The Quiet Practice of Solitude and Secrecy

Solitude and Secrecy

There’s a romanticized view of solitude that’s often expressed among Christians. We think if we had the time and space to withdraw for a while, we’d experience peace and bliss. But the reality is often much more harsh and difficult. In solitude, we seek God, but the first thing we encounter is ourselves. The real you shows up, with all of its embarrassing attributes. Frustrated about your sex life? Tired of compulsively eating garbage? Burdened by the shame of an addiction to pornography or substances? Solitude often forces us to look these sorrows square in the face and makes us reckon with a cold reality: We like our busyness. We like the chaos of our lives. We like it because it distracts us from ourselves.

Solitude has a learning curve. It’s a practice we embody, and like anything worth doing, our first efforts will be pained.

The “terror of silence” (as David Foster Wallace called it) will tempt us away from the quiet. We will long for email, to-do lists, a sink full of dishes, the unread messages on our phone—anything that can turn our attention away from that quietly simmering something that makes solitude so troubling.

So we practice solitude like a beginning violinist; we practice poorly. But poor practice—marked by a wandering and restless mind—isn’t bad practice. Done with some regularity, it can become rich. We can discover a space in our hearts and in our world where the Lord meets us. As we’ll see, it’s the beginning of the end of our religious efforts, a chance to face both the reality of our spiritual poverty and the wealth of God’s spiritual blessings.

The Bible often likens God’s relationship to his people to that of a lover. God is the Lover; we are his Beloved. Lovers share more than their physical intimacy; they share their secrets, their pasts, their desires and disappointments. Nothing will end a relationship more quickly than betrayal of that confidence. We need a space for similar intimacy with God. We need a space in our life for stories and experiences that exist only between him and us.

So we need to guard the borders of our solitude with another discipline—one the church has called the practice of secrecy. There need to be aspects of our spiritual life that are kept intimate and private, between us and God alone.

Henri Nouwen likens the spiritual life to keeping a fire in a hearth in a small cottage. When the door is closed, the fire warms the whole space. Whenever the door opens, the heat escapes, and eventually, the whole room cools. There are times to open the door, times to share and invite others to know what we’ve learned and experienced, but they are the exception, not the rule. In a world of constant display, many of us have never closed the door at all. Every spiritual experience is something we try to share and broadcast. Every moment of silence is interrupted by noise, by messages, and by the presence of others.

We long for more depth and more intimacy, but we don’t realize the small ways we are draining it out of our lives.

When Jesus taught his disciples to pray, he said,

“And when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites. For they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you” (Matt. 6:5–6).

The impulse to live our spiritual lives on display is, clearly, nothing new. Jesus warns us that living this way means we “have our reward.” If you’re praying because you want to be esteemed by the people who see you pray, that’s all the benefit you’ll receive. If you want to seek God, you must go and pray “in secret.”

Jesus both embodies and invites us into the practice of solitude and secrecy. These are disciplines of withdrawal and disconnection, a way of making space for a truly intimate, personal relationship with God.

I’ve come to wonder whether these aren’t the key disciplines for living the Christian life today. They are almost certainly the starting place. Some might find that thought odd. Why not prayer? Why not Scripture reading or Scripture meditation? The reason is, we need to cultivate and protect that “darker ground” in which our faith can be nourished and nurtured. We need to break the habits of display and discover what it means to be alone with God. Otherwise, the disciplines become just one more way of performing for a crowd.

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Taken from Recapturing the Wonder by Mike Cosper. Copyright © 2017 by Mike Cosper. Published by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL.