The start of a new year can be both exciting and intimidating. It’s filled with hope for success and fear of failure. At the start of the new year we look for resolutions: we acquire more projects, more friends, more money, more triumphs, more of whatever will make us feel good about ourselves. Why? To resolve that question resounding deep in the depths of our psyche: Who am I? Am I funny, am I admired? Am I disliked, hated, or despised? Am I valued? Who am I?
On January 1, 2012, I left my home, my friends, and my family and moved across the country to a city where I knew no one. The future was promising: I could start new hobbies, make new friends, and change the way I dressed. I could redefine myself without having to answer to anyone. I’ve always been the independent type, so starting over alone was easy at first. But despite my introversion, I soon found that living alone, so far away from family and friends, is hard. It’s uncomfortable and it’s lonely. But, I’ve since learned, that that doesn’t mean loneliness is bad.
If we choose to, our loneliness can turn into the Christian practice of solitude, which can allow us to face the “Who am I?” question, not alone, but with God.
Solitude is not like a typical “resolution” which feeds our compulsion to find a sense of value in accomplishment. Rather, solitude is an awkward, nail-biting practice that forces us to meet the discomforting distress of our own sin. Like sitting in the dentist’s chair, in solitude, you sit in God’s chair, and He does the long, painful work of addressing your pains and needs. But it’s worthwhile: the Christian practice of solitude can foster Christian virtue and help reorient our affections for Christ. While solitude intensifies vulnerable questions of identity, Christ does His work to make us new.
Solitude may look different for everyone, based on needs and schedules, but here are eight tips on how you can make the most of a practice of solitude, and hopefully make the most out of the start of a new year.
1. Decide on a time.
I would advise everyone to yield a full 24 hours at least once a year, and at least one hour every week to solitude. If you can do more, do more. But, please don’t let the fear of not doing enough keep you from doing any at all — if you can’t afford 24 hours, find 12 hours, or six, or even one. One hour away from the usual grind is more rewarding than you might think.
2. Find an unfamiliar space.
This could be anywhere, really, indoor or outdoor. It could be in the forest, in a yard, or in someone’s home. Do you have a friend or family member who might have a space that you could use for an extended period of time? Or maybe you know someone who wishes to practice solitude as well — a good idea is to swap homes for the time devoted to solitude. Unfamiliar spaces are better than familiar ones because they take you out of your ordinary environment and the typical distractions. But, if you can’t find an unfamiliar space, a quiet space in your home will do fine. If you’re willing to pay, retreat centres exist for this very purpose.
3. Leave the gun, take the cannoli.
Leave all digital technology at home, or in another room, far away from you. In solitude, we get rid of our infrastructures: no phones, no computers, no music devices, no projects to accomplish. Just a Bible and you: vulnerable, sinful, and broken.
4. Plan for snacks.
If you plan on taking a whole 24 hours, it might be a good idea to bring some food — but keep it simple (like a loaf of bread, or some granola bars). If you plan lavish meals you’ll find yourself looking forward to eating more than praying. If you can fast, even better.
5. Don’t give up.
In solitude, everything in you will want to give up — to get your phone, check your email, or just cut it short. DON’T! The struggle of solitude is an important part of the process. You need to struggle with your discomfort, you need to sit in the discomfort of sin’s reality and presence in your life and in the world. Ask yourself: “What’s making me so uncomfortable?” “Why am I so bored?” “What is so much more important than this moment right now, and why?” “What is God saying?” To practice solitude is to say, “I’m ready for the truth.” But the moment we catch a glimpse, we’re reminded of its pain, so we run. Don’t run, wrestle with it.
6. Be with God.
The most important part of the practice of solitude is your encounter with God. You can’t manipulate God, that’s for sure, but you can seek Him, and all the better if you do. There are no rules, and God can do what He wants, when He wants. So pray, and pray honestly — there’s no fooling God.
7. Make it a habit.
Hopefully, a 24 hour period of solitude will propel you into the habit of solitude on a smaller scale. Practice the principles of solitude daily through momentary retreats and God desiring dispositions. A walk, a minute of silence, or just turning off your phone are simple ways to remember God and cultivate devout dispositions throughout the day.
8. Get back to the world.
Getting back to the world and our community is an important counterpart to solitude. Solitude isn’t an escape or withdrawal for the sake of rest or renewal. Before His ministry with people, Jesus spent time in the desert, and it was only after 40 days of fasting and temptation in solitude that Jesus called His disciples. In solitude, God encounters us, convicts us of sin and compels us by His love; He defines our identity by His purpose and work, and through Him we no longer view our resolutions, activities and goals as “our own thing,” but rather, as part of the common vocation of the church of Christ, who makes all things new.
Photo (Flickr CC) by chuddlesworth.