Solitude: The Antidote to Fragmentation
“Solitude is the furnace of transformation. Without solitude we remain…entangled in the illusions of the false self. Without solitude it is virtually impossible to live a spiritual life. …We do not take the spiritual life seriously if we do not set aside some time to be with God and listen to him.” —Henri Nouwen
To be sure, none of us would argue that a little peace and quiet is good for the body, mind and soul. But what about the practice of solitude? While peace and quiet evoke images of oceans and fields of lavender, solitude often seems personified as an aged curmudgeon from a bygone era whose sole purpose is to sit in a creaky, old chair and expect the impossible from our post-modern selves. Solitude is for other people, monastic people or people who have nothing else to do.
Is solitude a practice for the ages, a spiritual discipline for all? Or is it simply a distant and ethereal discipline for some?
I chose a long and circular road around solitude before realizing that solitude was and is the purposeful spiritual discipline that brings us home. Home is where we look around and realize we are whole in relationship with our Maker. Ultimately, solitude invites us into communion with God, offers us kinship with our own self and then, and only then, presents us with a vision for community with others.
In that order. Always.
In the spring of 2012, I was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis. Having dealt with chronic illness for 15 years prior, it was a moment of overwhelming discouragement. Over the years, I have spent hundreds and hundreds of hours in places of waiting…waiting rooms, infusion chairs, waiting on hold to make appointments, waiting for results…waiting for a cure…waiting to be physically whole.
Early on, I was frustrated by the suffocating cloud of wasted time. At the time of the MS diagnosis, I was 36 years old with three elementary age children at home. I missed them. I missed date nights. I missed work. I missed a solid night’s sleep. In those days of many appointments, I meticulously packed my bag full of books, music and things to do…distractions really.
The situation was offering me solitude, and I didn’t know it.
Over time, many years in fact, I decreased the activities in my bag, or left my bag at home all together, and found the solitude of the waiting room an invitation to wholeness – a time to pray, think, slow down, listen to God, Jesus and the Holy Spirit. This communion also illuminated what was right before my eyes, a host of profoundly fascinating people with the most amazing stories.
In my experience, I have found solitude to be the antidote to fragmentation.
We are fragmented people. When I truly access my situation, the activity of my days that eventually equals the sum of my life, if I am honest, it consists mostly of piecing together fragments. Humpty dumpty comes to mind. Without solitude, we are left to do puzzles of a false self; a habit which will not and cannot lead to a transformed life or life to the full.
What binds our fragmented pieces together is nothing other than God.
He is that which, in relationship with us, gives us wisdom on a daily basis to carefully, lovingly and perfectly transform what is disjointed, chaotic, and disordered into that which is whole, healed, and coherent.
In the waiting rooms of life I have also met solitude’s cousins, stillness and silence, a wonderful group to know. These three lovelies together offer a grab bag of gratefulness, perspective, joy, love, hope, peace…to name a few. Altogether they are the inner breath of Jesus’ whisper. He sought all three at many times over the course of His 33 year life.
On the flip side, though, these three also hold up a mirror. This is why, while we are drawn to lean into God and transformation, we simultaneously try to avoid it. We stop before we’ve even begun to find solitude, because when we hear God we essentially freak out and run.
The daily rhythm of solitude is a pleasure, a wellspring and a peace.
It is not a feast then famine type of rhythm. It’s a consistent practice. Often I find myself in what I call “whiplash solitude”, when solitude collides into your life, inflates the air bag of your current events and hurts like hell. This isn’t a mature rhythm of solitude. It is an immature way that needs transformation.
Along the way, I can often see warning signs that my solitude levels are low. Like lab work that shows a lack and suggests that supplementation is required or that new habits might need to be adopted. The beauty is that solitude is not an elusive thing that needs to be found. Don’t get me wrong; I am a firm believer that being alone in nature is a necessary element of solitude.
If solitude is about listening to God, creation is His microphone.
It is good to be a creature in creation! But, beyond vast creation, I have found solitude in any place where I can be authentic and real with God and truly listen to His voice.
If you are anxious, hopeless, purposeless, or simply not at ease, take note…solitude might be calling you into the deep.
Rebecca Sandberg is a deep soul. Her profound love and respect for the human story informs her work as a writer, editor, artist and coach. Rebecca works with individuals, communities, schools, churches and organizations to foster generative conversations, cultivate ideas and grow relationships. Having spent many years living and working internationally, Rebecca founded Re:new Project, a nonprofit organization committed to employing refugee women from all over the world. Rebecca is the co-author of the book, Now I See. Rebecca lives in the wine country of Newberg, Oregon with her husband and three young adult children.