I didn’t read many books this past year while living in Houston, but the one book I was able to slowly read–Invitation to Solitude and Silence by Ruth Haley Barton–changed my life.
I love how she points Elijah’s story from 1 Kings 18-19 while using this thread to weave our story with his to understand the significance of solitude and silence.
If it wasn’t for this book, I would be in worse shape.
“At best I was impatient with the demands of life in the company of others; at worst I was angry that people wouldn’t just leave me alone to pursue my own dreams and ambitions,” writes Barton.
If I’m honest, I am easily frustrated when people, places, and things distract me from pursuing my own dreams and ambitions. This year reminded me that I am not in control, God’s ways are higher, and I need rest for a fresh perspective.
“Ruth, you are like a jar of river water all shaken up. What you need is to sit still long enough that the sediment can settle and the water can become clear.”
I actually poured glitter into a water bottle, thanks to Carrie D. Rogers suggestion and shook it. It amazed me how long the glitter took to settle–and even when it finished settling there were still a lot of glitter fragments sitting on top of the water. Try it, and see for yourself!
“I couldn’t imagine letting go of my own efforts to fix and solve and make process in my spiritual life. After all, I am an achiever. I had been working at things so hard for so long that such seemingly nonproductive ‘activity’ as sitting alone in silence was completely outside of my normal categories” writes Barton.
Letting go of my marriage, health, and business was the healthiest thing I could have done because it showed me that I was still operating in my own strength.
“I didn’t like the fact that the only invitation I was getting was an invitation into more nothingness! What was I supposed to do with that? What I learned is that you stay with the feelings of desperation and let desperation do its good work” writes Barton.
In my heart, I knew that I didn’t have another book in me. I knew that Houston demanded all of my attention–yet my flesh screamed and yelled lies at me. I was nothing. I wasn’t important. I needed to enter the vortex so that I could pass through the lies while landing on the truth and the peace of God that surpasses all understanding.
“Solitude and silence are not self-indulgent exercises for times when an overcrowded soul needs a little time to itself. Rather, they are concrete ways of opening to the presence of God beyond human effort and beyond the human constructs that cannot fully contain the Divine. The risky quest for God beyond wordy prayers and content-laden sermons and Bible studies–and stay there long enough for the waters of my soul to become clear,” writes Barton.
Once I passed through the noise and the distractions, I found the still small voice of God. I was humbled to process through my raw emotions with the Lord until the truth became clear in my own life.
“Rather than running from them, distracting yourself from them or suppressing them, let the dynamics of desperation and desire do the good work of inviting you deeper into solitude and silence where the presence of God makes itself known beyond words,” writes Barton.
What are you running from? Do you need to admit, confess, or ask for forgiveness? Are you afraid of coming clean because it might force you to admit something honest about yourself or someone you care about?
We all come to solitude holding a lot: cares and concerns about our responsibilities, fear and uncertainty about the experience of solitude itself, longing and desire. The fact that we are holding so much and don’t know what to do with it all can sabotage our efforts to center in if we don’t know how to pay attention and sort it out” writes Barton.
It took me a long time to learn just how much I was holding on to while trying to look like I had it all together.
“In many of us, the fear of not getting what our heart longs for has led us to develop an unconscious pattern of distancing ourselves from our desire in order to avoid the pain of its lack of fulfillment. When we do have discretionary time, we indulge in escapist behaviors–such as compulsive eating, drinking, spending, watching television–because we are too tired to choose activities that are truly life-giving,” writes Barton.
It took me a while to admit that I couldn’t sit still without indulging in harmful or compulsive behavior long enough to breakthrough the lies. Once I grasped the significance of solitude and silence in my own life–I began to crave the pure spiritual milk of the word so I could begin moving and growing forward (1 Peter 2:2).
Maybe you find yourself stuck and unable to move forward. You know the significance of solitude and silence, but you don’t know where to start.
Try answering these six life-changing questions that Barton asks in the book:
- Am I really worth anything if I’m not out there constantly proving myself?
- Who am I when I am not busy doing things that tell the world who I am?
- Why is it so hard to stop the frantic pace of my life when when I know it’s hurting me and those I love?
- What do I do with this pain and sadness?
- What is true and real in my relationship with God and what is merely illusion–things I would like to believe are true but really aren’t?
- Is God really enough to satisfy the loneliness, the emptiness, the longing of my soul?
“I had to face the fact that much of my hard work and service up to that point had been driven by an effort to please others and prove my worth to them–particularly those in positions of authority. For a while I tried to keep these fears and questions to myself. In the midst of the high-performance cultures in which I lived and worked and worshipped, it was embarrassing to acknowledge such a voracious desire for silence and solitude. I was afraid people would question my ability to produce along the lines they were measuring. I was afraid of becoming irrelevant in a world that measures relevance by output and being out front.
Success for me is now 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,” writes Barton.
“Let him who cannot be alone beware of community…Let him who is not in community beware of being alone” (Dietrich Bonhoeffer).