The Spiritual Discipline of Solitude: Part 1

Guest Author: David Srygley

Recently, I had the opportunity to spend a week at the Abbey of Gethsemani in Trappist, Kentucky. I was referred there by a Lay Cistercian who felt the experience would be invaluable to my search for a deeper communion with God and a better understanding of monastic life. While I have no intentions of becoming a monk, the monastic life, and particularly mystical practices, have begun to form, or perhaps transform, my views on the idea of experiencing God. At the heart of that evolving understanding is the practice of solitude.

When I was at the Abbey, I was not alone. Monks made their way around the Abbey taking care of various duties, though none of them interacted with the retreatants. Other retreatants came and went throughout the week, but again, everyone traveled and worked in silence. So, even though no one was alone, the Abbey was cloaked in solitude. And it was in this solitude that I discovered why mystics and monks have pursued and practiced solitude for so long. While I certainly do not think I experienced all the nuances of solitude, I do want to share some of what I discovered.

When you are by yourself, the world around you does not matter. As a sociologist, a fan of Shakespeare, and a theologian, I realize that the world simply provides the stage for human interaction, between one another and between man and God. We get cues from the world around us, what we typically call society and culture, and exchange cues, both verbal and nonverbal, with other actors on the stage. Suddenly, when there are no other actors on the stage, the props and lights and scenery appear to become meaningless. All the elements and aspect of life that seemed so important and “gave our lives meaning” now are not and do not.

When life is busy, and we are trying to stay connected, our cell phone is the most important thing in our lives. When you are withdrawing from the world, a cell phone becomes meaningless—and pointless. So do laptops, calendars, bosses, co-workers, addictions, stressors, obnoxious people, debt collectors, etc. In solitude, your life no longer revolves around the things of this world. Now, your life revolves around nothing at all!

Or at least that is how it may feel at first. What do I do if I’m not making calls, planning meetings, running errands, taking care of kids, paying bills? Who am I if, even in the moment, I’m not a father, son, preacher, friend, husband, neighbor, volunteer, or coach? Without anything left to define me, without anything left to give my life meaning, without anything left to dictate my existence, what do I do? I turn to God.

I had a profound experience one day while I was hiking alone on some of the trails around the Abbey. I was enjoying the beautiful Fall foliage and cool breezes and bright sun cutting through the trees. It was beautiful, and I did not have a single person to share it with. And then I had one of those ah-hah moments. When there is no one else to share life with, you have to share it with God! That’s the endgame of solitude. You and God. Period.

And then my mind started filling in the blanks. What do you share with a God who has seen thousands and thousands of sunrises? How do you share with God your sense of awe and wonder as you stare at the gazillion stars in the night—when he made everyone of them simply by speaking? Being alone with God is, for lack of a more technical term, mind-boggling. All bets are off. All norms are suddenly abnormal. Your world gets turned on its head. So, what do you do?

I cannot possibly guess at all the ways to respond to such a turn of events, but I can share with you a few of my thoughts. First, all I could do was say, “Thank you.” What else can you do, right? If solitude did nothing else for me, it made me acutely aware of how magnificent and beneficent our God is. And how thankful we ought to be for him.

Second, I realized how little this world offers apart from God. Don’t get me wrong. I love my wife and kids and church family and many other aspects of my life. But if everything ended tomorrow and all that was left in the world was God, that would be okay. Solitude reinforces the reality that all we need for meaning in this life is God.

And finally, I realized that time with God, regardless of how befuddling and awkward it might be, is the most peaceful experience available to us mere humans. To sit on a hilltop and look out over a rolling valley or a rippling pond moves our hearts in unimaginable ways. But to sit on that hilltop with God transforms heart, mind, and soul in ways that will carry us into eternity.

David Srygley is the pulpit minister for the Arlington Heights Church of Christ in Corpus Christi, TX, where he has ministered for the last eight years. He has also served or spoken in churches around the world including Lithuania, Canada, and South Africa. He has a passion for spiritual disciplines that has resulted in his book, From Cloisters to Cubicles: Spiritual Disciplines for the Not-So-Monastic Life. He travels and shares with others the roots of Christian spirituality and the benefits of living the kingdom life now. He is supported in this ministry by a loving wife, Dianna, and three kids.