“You are aware that in the Old Testament, and especially in the New, almost all the greater and more profound secrets were revealed to God’s friends when they were alone and not in the midst of milling crowds. These same friends of God almost always avoided the hindrance of crowds and sought out the convenience of solitude when they wanted to mediate more deeply on something, or to pray with greater freedom, or when they wished to be removed from earthly concerns through mental energy. […] and you should agree that solitude is the greatest support for sweet psalmody, pious reading, fervent prayer, deep meditation, ecstatic contemplation, and the baptism of tears.” —Guico I, from The Essential Writings of Christian Mysticism
My students and I have been reading the American Romantics for the past six weeks or so, and they are always struck by the amount of time the writers spend alone. I am always envious of the same. What strikes me about Christian mystics, especially the earlier ones, is their love and appreciation for silence, for being alone, and for prayer and meditation. Why aren’t American Christians as dedicated to making space for God’s voice? I try and fail to open up solitude and quiet, even for a few minutes. Thoreau writes in Walden: “I find it wholesome to be alone the greater part of the time. To be in company, even with the best, is soon wearisome and dissipating. I love to be alone. I never found the companion that was so companionable as solitude.” I, too, like to be alone, and I am wearied by even my best and closest friends. Don’t get me wrong, I love being with people, but being real and present with others is exhausting and sometimes confusing. But there is a difference between being alone because I want solitude, like Thoreau, and being alone because I strive to hear the voice of God, like Guico I.
How, then, can I as a 21st century Christian foster the type of solitude that elicits the revelation of God’s profound secrets? Where can I pause, meditate and pray, and hear those deep stirrings that I long for? Most days I am so caught up in my own life and its pressures and deadlines that I forget to take a moment to listen for God. I forget—no I don’t forget—I don’t make time to just be, to just sit in the presence of Nature and listen for God. I worry about the future, when I should just simply be. I try to interpret my past, when I should just simply be. I miss everything present because I am on a deadline. I know that “solitude is the greatest support for sweet psalmody, pious reading, fervent prayer, deep meditation, ecstatic contemplation, and the baptism of tears,” but I will never experience it if I don’t make solitude a priority and not just an escape from the chaos of the world. The solitude I need to experience God is an intentional solitude wherein I try to hear God’s voice, sense God’s presence, and feel God’s joys and sorrows.
I suppose the feeling of God in moments of intentional solitude mirrors Margaret Fuller’s awe at the face of a Niagara Falls that she thought she already knew everything about: “This was the climax of the effect which the falls produced upon me-neither the American nor the British fall moved me as did these rapids. For the magnificence, the sublimity of the latter I was prepared by descriptions and by paintings.” This reminds me of the ways in which God just sort of creeps up on us in the least expected ways. We look toward the falls for the great beauty, but we are taken aback by the simplicity and power of the falls. I hope I can find some ways to be taken in by the sublime nature of God’s unexpected beauty, but I know that will only happen if I make time to seek God intentionally through prayer and meditation in solitude. I wont’ be overcome by rapids in a crowd of people. So, I ask again, how can I make time for beautiful solitude in which I come to expect to hear the voice of God? Possibly I’ll make time for a retreat of solitude this summer, but more intentionally, I’ll make 15 minutes each morning for meditation and prayer.