I have just returned from meeting with a highly effective pastor in our area who is planning an extended period of personal retreat for his own spiritual nurture. During our conversation, he said to me, “The greatest gift I can give my people is to become a pastor who has grown deep in the things of God.” Wise pastor! And rare.
This prompted me to think about why we shy away from experiences of solitude even though they were absolutely axiomatic to the figures that walk across the pages of our Bible and to the great leaders of all our traditions. I am not thinking about the normal excuses we give for neglecting times of personal retreat: overcrowded schedules, demanding responsibilities, numerous obligations, constant deadlines, and more. While these things do need to be dealt with, they are only surface matters.
The Root of our Fear
No, I am concerned about a deeper reason that invariably crops up any time we consider times of genuine solitude. It is the almost overwhelming feeling that we will be passed over. Now, what we say is, “I want to be available to help whenever there is a crisis or problem.” But what really concerns us is that people will get along quite well without us! You see, this strikes right at the root of our fear of becoming unimportant, unneeded, insignificant, useless.
This is precisely why solitude is such a fundamental discipline of the spiritual life. As long as we are at the center of the action, we feel indispensable. And we are sorely tempted to micro-manage everyone around us… for their good, of course! But genuine experiences of solitude undercut all the pretense. In the very act of retreat we resign as CEO of the universe. We entrust people into the hands of God. We allow others to develop and grow without our constant oversight. This, in time, gives us a precious freedom when we are among people—the freedom to serve and be served without the slightest need to manage or control either people or circumstances.
Rendering Ourselves Useless
Besides, it isn’t all that bad to become useless. Good teachers hope in time to make themselves useless to those under their tutelage. Students unable to think for themselves and thus forever dependent upon their teachers have not been taught well. Parents are exceedingly useful to young children. But good parents are constantly working to make themselves useless as they nurture a growing self-government in their children. Perpetual dependency in a daughter or son is a grotesque thing indeed.
An old writer, Henry Clay Trumbull, once said, “There are ever two ways of striving to fill one’s place in the world: one is by seeking to prove one’s self useful; the other, by striving to render one’s self useless. The first way is the commoner and the more attractive; the second is the rarer and the more noble.” Regular experiences of spiritual retreat and genuine solitude will empower us and give us the perspective necessary to render ourselves useless.
Growing Together: Practical Steps
By now you may have guessed that the theme of this article is personal retreat. All of us committed to the Renovaré vision are seeking to integrate times of solitude and retreat into our personal lives, and (given our world and its reigning values) we need all the encouragement and help we can get in this matter. So, in this section devoted to practice, let me suggest some of the varied venues for solitude that are within the reach of everyone.
Take a pre-dawn walk. Listen to the awakening sounds of your world, whether city or country. Give the coming day to God. Listen for his guidance over the labor of the day. It is an ancient discipline to welcome the new day in faith and worship. “O Lord, in the morning thou dost hear my voice; in the morning I prepare a sacrifice for thee, and watch” (Ps. 5:3). “And in the morning, a great while before day, he [Jesus] rose and went out to a lonely place, and there he prayed” (Mark 2:35). In the words of the old German hymn, “When morning gilds the skies, My heart awaking cries, May Jesus Christ be praised!”
For one month leave your car radio off and turn your morning commute into a mini-retreat. Place your children and spouse into the loving care of God. Pray for the person in the car ahead of you. Consider the lilies of the field and how they differ from the frantic scramble of human activity around you. Try driving in the slow lane for a change. Bless those who cut in front of you; bless and do not curse them. Listen for divine impressions on upcoming meetings, relationships in the office, creative solutions to troubling business situations, and more.
In the middle of the morning or afternoon, take a five minute worship break. Enjoy a fresh-cut flower on your desk or a tranquil picture or saying on the wall. Stroll around the office building (or home or field or school), prayerfully placing every person who works there into the strong, protective arms of God. Tap your toe or finger to the tune of a simple worship song. Enjoy a fresh cup of coffee and with every sip ask for the inflow of God’s warmth.
Limit your speech to an absolute minimum for one day. See what you learn about yourself; for example, how frantically you depend upon words to manipulate situations. Watch for how words bless and encourage, and how they wound and destroy. For the future consider ways that your words can be few and full.
Read one chapter of a devotional classic as the children are taking a nap. While pondering the reading, savor the “aloneness” and silence.
Go to the inner city for a social justice retreat. Talk with the homeless, learning from them rather than preaching to them. Fast so that in a small way you may enter into the gnawing hunger of those who live an eternal, compulsory fast. Walk the streets, listening to the whimpering “songs from the slums.” Consider what it would mean to live without hope. Without trying to solve every problem, listen for any divine guidance you may be given for action.
Make your next plane flight or bus trip a personal retreat. Watch people. Listen. Pray. Read through a good book in one sitting.
Have an experience of “watching”. Arise at 2:00 a.m., light a single candle as a reminder of the presence of Christ, and for one hour listen to the sounds of the night. Don’t try to read or write. This is a time for silence, for stillness. Don’t even try to pray in the normal sense of talking or articulating thoughts. Be quiet. Enter the Shalom of God. After the hour, return to bed and to sleep, remembering the words of Brother Lawrence; “those who have the gale of the Holy Spirit go forward even in sleep.”
Leave phone, TV, and radio off while cleaning the house or basement or garage or working on a hobby. View this time of quiet as a special gift from God during which you can listen for his whisperings.