Thriving in the Desert

Silence and solitude offer us the opportunity to encounter God and open our spirits to him

October 30, 2009 by Kelly Pope


desertDid Christ oversell Christianity? In John 10:10, Jesus says, “I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.” What about you? Do you lead a full life?

Most of us experience some degree of fulfilment—our ministries are going well, we’re maintaining our personal spiritual lives. If we are honest, we acknowledge the need for improvement in some areas, but overall we are diligent, committed to what we do and convinced that this work, this “way of doing,” is it.

Yet is there something more—a spiritual experience that we may be missing? What if we moved a little closer into the shadow and allowed our eyes to adjust? What would we discover? What could we be?

Silence and solitude are classical disciplines of the Christian tradition. They have been explored in the writings of medieval mystics Thomas à Kempis and Marguerite Porete as well as by 20th-century authors such as Thomas Merton and Richard Foster. In recent years, these disciplines have generated newfound interest. As our world increasingly bombards us with noise and busyness, our inner souls crave a way to distance ourselves from the mayhem.

Led by the Spirit
Silence and solitude offer us the opportunity to encounter God and open our spirits to him, so that he may in turn lead us into the experience of himself. According to Matthew 4:1, Jesus ventured out into the desert for 40 days “led by the Spirit.” If we seek to become contemplative, if we desire to encounter God on a deeper level, we too must allow “desert” experiences to infiltrate our lives.

We encounter different types of desert experiences. Sometimes we are sent into solitude by God in order to achieve closeness with him. In other moments we are led into solitude by our relationships with other people, or we find ourselves alone as a result of our decisions. Yet I want to examine the type of desert experience that Christians enter into intentionally as we seek to bring ourselves closer to the heart of God.

This desert experience is laden with barriers. We have to remember that we are exercising a discipline for which we have no training and for which the world around us lends little support. We live in a post-individualistic society in which the emphasis has shifted from the individual to the community. Corporations have capitalized on this transition, throwing support behind Internet innovations such as MySpace and Facebook, which allow the user to create virtual communities without ever having to make face-to-face contact. We long to connect with others—but on our terms, within our own understanding.

A devotional experience of solitude and silence is vastly different from simply logging onto a website. We are attempting to enter into communication with a God who is wholly other. The goal is to let go of all of the cords that bind us in our daily lives. When we become quiet before God, we release the need for control. We suspend our need to manage. We try with everything in us to open our soul to him. We no longer need to justify our actions or prove to others that our motives are clear. We release our reputation into the hands of God, letting go of concern for what others think of us. We merely accept where God is leading us and try to follow him there. It is a paring down of the constancy that threatens to overtake our lives.

Jesus regularly withdrew into solitude to pray—often after he performed miracles that had sparked conversation about who he was. Matthew 14:23 recounts how “he went up on a mountainside by himself to pray” following the feeding of the 5,000. The Gospel of Luke notes that Jesus “often withdrew to lonely places and prayed” (5:16), particularly as the news of his miraculous healings spread throughout the country. Jesus demonstrated how the true foundation of our work is our time spent alone with God.

Against Our Nature?
There are so many approaches to the Christian life—is it necessary to cultivate the life of the contemplative? Many saints never pursued a life of silence and The Salvation Army’s early leaders never mentioned this discipline as essential. Do we need to add to our already-full plates yet another “to-do”?

As Salvationists, the practice of silence and solitude seems in opposition to our very nature. We are indoctrinated with William Booth’s words: “I’ll fight to the very end!” We are a denomination of doers, an organization of action—canteens at disaster sites, service to the homeless, the relentless pursuit of the soul. Even the expectations placed upon our officers exceed those of many other pastors in the Christian community. How, then, can we cultivate a life of silence and solitude when our very DNA exhorts us to “get on with it”?

Entering into a desert experience does not eradicate our responsibility to actively care for our communities. But it is in the quiet moments that we gain the strength and energy to continue our mission. In Ephesians 3:16-17, Paul writes, “I pray that out of his glorious riches [God] may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being.” Because Salvationists are often so spent in service to others, we need to deliberately carve out spaces of solitude where we can commune with the Father, refresh our souls and prepare for the next ministry opportunity.

In order to be effective, our lives must oscillate between action and contemplation, between ministry activities and spiritually “open spaces” where we can humbly present ourselves before God in silence and reverence. Our to-do list should not be a barrier to our communication with him, but rather a catalyst for us to go deeper and gain the rewards of knowing him more fully.

A life of contemplation teaches us that we should not look for rewards in our efforts to draw nearer. If we are self-seeking, we miss the point entirely. The rewards that come from entering into silence and solitude develop over time. Often it is only in retrospect that we can see the ways in which we have grown in our communication and encounters with God. The world promises instant, empty gratification, but the evidence of the Spirit’s peace in our souls is only visible in his time. Jesus said: “My peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives” (John 14:27).

In the desert, Satan tempted Jesus with bread, to which he responded, “People do not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God” (Matthew 4:4). In the desert, Jesus’ hope no longer resided in the temporal. We, too, find that our hope is replaced with the hope of glory, and no longer in the things and people we often seek to embrace.

Deep Calls to Deep
How does this work? If we are going to integrate silence and solitude into our lives and into our routines, in what ways might we begin? A few practical elements are necessary to beginning the work of silence and solitude.

The experience reaches far beyond just quieting down. There must be an intentionality of spirit. If we seek to reach God at the deepest level, we must realize that this communication does not happen overnight, or even after weeks or months at the practice. We must not seek for ourselves. We commit to the practice—and then, once we are ready to meet with God, we must let go of our words. The discipline requires us to open our spirits and not be confined with language.

There is a silence that rests in every soul. Within most of us, it lies dormant and is never exercised. As we enter into a desert experience, we willfully allow that silence to emerge. “Deep calls to deep” (Psalm 42:7). It is here, in the depths, that we ask God who we really are. Jesus had to remove himself from his work, his family, his daily life, and go to a place where he could meditate on who he was and who he was destined to be. In the desert, we experience struggle and vulnerability. Not only is there a conscious removal of the façade, but the result is that we allow ourselves to be vulnerable before him without pretense, tradition or excuse.

This experience is a holy waiting. We wait upon the Lord to direct our thinking as we open ourselves to him. We must strive to be totally open and receptive. This is the work of silence. Do not allow your thoughts to be guided away by fleeting distractions or pressing appointments. Instead, abandon yourself totally to him. Psalm 40:1 says, “I waited patiently for the Lord; he turned to me and heard my cry.”

In these moments, we become aware of our own need of repentance. And it is through the working out of our own temptation and sinfulness that God is able to work holiness into our lives. He is our centre, and though he may seem out of reach, he is not beyond our awareness. We must allow our own human consciousness to be filled with God-consciousness in order to gain the life-giving energy that Jesus speaks of in John 10:10.

Christian contemplative Thomas Merton noted that it is only in silence and solitude that we discover who we really are. In Matthew 4, Jesus entered into the desert, away from family and societal pressure, to ask God who he really was. Satan’s repeated challenge to him at the end of the 40 days—“If you are the Son of God…”— confirmed Jesus’ identity.

May we, like Jesus, desire that deeper communion with God that allows us to know ourselves as God knows us. May we learn the discipline of distancing ourselves from the temporal commotion that fills our daily lives. And, as we seek silence and solitude, may we enter into the full life that Christ has promised.

Kelly Pope is the Special Event Co-ordinator, U.S.A. Southern Territory

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