Note: This article is excerpted from Invitation to Solitude and Silence: Experiencing God's Transforming Presence.
One night I began to see a glimmer of something new and good for others emerging from my experiences in solitude. It was a beautiful summer evening, the windows and doors were all open, and our home and yard were full of the kind of energy that only a group of lively junior high schoolers could bring. No matter that it was getting late, I was trying to meet a writing deadline, and tomorrow was a full day of work; on this night our daughter Bethany and about 20 of her closest friends had come together for an evening of spontaneous "hanging out" at our home. Some were in the backyard playing volleyball, others were on the street shooting hoops, another contingency played pool in the basement, and always there was someone traipsing past my office for a drink or a snack.
My initial reaction to this scenario was irritation. Couldn't I just get a break here? Couldn't I get a little peace and quiet so I could get something done? This was not a new feeling for me; it is who I am when left to myself. All too often, I have responded to my life in the company of others with this kind of frustration, bent on getting my own way and shaping my environment to my own wants and needs. In fact, the awareness of my self-centeredness was one of the things that had sent me on the quest for deeper levels of transformation in the first place.
But on this night I found myself finally ready to ask a different kind of question. Rather than asking how I could manipulate my environment to get what I wanted, the question came, Is there anything from my experiences of fullness in God these days that I can bring to this moment, to these children? I wasn't asking the question out of the "guilty mom" place. I was asking it because everything in me ached to give some good gift to these teenagers. But how?
I remembered Julian of Norwich's wonderful statement about being present to God when in the company of others: "I look at God, I look at you, and I keep looking at God." Although I had often prayed for others in this way during times of solitude, on that night I decided to try it in the midst of a very ordinary moment of my life as a busy mom in a houseful of kids, facing deadlines and long workdays, a moment that is repeated over and over again these days. I thought, If my experiences in solitude and silence don't make a difference in this real life moment, then I'm not sure any of this is worth much.
So I looked at God. Sitting in front of my computer trying to bang out an article, tired, kids coming and going from every door … I turned inward to that place of quiet where I had grown accustomed to meeting God and asked him to give me sacred eyes—set-apart eyes to see and feel and know spiritual reality in this moment.
Then as I turned my eyes to the children, I began to see and feel things that were a bit uncharacteristic for me. Rather than being frustrated by the desire to be alone so I could write, I was filled with gratitude that these young people had chosen to be in a home where parents are present, expending their youthful energy in life-affirming ways. Rather than wishing my home were quiet, I began experiencing the noise and activity as the energy of youthful spirit, and I was drawn to it, filled by it. Rather than experiencing their comings and goings and curious questions as interruptions, I started noticing how beautiful and distinct each one was, and I was enlivened by the privilege of interacting with them.
After looking with sacred eyes at these children, I looked back at God, and I sensed his love for them filling my own heart. A deep, beyond- words kind of prayer welled up, a prayer that somehow they would be blessed by the bits and pieces of our togetherness.
Rather than the tiredness of one more evening of parental responsibility, being present to God in this moment somehow graced my heart with love and renewed energy and wonder. I touched a spiritual dynamic that was beyond my own ability to produce. In the midst of external noise and chaos, I was present to God in the company of others, and I was changed by it.
I had not moved beyond solitude; rather, by God's grace I brought the quietness of my solitude right into the present moment. I was learning, through experience and experimentation, that solitude does not consist only in creating perfect conditions outside myself in a retreat center, a church or a devotional corner; the quietness of solitude and silence was becoming an inner condition within which I was able to recognize and respond to the stirrings, the voice, the very Presence of God himself.
And so the practices of solitude and silence do, in time, bring us full circle—back into life in the human community. Whether we have been away for a half an hour of solitude, had an extended retreat time or have dropped completely out of sight for a while, God, in his time, does eventually bring us back to the life he has given us. Perhaps nothing in our external circumstances has changed, but we have changed, and that's what our world needs more than anything.
Without pressing or pushing or trying to do a great altruistic deed, we discover that much that happens in solitude and silence ends up being "for others"—as paradoxical as that may seem. Our speech patterns are refined by the discipline of silence, because growing self-awareness enables us to choose more truly the words we say. Rather than speech that issues from subconscious needs to impress, to put others in their place, to compete, to control and manipulate, to repay hurt with hurt, we now notice our inner dynamics and choose to speak from a different place, a place of love, trust, and true wisdom that God is cultivating within us. Over time we become safer for other seeking souls, because we are able to be with them and the issues they are dealing with without being hooked by our own anxieties and fears. We are comfortable with our humanity, because we have experienced God's love and compassion in that place, and so it becomes very natural for us to extend love and compassion to others in their humanity.
For all of our piety and activity, we Christians are not always known for our kindness. Sometimes we are downright mean and judgmental. But most, if not all, of our meanness comes out of the places within us that have been unattended and untouched by God's love. Every broken place that has not been healed and transformed in God's presence is a hard edge of our personality that slices and dices other people when they bump up against it.
No wonder Bonhoeffer makes the startling and counterintuitive statement "Let him who cannot be alone beware of community." Without solitude we are dangerous in the human community and in the Christian community, because we are at the mercy of our compulsions, compelled by our inner emptiness into a self-oriented, anxious search for fullness in the next round of activities, accomplishments or relationships. When we are not finding ourselves loved by God in solitude, in the company of others we are always on the prowl for ways they can fill our emptiness. We enter life in community trying to grab and grasp from others what only God can give.
On the other hand, when we are experiencing ourselves as the beloved of God, accepted and cherished by him in all of our beauty and brokenness, our hard, rough edges start to soften. We begin to see others as beloved as well, and that is what gets reflected back to them when they look into our eyes. Not only does the love of God come to us in solitude, the love of God begins to pour through us to others. This is a very different kind of productivity, and only God can bring it forth.
For me, productivity can no longer be measured solely by numbers of things—number of books written, number of new messages prepared and delivered, number of retreats led, number of people evangelized. Plenty of that is still happening, but that is no longer the way I measure success. Success for me now is measured by whether I am living within the rhythms of work and rest, solitude and community, silence and word necessary so the quality of my presence with God and with people and tasks is characterized by love and attention, wisdom and discernment. Success is knowing that the jar of river water is still finding time to sit still so the waters of my soul are clear enough to discern, to the best of my ability, what this moment calls for, and the next, and the next, and the next.
—Taken from Invitation to Solitude and Silence: Experiencing God's Transforming Presence by Ruth Haley Barton. Copyright 2010 by Ruth Haley Barton. Used by permission of InterVarsity Press PO Box 1400 Downers Grove, IL 60515. www.ivpress.com.