The spiritual practice of silence is primarily about being silent; the spiritual practice of solitude is primarily about being alone. For many of us, we need solitude to find silence, both within and without. Yet solitude does not necessarily require silence. Here’s what I mean…
Many people report that they are closest to God when alone in nature. They may hear the gentle rustle of the breeze in the leaves, the singing of the birds in the branches above, the chattering of the squirrels, the chirping of the crickets and maybe the babbling of a brook. In this setting, a person might meditate, or pray, or both. Or, perhaps they might just remain silent…
It isn’t easy to pray as an individual spiritual practice surrounded by other people, for there are so many distractions. I know people do it, but I have a tough time meditating in a crowd. How about individual study? Is that enhanced on a city bus− or in solitude?
Classically speaking, solitude was practiced in a very quiet room all alone. It might have been divided with prayer and meditation, followed by silence. Yet whereas so many of the classical teachers of spiritual disciplines insisted on certain routines or manners of practice, my approach, as you no doubt noticed, is to experiment to find the right practices or combination of practices that enhance your relationships with God, and not to worry about a list of rules created by well meaning men.
I’ve written about this in the past, but my most amazing time alone with God thus far in my life, was sort of in nature. Actually, I was at a resort full of people early in the morning. There had been a very big storm; thunder, lightning and torrents of rain. During a break in the storm I headed out to the deserted beach and found a very remote spot on the rocks at a point that jutted out into the surf, about 15 or 20 feet above where the very rough surf was crashing into the rocks below. The wind was blowing, and in the sky were very large puffy clouds, maybe 200 feet above the sea, that were racing across the sky. From this vantage point, I could see only the sea, the sky and the clouds; nothing man-made as if I were all alone in the world, and out of the wind, the surf and the spray blowing over me, I heard (figuratively) the voice of God speaking to me: It was glorious. A rain squall passed through and I was drenched with warm tropical rain as He spoke, and then it passed and the sun once again broke through the clouds.
This was not at all a quiet scene; solitude can be like that, but throughout, I was silent. See how that can work?
For me, solitude is very important as a spiritual discipline, and I make time for it every day, combining solitude with prayer and study… and silence from me: For you, it may be different. I hope that you will feel free to share other possibilities with us to help those who are new at this sort of thing.