The Solitude Paradox
Sarah Rogers, staff writer | English major
In a loud and fast-paced world, retreating to silence is a discipline that not only influences personal faith but shapes community with others.
(Photo by Brandon Hook)
“When we pray alone, study, read, write or simply spend quiet time away from the places where we interact with each other directly, we are in fact participating fully in the growth of community. It is a fallacy to think that we grow closer to each other only when we talk, play or work together.”
The late author Henri Nouwen explored this often unpopular practice of solitude in his essay, “Solitude and Community.” As a bustling, productive society, the word solitude leaves a bad taste in our mouths. If you aren’t “doing” or “producing,” why practice solitude?
Nouwen’s understanding of solitude revolved around the discipline fostering strong community. In a fast-paced, high-achieving world, the practice of solitude is left by the wayside. Retreating to silence has the possibility to cultivate both personal faith and community for 21st century movers and shakers.
Hilltop Renewal Center in Idyllwild, Calif. focuses specifically on the discipline’s reflective and spiritual benefits. Gene Ten Elshof, co-founder of the retreat center, defines solitude as time alone spent with God, away from the distractions of electronics and the Internet. Often, meditating on Scripture intertwines with solitude.
Ten Elshof believes Christ is the ultimate example of solitude in action. “Often in the evangelical world, we’re so busy doing ministry that we don’t have time to really listen to the Spirit,” said Ten Elshof. “Drawing away as Jesus did and taking time to listen to what the Spirit has to say is important.” He points to Jesus drawing away from the crowds to commune with the Father.
“If we’re not practicing solitude, then we don’t hear what the Spirit has to say to us,” said Ten Elshof.
Originally, Hilltop was envisioned as a sanctuary for pastors and Christian leaders, but has since evolved to include missionaries, church groups, pastoral staff, and many Talbot School of Theology students. His wife’s position as Talbot’s Director of Spiritual Formation ropes in students seeking retreat. Often, the students arrive in groups, but break into separate times of reflection. After two or three hours, they will rejoin to debrief their time alone. Time alone leads right back to community.
In the Idyllwild location’s five years in operation, Ten Elshof has seen many lives positively impacted. “Lives have been changed and they feel that they have a new sense and direction in life,” Ten Elshof said.
On a personal level, solitude for Ten Elshof looks like sitting in the car with no music, listening to God’s direction. Conversely, he’ll spend time in the woods around Hilltop. A good chunk of time during Ten Elshof’s week is dedicated to solitude and reflection.
For students seeking silence, Ten Elshof recommends laying aside phones, computers, and TV to be as removed as possible from distraction.
Leif Nunneley, the assistant resident director of the Discipleship House with his Bachelors in biblical studies, believes even 20 intentional minutes a couple times weekly is effective for busy college students. The goal isn’t to build up to two hours of daily silence, according to Nunneley.
“The real goal is to listen and to try to open your ears and eyes to hear what God might be trying to show you,” said Nunneley.
Students need to be reminded listening isn’t prayer, which Nunneley understands as an entirely different discipline. “When you experience solitude, if you experience silence and that’s all you hear and you don’t get a word from God, that’s part of the experience,” said Nunneley. “Trust when it’s time for Him to speak to you, the discipline of solitude will put you in a position to be better able to do that.” God’s silence does not mean there’s hidden sin within you, explains Nunneley.
“Solitude really brings to surface things we are able to avoid when we stay busy,” said Nunneley. Silence prepares hearts for God’s voice, but the discipline does not come naturally for Nunneley. As he describes it, solitude is not a “sexy discipline.” Nunneley ends his time drained and lonely more often than excited and energized.
However, there is a reason to practice this exhausting discipline. “As we come to a place of becoming more aware of who we are and what’s actually going on inside of us, it allows us to connect with people in more authentic ways,” said Nunneley.
For senior psychology major Victoria Leith, a third time resident advisor, life is incomplete without weekly solitude. “I’m a complete extrovert, but if I go an entire week without solo time, I will be no good,” said Leith. “If I have that time to myself to recuperate, I can pour into people a lot better.”
Solitude for Leith comes in a couple forms: slow mornings and music-less runs. Rising early while her roommate is still asleep, Leith enjoys the quiet by eating a bowl of oatmeal and reading.
Or, on the opposite end of the solitude spectrum, Leith will run without her iPod. “I think you can be in solitude and still be moving,” said Leith. “God speaks to me best when I’m outside, versus sitting in a room.” Sitting still often hinders her ability to intentionally listen to God’s voice.
Returning from the 48-hour solo time on Walkabout, resident adviors’ wilderness leadership-training experience, induces excessive laughter and excitement for the extroverted Leith. Despite her love of people, God has taught her the same lesson all three Walkabouts. “Solo time for me has been a good time to realize that, as much of an extrovert that I am, I don’t depend enough on the people God places around me,” said Leith.
Achieving tasks on her own energy is her natural tendency. “I neglect to recognize that there are people in my life, staff, living area, and supervisors that want to help me and see me succeed,” said Leith. Solitude allows her to reflect and reevaluate how she does life.
Senior nursing major Christopher Ernst, also a resident advisor, chooses to spend small chunks of time in solitude. “I very much enjoy taking my bike out for a ride in the hills, having a cyclical motion and hearing birds chirping,” said Ernst. “I’ll pray aloud and leave my iPod at home.”
These small time spans hold more impact than his Walkabout experience. “Walkabout is such a dream, a cloud,” said Ernst. Walking out of the classroom and into the open air, knowing he’s going into a time of solitude, holds the most impact for Ernst.
“Solitude is a time of being by oneself apart from distractions of the world,” said Ernst. He believes you can find it in the early mornings, mornings where you don’t have to rush out the door.
Not that Ernst believes beneficial solitude cannot be found in intense circumstances. “My experience on Walkabout was unique because it was in the wilderness, but I don’t think that’s essential to find solitude,” said Ernst. “However, it’s certainly one way to encourage solitude.”
Within solitude, there must also be an element of community, said Ernst. “As much as solitude is alone time, I think it’s good to have accountability in it,” Ernst said. Roommates can help hold you accountable for spending that needed time in silence and reflection.
Ernst believes developing solitude within your life boils down to one question: what does solitude look like in my life today?