Guest Author: David Srygley
What comes after a great, uplifting experience of solitude in a monastery? Reality! Reality is the threat to, and test of, all spiritual disciplines. Perhaps, solitude is the most susceptible of all disciplines to the sudden letdown of reality.
Spiritual disciplines vary in their intensity and immediate benefit. Simplicity can be painful to achieve and long in coming as you whittle away the excesses, and perceived “necessities,” in your life. However, you will begin to feel a sense of freedom right away, almost from the first trip to the landfill. That freedom grows over time as you discover the joy of living an unencumbered life with God.
Solitude feels exactly opposite. Though there is discomfort and some anxiety as you withdraw from the world, the peace that begins to wrap its arms around you quickly overcomes those feelings. As your heart, mind, soul, and body melt into a solitary union with God, you might even be overwhelmed by the sense of oneness. You and God. Period.
Then…Monday comes, or whatever day you return to the real world! It is no longer you and God. It is now you, your boss, your co-workers, your church, your neighbor, your kids, your spouse, your pet! Oh, and your God. It suddenly got very, very crowded in your world. A world that just days before was filled with just you and God. I can’t help but think of the many images I’ve seen of a tsunami wave hitting the coast. It is graphic, violent, unforgiving, unyielding, and destructive to everything in its path. Returning from solitude to reality can feel much the same way.
So then, how do you deal with the aftermath of solitude. The answer is much the same for solitude as it is for most of the spiritual disciplines. You must remember that the discipline is for training. I have used the example before that a boxer skips rope to develop footwork, but he doesn’t take the jump rope into the ring. It served its purpose and is hung up until it is needed again. So it is with solitude, and spiritual disciplines in general. You’ve exercised with solitude, improved some important skills, and can now “hang it up” until the next time you need to practice.
Nice metaphor, but what does it mean? You don’t enter a time and place of solitude with the intention of remaining there indefinitely—unless you are a monk. You know it is “for practice” of something. What is that something? It is the value and importance of a relationship with God. I believe that solitude opens the door to the reality and value of God’s personhood and his desire to commune with his creation. (See Part One) But once you have embraced God’s presence and value in the midst of solitude, you can carry that blessing with you anywhere!
It seems, at least to me, that we have failed to heed Richard Foster’s warning that it is not the practice of the discipline that is our goal; it is the implementation of its benefit in our lives. In solitude, I learned how important God is. I learned how real he can be. I learned the value of God’s presence. I also realized in my slow journey back to reality, that I don’t have to be isolated from the world to maintain the benefit of my experience in solitude. I took a week to drive back from Kentucky to South Texas. I visited friends and family, museums and laundromats, and even met some really nice strangers. I was blessed that my reality was not a tsunami experience. As my world became more crowded, I still felt the blessings of God’s presence in my life.
Fast-forward four months to today. Though I missed the tsunami wave, I didn’t escape the flooding. My world has returned to its normal routines; meetings to attend, sermons to write, classes to prepare, people to help, kids to take here and there, a house to work on, a car to repair, a church to run, a workshop to plan. You get the picture, I’m sure, because my world looks much like yours. The 24/7 experience with God has been replaced with the 0.24/0.7 experience. If we let it, it will seem like the experience of solitude was a flash in the pan. It was great while it lasted, felt great, and was really what was needed at the time, but now it’s over. But you don’t need the solitude or the 24/7 experience. What you need is to remember the reality and value of God’s presence!
Imagine going through each day being able to reach back to that experience with God. How would it change the way you make decisions? Would you ask yourself, “Is this opportunity as valuable as God?” Or maybe, “Will this activity really compare to the oneness with God that I felt before?” Would it drive you to participate more in church so that you can experience the impact and value of the body of Christ and voices lifted up in praise of his majesty? In some places, the church building is called a sanctuary—a place set apart to experience the presence of God. Maybe that’s not such a bad name after all.
I would encourage you to seek out times and places of solitude. Whether it is a few minutes or a few days, time alone with God is time that is never regretted. Use that time to embrace and be embraced by God. Experience the reality and value of God’s presence. Meditate on it. Let it sink into your very being. Celebrate it. And then use that blessing as the foundation for strength when you are discouraged and for wisdom when you must choose what is really going to be important in your life—today and everyday.
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.