As both Christians and as human beings, we now live in a hyper-connected world. Whether it is our online lives, which keep us always in conversation and always available, or the day-to-day realities of life with family, friends, and co-workers, we are embedded in a sea of relationships, interactions, and interpersonal demands. This is not a bad thing- in fact, both as humans and as Christians, it is clear that we are created for community. The biological realties of our particular species point to the fact that family and tribe are in some sense “hardwired” into us. Further, Christ, through baptism, brings us into the new community of faith, wherein we have a larger family than could have previously been imagined. So it is never to be said that community is a bad thing- in fact, the growing isolation and loneliness of the modern world should testify to the fact of just how necessary it is.
And yet, if we are honest, there are times when it can be too much. What is a blessing can in fact become a burden, particularly when the ‘always-on” reality we live in begins to overwhelm us and to drown out both our own feelings and what God has to say to us. This is why the practice of solitude is so necessary in this day and age. Whether for an hour every morning, a day a month, or a longer period set aside for withdrawal from community, it is solitude that helps us gain perspective on the interdependent life we normally live. Far from a rejection of the benefits of community or other people, the practice of intentional solitude can actually be an enrichment of our lives together we others. As Henri J.M. Nouwen has said, “Solitude is the ground from which community grows.” In this brief article, we will examine 5 steps that will help us become more deliberate in the practice of intentional solitude.
Step One: Make a Plan
For our solitude to be intentional, we need a plan. Otherwise, the moments we have alone will be haphazard and thus of limited spiritual benefit. In fact, we may even misuse them with various kinds of distractions. So we need to ask 2 questions: when and where? “When” can be daily, weekly, monthly, or a longer period of retreat. All have their place, and all are beneficial in the own way. Where? It is important to have a place as well as a time, so that our purposefulness is heightened. Again, it increases the chance that we will not squander our precious time apart. From a favorite chair or home chapel for times of daily solitude to the wilderness or a monastery guest house for a longer retreat, “where” takes seriously our lives as physical beings- “I am here, not there, and this is a place to be apart."
Step Two: Detox
Anyone who practices the discipline solitude regularly will report the need for “detox”: to slow down,
unwind and let the cares of the world leave us for a time. It is important to realize this is a process emotionally and mentally- it doesn’t just happen. We may need to write down the things we afraid we will forget, we may need to close our eyes for a bit and breathe deeply, on longer retreats we may need to spend the first day catching up on our sleep. We also need to quiet ourselves- by centering prayer, resting, walking outside, but above all by shutting down our electronic presence. Silence is key. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer says, “The mark of solitude is silence, as speech is the mark of community.” We may only have a few minutes in shorter times of solitude, but we dare not skip our detox. And the truth is that it takes as long as it takes Once we are silent and centered, what are we to do? The opening statement of John Calvin’s Christian Institutes provides us the key: He writes “Our wisdom, in so far as it ought to be deemed true and solid wisdom, consists almost entirely of two parts: the knowledge of God and of ourselves.” This then, will be our focus- the only two beings that remain in our time apart from others.
Step Three: Self-knowledge
It can be useful to reverse Calvin’s order, however, and first take account of who we are and what we have been doing as we come to this time apart. Regular practitioners of journalling may wish to review their journals, others may wish to write down a few thoughts about their past and present. Examen may prove helpful, or perhaps even confession. The point is to take stock of where our lives are, and what brought us to this point. Some things will likely need to be lamented, others celebrated. This is not a time for strategic planning, however- we are not going to “do” anything with what we discover, other than to be aware of and to offer the substance of our lives to God.
Step Four: Knowledge from God
Notice I have suggested the modification “from God” as opposed to “of God.” This is neither the time for deep Bible study or theological exploration. Rather, we sit with God’s revealed Word in the Holy Scriptures to hear again of his promises and his grace towards us- generally to receive healing from him for past wounds and strength for our future journeys.
Notice it is “from God,” not “from ourselves.” We have already looked at the depths of ourselves as we explored self-knowledge, to seek God within is to only find disorder and confusion. By turning to the Word (and perhaps to worship, if we at a retreat center), we can find that Word of God that comes extra nos- literally from outside of ourselves- to help with wisdom for our present situations and guidance for whatever is coming next. Our relationships as well will better guided by God’s revealed word as opposed to whatever our particular thoughts or feelings might be.
Step Five: Rejoin our life
As we prepare to re-enter our lives, prayer- particularly intercession for self and others- may prove useful. Here at the end of our solitude is also the time for any planning we may need to do: goals, tasks, acts of reconciliation we may need to make to others upon our return. The purpose of this step is not just to get back on email, but rather to be as intentional in our re-entry to life as we were in our solitude: what am I called to do now in light of this time apart? That should be our question. And our goal? Re-entry into our families, community, and web of relationships with our neighbors that God has given us, but not as we were before. Again, Bonhoeffer writes, “After a time of quiet we meet others in a different and a fresh way.” That is the possibility that solitude provides us, re-entry is the intentional attempt to make it a reality.
Les Martin is a participant in the A300 program and a long-term missionary in Nigeria. An Anglican priest, he is an Archdeacon and serves in the office of Canon Theologian for the Anglican Diocese of Pankshin, while lecturing at Archbishop Vining College of Theology, Akure. He lives in Lagos with his wife Kate, and he believes that his marriage to her is far more important than anything else mentioned above.
 Nouwen, H. “Solitude”. (2016). Called to Community: The Life Jesus Want for His People, C. Moore, ed. (p. 227). Walden, NY: Plough Publishing House.  - Bonhoeffer, D. (1954, reprinted 1993). Life Together. (p. 86) New York: Harper Collins.  - Calvin, J., & Beveridge, H. (1845). Institutes of the Christian religion (Vol. 1, p. 47). Edinburgh: The Calvin Translation Society.  - Bonhoeffer, D. (1954, reprinted 1993). Life Together. (p. 89) New York: Harper Collins.