I wonder why I said that), I deny the truth Lewis expressed so well: that if we discover within us a desire that nothing in this world can satisfy, it’s time to consider the possibility that we were made for another world. I don’t disagree with that; I believe it. But I don’t always enjoy feeling that desire. Doing so leaves me out of control, cornered into dependence. It leaves me empty, stabilized only by hope that one day my desire will be fully satisfied. So I let myself feel only those desires for which I can arrange satisfaction now. I’m lying face down in the ditch of denied desire. I need to look up and see the Good Samaritan’s face looking tenderly at me.
And even as I wriggle in the mud at the bottom of the ditch, I feel both entitled and victimized; entitled to a lounge chair on the beach and victimized by circumstances that keep me in the mud. The ditch of deceit, I’m now realizing with fresh force, involves not only denial of desire, but also denial of guilt. I know I sin, but surely not so wickedly that I deserve such consistent inner torment and occasional outer affliction. I just had an allergy-triggered sneezing jag. Now my nose is dripping and a sinus headache is coming on. I don’t deserve this. I’m reminded of Luther, secluded in a castle for several weeks to write a commentary on Galatians, saying something like, “My friends think I’m breathing in the pure air of a spiritual mountain top. Instead I’m struggling with gout and stomach cramps.” I went Luther one better. Like him, I don’t like feeling crummy while I look for God in his Word. But I so easily deny that I deserve nothing more. The light from my Good Samaritan’s face is exposing not just my guilt but, more significantly, my denial of guilt. This ditch is deep.
But his light is exposing more than my denial of desire and guilt. A thought is emerging from the shadows. It isn’t simply satisfaction I want; it’s him. George Orwell’s hero in 1984 had it all wrong. Before having sex, he asked the woman, “You like doing this? I don’t mean simply me; I mean the thing in itself.” He wouldn’t continue until she reassured him, “I adore it.” Orwell’s pathetic hero was after satisfaction without relationship, pleasure without intimacy. He was aware only of a desire that an orgasm would satisfy, and he was unaware of the sheer awfulness of using a fellow image-bearer to provide that satisfaction. The man was in the ditch.
Lewis’ comment (that I just read this morning) comes to mind: “We use a most unfortunate idiom when we say, of a lustful man prowling the streets, that he ‘wants a woman.’ Strictly speaking, a woman is just what he does not want. He wants a pleasure for which a woman happens to be the necessary piece of apparatus. How much he cares about the woman may be gauged by his attitude to her five minutes after fruition.” Then Lewis seals the point: “One does not keep the carton after one has smoked the cigarettes.”
Denial is lifting. I’m still in the ditch, but now I’ve somehow been turned onto my back, looking up. Desire is awakening. I want Christ. A stronger power is shoving pride out of the center. I don’t feel entitled to “get” him, nor do I think I deserve the satisfaction that “getting” him brings with it. I feel like a man who, after 20 affairs, realizes his wife still wants him. Or like the prodigal son whose dad ran out to welcome him home. Right now I think I could resist any pleasure that would take me away from Christ. Am I experiencing an epiphany of grace? I know the experience itself won’t last. But I can hope that something solid is forming in my soul that will survive the inevitable fading of passion.
A phrase I heard yesterday at the Lewis conference comes to mind: Sing yourself to where the singing comes from. I’m discovering that no noise is more emphatic than the noise I’m trying not to listen to. The cacophony blaring in my ears, even now, that I wish I could block out, is the hideously off-key dirge with endless verses about where I fail, where I’m weak, where I’m discouraged, where I lack, where I’m not changing, where I don’t fit in, where I demand to be noticed, where I hold grudges, where I love poorly. And the chorus after each verse is the same. It’s an accusation: the love you desire is an illusion, a mirage in the desert of your ugliness.
I recently read again what I first read a decade ago, that Alexander Whyte, the severe Scottish preacher, once told his congregation, “As long as I stand behind this pulpit, you will never escape Romans 7.” Apparently, he thought it was a good thing to listen to the noise I would prefer not to hear, and not just listen to it, but listen to nothing else. That seems to me a mistake, one I’ve leaned toward too often. The music of conviction that comes from the Spirit is crushing, yes, but it crushes false hope to revive hope that is true. Satan’s noise accuses. The Spirit’s music, though it begins in a minor key, invites; it invites me to sing myself to where the singing comes from.
It’s coming up now on 7:30. I’m hungry. Maybe I should fast from food and feast on the nourishment my soul is enjoying right now. The word should is my tip-off. Yielding to shoulds that compete with holy desire is legalism; it creates pressure and pride. And on the other side, yielding to desires on the naïve assumption that the new covenant has eliminated all wrong desire is dangerous. But pleasures of any sort not explicitly forbidden that can be enjoyed in the conscious presence of God are holy and good, and should, in the best sense of that word, be enjoyed.
Dinner was good. I enjoyed the pleasure of eating. If I enjoyed cigars, I might light up right now. No, I guess I wouldn’t. Room 419 is a non-smoking room. And I don’t understand the appeal of cigars, anyway, no more than I understand the appeal of a cold beer. Wine, yes. Cigars and beer, no.
It’s a little past 9:00. I’m tired. A few closing reflections that I sense bubbling to the surface and off to bed:
- Two thoughts from Augustine come to mind. Both were mentioned yesterday at the conference. God, Augustine wrote, “increases our desire, which in turn enlarges the capacity of our soul, making it able to receive what is to be given to us.” That happened today. Here’s what I now realize more clearly. As desire awakens, false satisfaction yields to true emptiness, and confident hope deepens. No legitimate desire exists without its object, without the source of its full satisfaction. God would have it no other way.
Augustine also wrote that, in order for God to grant my true desire, I must be emptied of all satisfaction of lesser desires. “God means to fill you with what is good; so cast out what is bad. The vessel must be emptied of its contents and then be cleaned” before it can be “made fit for the new thing.” This one day of silence and solitude seemed to provide the courage I needed to face sins I often pass off as petty, but which have sunk me into a deep ditch. But also, the courage has come to face those sins meaningfully, but not, in Alexander Whyte’s style, obsessively, and instead to look up to my Good Samaritan. That’s what brings the hope that spiritually forms.
- I’m glad I didn’t listen to more of the Lewis conference. I’m sure the quality sustained. But my limited capacity couldn’t digest one more prime rib dinner. Today allowed me to reflect slowly on all that had so richly nourished my soul, one bite at a time. I think a lesson has been learned. Reading great books and listening to great thinkers can be overdone. Convictions can remain borrowed and never embraced. Silence and solitude give the Spirit opportunity to transform already believed truth into personal, passionate conviction.
- I will not return home tomorrow a new man. I became a new man 55 years ago when I trusted Christ. But I will return home more confident that the Spirit is growing me into that new man, that I am (often invisibly) becoming more of who I already am. Such is the mystery of sanctification. I’m more aware that Christ is not a piece of apparatus I can use for my satisfaction, but he himself is my satisfaction, and spiritual formation is a slow, often invisible process. In George MacDonald’s words, “With His holy influence, with His own presence (the one thing for which most earnestly we cry), He may be approaching our consciousness from behind, coming forward through regions of our darkness into our light, long before we begin to be aware that He is answering our request, has answered it, and is visiting His child.”
My eyelids are growing heavy. I climb into bed with one thought dominant above all others: God, all three persons, is self-communicating. It is his nature to fill every space that has been emptied to receive him. One day of silence and solitude has, I think, created a little more space. I look forward to another day.
It’s now several weeks later. I just reread what I wrote. As one discerning reviewer put it, “That’s the noisiest description of silence I’ve ever read.” I agree, sort of. I’ve experienced seasons of silence and solitude that have quieted my distracted mind and opened my closed heart and stilled my restless soul, seasons where the ineffable reality of God’s presence has lifted me into his unseen but, for a few dazzling moments, richly felt world of perfect love, satisfying community, and joy-filled encounter.
That’s one kind of silence and solitude, comparable perhaps to an orgasm shared with one’s beloved spouse. There’s another kind, equally valuable and equally important and, I think, far more common. What I’ve just described is perhaps akin to the day before an evening of satisfying sex, a day spent in thoughtful, deliberate, reflective interaction with the seeking lover, a day that both arouses longing for what you know is coming and sustains you with enough hope to keep you faithful until another unorchestrated, unpredictable, unmanageable taste of eternal reality—an orgasm of the soul—is given. Looking back, I think of my day in room 419 as foreplay. And that’s a good thing.