Online Conversation | Invitation to Solitude and Silence
with Ruth Haley Barton
On March 19th we were delighted to host Christian author, leader, and teacher, Ruth Haley Barton. Barton is founding President/CEO of the Transforming Center, a ministry dedicated to strengthening the souls of Christian leaders and the congregations and organizations they serve. Ruth is the author of numerous books and resources on the spiritual life including Strengthening the Soul of Your Leadership and Sacred Rhythms. She reflects regularly on spirituality and leadership in her blog, Beyond Words, and on her podcast Strengthening the Soul of Your Leadership.
We hope you enjoy this conversation around her book, Invitation to Solitude and Silence: Experiencing God’s Transforming Presence. Our attention, Barton believes, has become a commodity that we must protect if we are to avoid being swept away by our distracted age. She invites listeners to engage in these ancient biblical practices to find the rest for our souls that Jesus promises. In this Lenten season, we hope this will inspire you to pursue God’s transforming presence in new ways and contemplatively sit in solitude and silence with the Author and Perfecter of faith.
The song is “Revive Me Again” by Fernando Ortega.
This painting is “Eaton’s Neck, Long Island” by John Frederick Kensett, 1872
Online Conversation | Ruth Haley Barton | March 19, 2021
Cherie Harder: My own welcome to all of you joining us for today’s Online Conversation on “An Invitation to Solitude and Silence” with Ruth Haley Barton. I’d like to thank our friends at Coracle who are co-hosting this event with us, as well as Bruce and Susan Gwilliam and our friends at Intervarsity Press who are helping to sponsor this event and make it possible. If you are new to the Trinity Forum, we seek to provide a space and resources for leaders to engage the big questions of life in the context of faith, through programs like this, and ultimately come to better know the Author of the answers. And we hope that this program will serve such a purpose for you today.
Several hundred years ago, the philosopher and mathematician Blaise Pascal attributed all the unhappiness of man as arising from one single fact: that they cannot stay quietly in their own room. John Milton, the great author, portrayed Hell itself as pandemonium, and C.S. Lewis’s Screwtape described Hell as the kingdom of noise—”noise which alone defends us from silly qualms, despairing scruples, and impossible desires.” And he casts an infernal vision of making the whole universe a noise in the end. Well, if Screwtape bears any resemblance to his prototype, one must give the devil his due. The massive expansion of our distractions, pings, mental clutter, competing responsibilities, and the growing din of the clashing claims of attention on our time and presence has made our private universes ever more chaotic and noisy. Shelter from the forces that lure and assault our attention, our guest today has argued, is found not in a new technique, but in the ancient practice and spiritual discipline of solitude and silence. In short, to be still and know that I am God. It’s a practice both simple and difficult, modest and powerful, one that beckons the lonely to communion, the anxious to rest, the unsettled to peace, and the distracted to wisdom.
And so it seemed a particularly apt time to ponder the invitation offered by the spiritual practice of solitude and silence. And I’m delighted to introduce our guest today who has literally written the book on exactly that subject. Ruth Haley Barton is the president and CEO of the Transforming Center, a ministry dedicated to strengthening the souls of Christian leaders in the organizations that they serve. She’s a trained spiritual director and retreat leader and the author of numerous books and resources on spirituality, including Strengthening the Soul of Your Leadership, where she also has a podcast by that name; Sacred Rhythms; and the work we’ve invited her to discuss today, Invitation to Solitude and Silence. Ruth, welcome.
Ruth Haley Barton: Oh, it’s so good to be with you, Cherie. Thanks for inviting me.
Cherie Harder: Absolutely. It is great to have you here. So we will just dive right in. And I have to ask you, at the very beginning of your book you wrote that you chose to write about this subject because, in your words, “Solitude and silence was both the most needed and least experienced spiritual discipline among Christians today.” And as one surveys the landscape of Christendom in America, there’s probably many different disciplines one could say could be helpful or needed. Why do you believe silence and solitude is the most needed, if least experienced?
Ruth Haley Barton: That’s a beautiful question. I think there are some cultural things we could say, but solitude and silence in particular is where we encounter God. But it is also the place that’s most challenging for us on so many different levels. Solitude just challenges us: psychologically, spiritually, culturally, relationally. It challenges us on every single level. And yet the scriptures are very clear, including the verse that you referenced, that there is a way of knowing God in the stillness that is different than how we know God in the busyness of our lives, in the noise and in the words and the activity of our lives. It’s just so clear, you know: “Be still and know that I am God.” Be still and know something in a deep, experiential way. And I believe that one of the reasons that solitude and silence is so challenging is because it’s challenging spiritually, that the evil one, I believe, comes against all of our attempts to know God in that way, because the evil one knows that if we do know God deeply and experientially in the center of our being, that the evil one’s power over us would be unseated, you know? And so there’s just a way of knowing God that is very different.
And I also believe that the guidance that we need in moments—and of course, we’re in a very difficult moment now in our culture—that there’s a kind of guidance that comes to us as we listen to the spirit of God in the depths of our beings that’s different than what we think our way into intellectually. And so even now, I think there’s a tremendous need to go deep and to go down into the souls of our beings to hear the wisdom that we need as we are still in the pandemic and as we emerge from this crazy time that we’ve all been in. We’re not going to think our way into the answers and solutions, I don’t believe. We’re going to discern our way in. And that’s going to come through listening to God in the depths of our being through solitude and silence.
Cherie Harder: Yes. So you and I were talking yesterday about this very interesting study that came out of UVA where a bunch of people, all age groups, were asked to stay by themselves, silently and in solitude, in a room with no distractions. And the only distraction they were allowed to have was that of giving themselves a painful electric shock. And the results of this experiment were the vast majority of people actually preferred painful shocks to just sitting in silence. And I noticed that in your own book, you described a silent retreat that you were really looking forward to and having almost a panic attack before it started. So why is silence and solitude so hard for us?
Ruth Haley Barton: Well, I think for many reasons. First of all, I’ve already mentioned spiritually. I think there is a spiritual challenge to solitude and silence and that the evil one is involved in trying to prevent us from knowing God in the way that we can know God in solitude and silence. I think that it’s— I think solitude and silence is very challenging to us psychologically, because when you remove all the distractions, you have to be present to what’s really going on in the inside. You know? So my grief, my sadness, my wounds, my disappointments, my resentments, my frustrations. That without the distraction, then I have to really be present to myself. And what I’m present to might be difficult and painful to be present with, psychologically speaking. It’s the psychological dynamic. I think solitude and silence is difficult because relationally we make ourselves unavailable to people that want us to be available to them. So we struggle with the way that we’re all bound up in our relationships, and am I even allowed to be disconnected from people and unavailable to people for a while?
Culturally, there’s nothing in our culture right now that supports solitude and silence. And in fact, it might surprise you to know that I feel like I’m struggling more with solitude and silence than I ever have. And one of the reasons for that is the technology. We keep our phones like literally on our bodies and on our wristwatches now. We have ways of being notified that we have a new email message. To be disconnected now, people expect a response to their texts and to their emails immediately, and so relationally it’s difficult to give our full and undivided attention to God versus allowing ourselves to be available through our technologies, you know what I mean? It’s just so challenging and difficult on that level as well. And this fear of missing out—FOMO—you know, that if I’m not on and available, am I going to miss out on something really significant? So I think fear of missing out is now very much a part of our psychology as well. So there are just so many reasons why solitude and silence are challenging and more challenging now than ever, I would say. I wrote this book 20 years ago. I mean, honestly, I wrote it 20 years ago, and yet I feel it’s more needed in my own life and in other people’s lives now than it was 20 years ago when I wrote it, for the reasons that I mentioned.
Cherie Harder: You mentioned the pain and the internal chaos that silence reveals. And I wanted to ask you about that, along with— in many ways, sort of one of the paradoxical appeals of silence and solitude is rest. I think you devote almost a third of your book to essentially silence and rest. So how does that happen? If silence actually exposes and forces us to face kind of our internal chaos, that seems largely like an experience of disorientation and desolation, not of rest.
Ruth Haley Barton: Yeah, well, and those dynamics that I just named and that you just named, those are something that we are going to have to tolerate and wait through until the chaos settles. And so I’ll move to talking about that metaphor that was so important to me early in my own experience with solitude and silence, where I was all riled up and I knew it. The emotions that I could sometimes manage but couldn’t fully control, the drivenness of my personality at the time, the unhealthy ways I was living in my body, all those kinds of things were very, very true for me. And I sought out therapy at first. And then my therapist was also a spiritual director. And she eventually said, “You know, Ruth, you’re a jar of river water all shaken up. And what you need is to sit still long enough so that the sediment can settle and the water can be become clear.” And that image called to me powerfully. It called to me powerfully because on the one hand, I knew that she was naming me correctly, that even though I had been a Christian all my life, I wasn’t characterized internally by the peace that passes understanding. I was characterized by chaos and the sediment that was swirling for all sorts of different reasons. So to be named like that is a very convicting experience.
But then, you know, Richard Rohr talks about the fact that to take a good journey, first of all, you have to name where you are and then say, “I’m willing to go someplace else.” And so that image of a jar of river water that had sat still long enough for the sediment to settle and the water to become clear, that image called to me in a way that nothing else was calling to me, even though I’ve studied my Bible all my life and I’m theologically informed. This language was fresh for me and it was different. And I thought, wow, if my soul could be a place where the sediment had settled and things had settled down and the water could become clear, that’s what I wanted. I wanted to have that kind of clarity inside my own soul. And that image called to me in a different and deeper way than even some of the biblical language called to me. And I said, that’s where I want to go. That’s what I want to have be true about me. And I’m willing to try pretty much anything to see if that could be true for me. And so what I learned in my initial practice with solitude and silence is that the first thing I had to face was the chaos, the very things we’ve named here. The only way to get to any other side is to wait through it, just like the jar of river water. If it sits still long enough, the sediment will settle. If we as souls sit still long enough, at first it’s going to be uncomfortable, it’s going to be really uncomfortable to sit. And then eventually, though, the settlement will settle and something new will emerge.
And so when I would come back to my spiritual director—and she was the one that encouraged me in solitude and silence—and I would come back and I would say, “This is so hard, it’s so chaotic, I’m so distracted. I can’t even sit there ten minutes.” She would very sagely say, “Well, that’s what it’s like, because for the first time you’re acknowledging that what’s true inside you is chaos. This is what it’s like.” So I was seeing myself for what I really was, outside of being distracted and unwilling to see. And so the only way through all that is through. There’s no other way except to sit through the discomfort and maybe sometimes the pain. But knowing that if you sit still long enough—and you don’t even have to do anything; you don’t bat around at anything, you don’t try to fix anything, but you’re just willing to be still—then the sediment in our souls will begin to settle. And I hope that’s encouraging to people who are listening because I found it encouraging and I needed that encouragement in order to stay faithful to the practice early on.
Cherie Harder: You know, one of the things that struck me about even the metaphor you mentioned, the spiritual director that you mentioned, is you also mentioned in your book that at one point she had told you, “Be still and the knowing will come.” And it seemed to me just in reading your book, at least this reader, that there was sort of a theme of epistemology that kind of ran through the book too. You have it introduced by Dallas Willard, the late, great Dallas Willard, who was an epistemologist and a philosopher. And we’re in a time of real confusion. There’s chaos and confusion and controversy about what is true or false, real or fake news, and the like. And so what is the knowing? What is the knowledge that your spiritual director promised you that comes through that kind of stillness when the sediment settles?
Ruth Haley Barton: Well, I think that what she was referring to in that particular moment that I referenced was discernment. That there were areas that I was trying to discern in my life and the answers weren’t coming through the intellect and thinking really hard and listing the pros and cons and doing the research and reading another book by a guru. She was really encouraging that discernment where you’re quiet enough that you can hear the Holy Spirit, you know. And the scriptures are clear that the only one who knows the mind of God is the Spirit of God. And so if we’re not hearing from the Spirit, we’re not knowing the mind of God. It’s the only way to know the mind of God. And you have to be quiet. You have to let some of that sediment settle to know the difference between your own mind, your own thoughts, your own culture, the voice of culture, what it is that God is actually saying to you distinctly deep inside. So I know there that she was referring to discernment. Things I needed to know about my next steps would only come as I sat quietly and allowed God to lead me into knowing.
The other thing that I experienced first, that was a knowing, really does refer to Psalm 46:10 where I began to know myself in God beyond all the doing. I began to know and experience the love of God for me, beyond all the doing. I experienced myself to be loved, beyond the doing that many of us—especially as Protestant do-er Christians; you know, we are so schooled in activism. It’s just a part of the Protestant DNA. That to experience ourselves loved beyond all the doing and to realize that God wants something from us first before the doing— God actually wants us, you know. Before the doing, God wants us. And God wants our undivided attention. And God wants to shower us with God’s love. And God wants to give us the gifts of knowing and discernment and an experience of being accepted and known unconditionally. Those are all things that God wants to give us first, you know, and the activism and the doing can grow out of that, of course. And it does, always, because God is always doing good things in and through us and through our journeys. But there was the experiential knowing of God’s love and a fullness that came out of the knowing.
And then the other thing I’ll mention is peace, that I had not experienced a lot of peace in my life, given my personality, given I do really enjoy the life of the intellect. I’m a reader. I’m a studier. I love the life of learning and the life of the mind. But the mind wasn’t doing it for me at that point, you know, and I knew that there were places where I wasn’t transforming. I knew that there were places where I was still a selfish clod, you know, and those things weren’t changing by getting more information and they weren’t changing within the life of the intellect. And so God began to give peace. I began to experience a kind of peace that I had never experienced before, in the words and in the learning and in the knowing and in the, you know, the activism. There was a kind of peace that I experienced that was different than just talking about peace, you know. So a lot is given in the practice of solitude and silence that I don’t believe comes to us in any other way. Truthfully, I don’t think it comes to us in any other way.
Cherie Harder: That’s beautiful. You lead an organization that actually focuses on solitude and silence and other spiritual practices for leaders. And leadership by nature is— it’s public, it’s representational, it’s wordy. You know, it’s exactly the opposite of silence and solitude. So why do you believe silence and solitude is so necessary for leaders? And how does that work when the very nature of leadership itself is almost the embodied opposite?
Ruth Haley Barton: Yes. Well, in the book we’re referring to today, the book on solitude and silence, I offer up the character of Elijah, who was a prophet in Israel. And I kind of track with his journey and track with his need to step back from his life in leadership. There came a point where Elijah said, “God, thank you so much for what you’ve done for me publicly.” Right before he enters into solitude and silence in 1 Kings 19, he has his greatest success in 1 Kings 18. You know, where he sets up that contest between the prophets of Baal and the one true God, and he calls down the fires of God on his altar. And, you know, the prophets of Baal try to get their gods to respond to them. They don’t. There’s utter silence. But then Elijah calls down the fires of God on his own alter and God answers on that day. God was the God who answers with fire on that day. And so Elijah was vindicated and validated as a prophet, as a leader, in Israel that day.
But then the very next moment we see him, he’s depressed, he’s desolate, he’s suicidal, depending on how you want to read 1 Kings 19. And so we see his journey into solitude and silence where he says, in effect, to God, “Thank you for everything you did for me out there publicly, but now I need something from you. I am empty, I am poured out. I need you to do something more private and more personal for me. I need to have an experience of intimacy with you just for myself.” And I think many, many leaders, as they lead, they lose touch with the fact that they’re giving out so much to other people that they are no longer experiencing the intimacy with God that their own soul needs. They’re no longer experiencing the rest in God that they need, they’re no longer experiencing the guidance, the intimacy, the love, the strength that they need to persevere in the midst of hard times. And so, Elijah, as a leader, let’s not forget that one of the major experiences of solitude and silence in scripture given to us by the inspiration of God is a leader who realized he needed more than just what he was experiencing with God in the public arena, shall we say.
So he was replenished in an extended period of time of solitude and silence, and then came back, came back to leadership with two things. One, he had his experience of intimacy with God that gave him his identity. You know? It became the bedrock of his being, that encounter that he had with God. And secondly, God gave him guidance, like strategic tactical guidance for what to do next: appoint a new king. God talked to him about his rhythms and said, “You can’t keep doing it this way. You need a helper. You need another leader to share the burden with.” Very personal and also strategic guidance that got given to Elijah as a leader. That’s what happens for leaders.
And then the other character in scripture that I’ve written about extensively is the character of Moses and his life and leadership. And I identify what I would consider to be the sacred rhythm of leadership in his life, and that is solitude and the encounter with God that takes place there. Moses would go into solitude. He would wait for the encounter. They would have an encounter. God would give him whatever it was that he needed, whether it was an experience of God’s goodness or whether or not it was the Ten Commandments or whether or not it was guidance for, you know, difficulty that Moses was having. And then Moses would emerge from that place and he would do exactly what God told him to do. And that was it. That was Moses’s strategy. And I don’t even think it was a strategy. It’s just what sustained him. So I see in Moses’s life this sacred rhythm of leadership: solitude. You enter into that time to be with God and God alone. You wait for the encounter, you have the encounter. Sometimes it’s going to have bells and whistles and noise. Sometimes it’s going to feel like nothing happened. But the sediment is still settling. And then you emerge from that place and you do exactly what God tells you to do. And that is spiritual leadership in my mind. That is leadership that’s connected with the presence of God deep within that knows what God is saying to me right now. And that has the courage to emerge from that encounter and just simply do what God is telling me to do. And I actually believe that that is a much, in some ways, less stressful way to lead than to think that I’m always going to be figuring it out up here, you know. Or I’m going to get it from going to the next leadership conference. No, it’s going to come from deep inside where God’s Spirit witnesses with our spirits about who we are and what’s really true and what he’s calling us to do and to be.
Cherie Harder: So you mentioned this with Elijah, but you mentioned it a few times with yourself, and I’d love to ask you about how solitude changes your sense of identity, and how the practice of solitude changed your own sense of identity, who you are and what you’re made to do?
Ruth Haley Barton: Yeah. Oh, that’s a deep question, because I’ve been practicing solitude and silence in a very disciplined way for 20 years, so there’s lots of answers that could be given to a question like that. But I already mentioned that the experience of love, being loved beyond what you do, that your identity is as the child of God, as the beloved of God, and that God is with you and God loves you beyond anything you will ever do for God—that becomes the bedrock of your identity. Which means—and Henri Nouwen refers to this, too—which means that you can tolerate a lot of success and still know who you are. And you can also tolerate a lot of failure and still know who you are. Those things become external to you. They are not who you are. And so you can experience a wide range of things that could be considered successful or that could be considered failings. But it doesn’t change who you are. It doesn’t change your sense of being loved and being worthy. That is tremendous to have happen inside you. And I think many leaders are actually leading out of emptiness sometimes and they’re trying to get their identity from what they do and what their roles and what their titles are. And that’s why they let themselves get into rhythms that are unhealthy is because they’re still trying to get as much as they can get to shore up a sense of identity.
But when you have it the other way, when you have it before you get out there and do stuff, even the quality of what you do is different. It’s not so driven. It’s not so frenetic. You can do what you do for other people and leave the outcomes to God and return to that place of knowing who you are in God. So that is— that’s very significant right there.
I think also the experience of trusting yourself to God in solitude and silence—because that’s what you do for the 20 minutes or the half an hour that you sit open and receptive to God, you are trusting God with your very being. And when you continue to have that experience and cultivate that experience, you bring that trust into your life, in the company of others, and into your leadership, where you’re able to do what’s yours to do, but you trust yourself and you trust others and you trust the outcomes to God. And so trust becomes very foundational to how you do and experience your life.
And then the other thing that I would mention for myself is just leading and moving with more discernment versus trying so hard and trying to figure things out mentally and intellectually. But to feel that you have discerned God’s way for you, especially around really knotty issues in leadership— When you are returning to the place of listening to God and you feel like God has spoken to you, and then you leave that place and you do what God has told you to do, that is a much more restful way to lead and so much more trustable way to lead. And you’re not going to have those knowings without being quiet for a while. You’re just— it just doesn’t happen that way. God rarely knocks people off their horses like he did with the apostle Paul. He only does that when we’re being really willful. You know, generally, God does not compete for our attention. Generally, the still small voice is a still small voice where we have to get quiet in order to hear it and we have to set aside other distractions in order to hear it.
There’s the moment in Moses’s life at the burning bush where Moses sees the bush that is burning but not consumed. And he says, “I must turn aside and see this great sight.” And the scripture says that when God saw that Moses had turned aside to look, God called to him out of the bush. In other words, there’s this cause and effect relationship between our practices of turning aside to pay attention and to look and to be quiet and God’s willingness to talk to us because God doesn’t generally compete. He just doesn’t. He waits until he sees he’s got our attention. And he’s got lots to tell us! But he’s going to wait until we turn aside and say, “God, you’ve got my attention, I’m listening. I’m here, I’m available, I’m receptive.” And the practices of solitude and silence are how we say that to God. “I’m here, I’m open, I’m receptive. I’m listening for your voice.” And leadership that emerges from that place is distinctively and qualitatively different.
Cherie Harder: We have a ton of questions which we’ll get to in just a second. Before we do that, just listening to you, I can imagine there’s many people listening for whom the prospect of stillness and silence and solitude sounds wonderfully refreshing. But also they live in places with very little privacy and unrelenting demands from whether it’s work or children or others that they’re caring for or depend on them. If you’re in that situation, how do those of us who live our life “on call,” so to speak, incorporate the practice of silence and solitude?
Ruth Haley Barton: Well, that is a wonderful question to dig into, like there are real scenarios that you described right there that need guidance and that need ideas. You know, obviously, any sort of place that offers retreat or retreat ministry— we are really big on the “come away” part of “come away with me and rest a while,” even though we haven’t been able to practice it very well the last year. There is something about the coming away, you know. And Dallas Willard says, “If you don’t come apart for a while, you’ll come apart after a while.” You know? That there is a need to try to find a way to be away, even just a little bit. And I know that there are real stresses. There’s young children. I practiced this when I had young children, a seven-year-old, a five-year-old, and a nursing baby. And so sometimes it was getting out of the fray and nursing the baby that gave me moments to be quiet. Sometimes it would be the ten minutes, you know, at night in the bath while my husband cared for children. And this is part of it is I think we need to work with the people that live with us and work hard together to brainstorm. How can you get some solitude? How can I give you some solitude? And people who work together, who live together, can work together, whether you’re single, living with roommates. How can we work together to give each other even the smallest little bit of time alone and quiet? I love being alone and present to God in my house, which hasn’t happened a lot lately. It’s not happened for anyone a lot lately. And sometimes I’ve just had to ask my dear loving husband, could you just please go do an errand or something so that I could just have a little bit of time. And it just replenishes me so profoundly that we’re happy to give that, you know, to each other.
With young children—I have daughters who all have young children, and it’s a beautiful thing to watch how they work with their husband and how they work back and forth to give each other these moments alone to hear from God. The other thing that I hope is encouraging is that God is really faithful. We serve and seek a God who comes, and God is really faithful to come in to any little tiny bit of space that we create for him. And so even if it’s only ten minutes that we can get, God comes in because God’s waiting, you know, to come in. So let’s not set our expectations too high. But if it’s only ten minutes or it’s only a half an hour, take it. Be intentional with it. I remember when I was a young mother and seeking solitude and silence and I would get my kids into preschool and then there’d be all this stuff I wanted to do. I want to wash the kitchen floor. I want to shop. I want to do this or that. And I would have to—I would see I only had an hour and a half—and I would have to be so intentional with what I was going to do with that tiny little bit of time I had. And even though so much was clamoring, I knew what my deeper desire was. And most of the time I made decisions that were consistent with the deeper desire of my heart, which was to be present with God and allow God to be present with me.
And so I think if church sanctuaries are open, you know, even to slip into a sanctuary or into a beautiful chapel for a few days at our lunch hour, that can be something. I even suggest giving yourself a little bit of time at work. You know, you get a lunch hour, you know, that’s given to you by law. So use it, you know? Turn your chair away from your desk, face a cross or a candle and give yourself a few moments to breathe in God’s presence during the working day. If we know this is what we want, we can find ways. Human beings have an interesting way of making sure they get what they want. Have you ever noticed that? That’s the way we’re wired. So if we go down deep and touch our deepest desires and we realize this is something I want, it’s amazing what our intentionality can do and bring if we know this is what we want.
Cherie Harder: Thanks for that, Ruth. Well, the questions are piling up. And just as a reminder to all of us watching, you can not only ask a question, but you can also “like” a question and that helps give us a sense of what some of the most popular questions are. So our first question comes from Jackie Kain. And Jackie asks, “Can you tell us what your solitude looks like? How do you prepare before going in? What do you do during your solitude? And how long does your solitude last?”
Ruth Haley Barton: Well, let’s go with the easy one first. That “how long.” That really does depend on what your life situation is. So now, oftentimes I can have, you know, what I try to do is not even have my technologies on until 9:00. And I am an early riser, which means that I can have a couple of hours of quiet that are very, very intentional. Now, that’s now. I couldn’t do that when I had young children. When I had young children, I would be very lucky to get the 10 minutes, and I had to work hard to even get that. So the “how long” may be in some ways predicated on what your life stage is. And let’s be clear that the purpose of solitude and silence is to, you know, to be with God in love and then eventually to be with others in love. And so we want to be careful not to set such high expectations for our solitude that we get angry and frustrated with our peeps, you know, and we get angry with them for messing up my solitude. And I remember— I’m only speaking because I remember times like this when I wanted the solitude so bad. And I was then, you know, mad at my family and mean at my family because they weren’t allowing for it. Let’s be really careful to watch that dynamic. And if it doesn’t get given on a given day, it doesn’t get given. So I hesitate to be really specific about my season now, because when I started, it was 20 years ago and I had two young children and a nursing baby. And what I did back then is very different than what I do right now.
But let me mention a couple of things that I think can be kind of universal. One is, if you could create a sacred space—and I write about this very practically in Invitation to Solitude and Silence—that if you could have, it can be very, very simple, it can be a corner of a bedroom. It can be, you know, maybe it’s a place in your office or it can be, you know, the recliner in the family room at a time when nobody else is in the house. But is there a space that you could create so that just by entering into that space, your body and your soul starts to settle in? So a place where you have a cross or some other religious symbol that means something to you, a candle that you can light. And I love the lighting of a candle. And you’ll notice I have one with me here today, even as I’m speaking, not so much for ambiance, but to remind me of the presence of the Holy Spirit. You know, the Holy Spirit came as flames on the heads of the disciples in the New Testament. And so the lighting of a candle reminds me of the real presence of the Holy Spirit with me now. It’s not just for ambiance’s sake. And so to be reminded and then to use the candle perhaps as a focal point; when you get distracted, you can see the flame and you come back and you say, “Oh, yeah, that. The laundry needs to be moved from the washer to the dryer, the yard needs to be mowed, the dishes needed to be done, whatever it is. Oh, but this is what I’m here for. I’m here to be present to the Spirit of God deep within. The candle reminds me.” So to have a sacred space. And now when I enter into that space and I light the candle, I mean, it’s over. I, you know, it just draws me right in to what I’m there to be and to do. So that’s one of the most concrete things that I can offer.
And then the other thing is to really pay attention to your body. And so when I am with people in retreat environment, I actually teach them what to do with their bodies because my own spiritual director taught me how to be in my body and how to let my body be the temple that guides this time. So feet flat on the floor, you know. You can start doing that right now if you’re in a place where you can do it. Because I love getting into this posture, because your body is now the temple, you know, guiding you. So your feet flat on the floor, uncross legs. So there’s nothing in your body that’s holding it tight, you know. Uncross your arms, open your hands. Notice any place that you’re holding tight and breathe deeply and breathe specifically into that place where you’re feeling the stress and the tension. Use your breathing. Sometimes people think I’m getting kind of woo-woo and Buddhist when I talk about that. But the truth is that breathing is a very Christian thing to do. Amen. You know, God gave the first woman and the first man their breath. Let’s reclaim this idea of breathing. This is part of our Christian heritage. And when we breathe, we can remember that God is giving me my breath right now. With each and every breath, God is affirming my life. God is saying, “I want you to be alive on the Earth now,” and use your breath as a way of coming in touch with the Spirit of God present with you now.
All of those are ways of entering in and settling yourself down. And so I suggest at least 10 minutes of open-handed silence where you’re not doing anything. Solitude, by definition, is being with God and God alone. Silence, by definition, is silencing not only your life in the company of others, but you’re also silencing your addiction to words and to noise and to activity, as a way of shoring up your sense of self. So in silence we withdraw from all of that as well. And to have at least 10 minutes of open, receptive— truly, I’m not doing anything or bringing any agenda to these moments. And ten minutes can be very challenging early on. After a while, though, your capacity increases and you realize you want more and more of that open silence.
But then from there—and I do suggest starting with the silence—then from there you can go into scripture reading if you’d like, but you’re coming in more quietly now because you’ve settled down on the inside. You might journal about what it is that God said to you in the silence or what he didn’t say or how frustrated you were or what you were present to, what God brought to your mind. You know, any spiritual reading that you’re doing, you can do that out of the silence, because then what God has to say can penetrate more deeply. And then, even any question that you have that you’re trying to discern, to really, you know, present that. And then there’s also a practice of intersession that I won’t take the time to describe right now, but we can actually add some intersession in a certain kind of open-handed way where we actually invite God to bring to mind anyone that needs our prayers today, anyone that’s asked us to pray for them. Not make it a memory game, but instead, again, this open, receptive stance where you allow God to bring whoever needs to be brought. And you just hold that person openly and lovingly in God’s hand and then in your own hands and in God’s presence. And then I would say the traditional way to end our times of solitude and silence is to come back into words through the Lord’s Prayer, to use the Lord’s Prayer to bridge between your silence and your life back in the realm of words. So those are just some ideas for what people who practice know how to do relative to this discipline.
Cherie Harder: That’s great. And that anticipated many of the questions that we have gotten. Our next question comes from Chris Marlink. And Chris asks, “It seems like extroverts have the deck stacked against them with these practices, but do introverts really have an easier time of this, or does their proclivity to solitude differ from this practice?”
Ruth Haley Barton: I love that question because people often think that some of these basic Christian practices are affected by or maybe we are even off the hook with them if they don’t fit our personality types. So extroverts might want to say, “Well, because I’m extroverted, I’m off the hook, I don’t have to do solitude.” Or on the other side, introverts could say, “Well, because I’m introverted, I don’t have to do community.” Do you know what I mean? Your personality type only tells you which ones are going to be more difficult and challenging for you and why. But we’re each all still called to the basic Christian disciplines, and solitude and silence is a basic Christian discipline, spiritual discipline. And so, yes, it will identify one set of challenges. So if you’re an extrovert, yeah, it is going to be difficult to remove yourself from your life and the company of others. And it’s going to feel harder perhaps than for introverts. But extroverts need it as much as anyone else, because without solitude and silence, extroverts are going to tend to skate along the surface of their lives and never drop down into this deeper way of knowing.
Now introverts, though, have their own struggle with solitude and silence, believe it or not. We are drawn to it, but introverts can also spiral into morbid subjectivity and into morbid introspection. And they have to be really careful in solitude and silence that that doesn’t happen and that the evil one doesn’t see solitude and silence as a foothold within which to lead them into the darker, spiraling emotions of sadness and depression and desolation and things like that. And so introverts have their own challenges. Yes, extroverts do have a challenge. Maybe the getting into it is more of a challenge. But the introverts have a challenge, too, once they get into it, and they have to be careful in their own way.
Cherie Harder: That’s great. So I want to combine two related questions, both really interesting questions, about sort of the connection between the mental and the manual. William Robinson asks, “Solitude and silence seem to be highly interior disciplines. Matthew Crawford, who wrote Shop Class as Soul Craft, talks about more exterior ways of training our attention and clarifying our minds through craft and manual labor and other direct forms of engagement with reality. Are these complementary approaches? Do you agree with Crawford’s perspective?” And somewhat relatedly, Wendy Stackable quotes Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel and says, “‘If you work with your mind, Sabbath with your hands, and if you work with your hands, Sabbath with your mind.’ Can you address the way we might experience solitude in light of Rabbi Heschel comments?” So I’ll throw both those somewhat related questions to you for your thoughts.
Ruth Haley Barton: Yes, the last chapter in Invitation to Solitude and Silence is entitled “For the Sake of Others,” and it does connect our solitude with our doing, because when we’re practicing solitude and silence, we actually then begin to bring a different presence to our life in the company of others. So that very quality of solitude and silence, which in the beginning has to be shaped by exterior silence, eventually, in the practice of solitude and silence, the solitude and silence ends up being inside us. It’s not about your external situation at all. It’s not about the chapel. It’s not about the quiet room. It’s not about the candle or anything like that. You have now internalized solitude and silence, so wherever you go, you are bringing your solitude and silence with you. And you can always access that place; no matter what’s going on around you in your work life or in the culture or whatever, you can always access that place of quiet where you know who you are, you know your basic identity, where you know that God is with you, where you can actually say to God, “What’s going on here, spiritually speaking? What are you calling for? How can I align myself with your purposes?” That quality of presence is now with you everywhere you go, and you can access what happens in solitude and silence anywhere. And it changes the quality of your presence with other people. Now, you need to keep coming back into some sort of external silence in order to keep, you know, to keep cultivating that place inside you that carries solitude and silence with you wherever you go.
And one of the most precious things that ever happened to me in this connection between my solitude and in my life in the company of others was one night when I was practicing. It was evening. It was early evening. And I was practicing. No, I was writing, actually. I was trying to probably write this book, probably. No, it was a magazine article that I had a deadline with. And I’d been practicing solitude and silence for a while. And I had three children, and they were at the time preteens and older children. And our middle daughter had a bunch of friends over. I think there must have been 15 of them and they were playing basketball out in front, but they kept traipsing through the house. And I was so frustrated that I couldn’t get my writing done, that I couldn’t focus on my writing. And so I actually said a prayer to God. I think it might have even been out loud. You know, if solitude and silence doesn’t make any difference in this moment that I’m in as a busy young mother, it doesn’t make any difference at all. That was the feeling that I had. If I can’t bring something different to my moments as a mother of a busy household then solitude and silence is really, truly irrelevant. That’s what I said in great frustration to God. And God led me to the memory of that Julian of Norwich quote, where she says, “First I look at God and then I look at you and then I look at God again.” When someone asked, “How do you pray for me, as a contemplative?” She said, “First I look at God.” In other words, I see us in God, I see you in God. “Then I look at you, then I look at your situation. I look at this situation through the eyes of God. Then I look at God again.” And I thought, I am going to practice this here tonight. You know, first I look at God, remind myself that I’m in God, all that I’ve experienced in solitude and silence of God’s love. Then I look at these young people that are playing basketball outside my window, that are traipsing through the house trying to get snacks and drinks. And then I look at God again and I see them through God’s eyes. And it was powerful to see these young people, to see their bodies and to see their energy and to see their beauty and to see their life and their energy. And it just changed me in relationship to my exterior world, you know, and then I was able to give them love. And then I was able to be a conduit for God’s love and attention versus just trying to be selfish and self-centered and get this little bit of time for myself to write. As a writer, that’s all I ever want to do, is write.
And that’s— I don’t even know if I’m getting at the questions, I hope I am. That there’s this relationship between solitude, our life together with others, and our calling in the world that is very rhythmic. I’ll call it rhythmic. And if we can get our rhythms established, our practice of solitude will carry us into the world with more love for this world that God loves and gave his life for. That’s what I’ve experienced over and over and over again. Because in silence and in any sort of spiritual formation practice, the heart of Jesus is being formed in us. The sacred heart of Jesus is being formed in us, or else it isn’t Christian formation. And then it’s the sacred heart of Jesus that we’re carrying out into the world. That heart that beats with love for all the other of God’s children, you know, and all the world’s issues and everything that’s going on. God’s heart beats in love for all of it. And our heart is beating with God’s, for the world. And we don’t have time to go into the full discussion of the connection between our bodies and our souls in all of this, and I hear that in the question as well. But yes, our bodies, we can begin experiencing our bodies as temples that are the place of prayer. They’re the place of encounter. And then our very bodies become gifts, you know, to the world. And what we do in our bodies as temples connects us with God’s work in the world versus this disembodied spirituality that many of us have experienced in our Protestant and Catholic tradition.
Cherie Harder: Thanks, Ruth. So a question from Elizabeth Geiger. Elizabeth asks, “What would you say to someone who feels as if they have never experienced God and, even more so, feels that in the hardest moments of their life, when they cry to God in desperation, they have been abandoned?”
Ruth Haley Barton: Yes. I think there are many reasons, as we’ve noted, why solitude and silence are difficult and we’ve talked about the psychology of it, and this touches on the psychology of it, again. The fact that we as human beings, we carry all of our life experiences in our bodies at a cellular level, and that the connection between psychology and spirituality here is that if we don’t deal with our psychological brokenness—in this case, it would be the experience of abandonment, which is going to be in the cells of your body. I mean, it’s not just a mind thing. It’s going to be something carried in the cells of our body. That the psychological work of working through the abandonment will be a part of what makes it possible for us eventually to be with God and experience God the way God wants to be with us. We as human beings actually project onto God many of the things that we’ve experienced in our human experience. And that’s just, that’s just a tough, hard fact that children take in their experiences pre-consciously. And those experiences shape us pre-consciously. And it is by God’s grace that we become conscious. So I just want to pronounce God’s grace on the person who asked this question to say the fact that you are aware of this is God’s grace to you, that God is opening this up for you is God’s grace, and that we can do the work psychologically and spiritually. But we do need to do both. We’re going to need to work with our human experiences that were very early, especially, in our relational lives, because before God makes this conscious, we are projecting those experiences onto God and experiencing God in ways that are consistent with our human relating patterns. And so the psychology, the psychological work, will clear out some of that debris so that you’re no longer projecting onto God and you become more able to move through your own fears and to experience God in that way.
And I do— I want to say, in this place, it does need to be both. I think spiritual direction is really essential at this juncture as well, that you’ll probably need to meet with a spiritual director who will really help you to pay attention, perhaps, to moments when you actually did experience God’s grace and weren’t aware of it. That Jacob moment where he says, “Surely the Lord was in this place and I knew it not,” a spiritual director could help you to really reflect on moments where maybe you did experience the presence of God, but you’re not aware of that yet. And a spiritual director could help you with those times. A spiritual director can also help you move the debris out once you identify what the debris is and you’re working on that psychologically. A spiritual director can actually hold you and support you as you enter into your relationship with God with new awareness and new openness and new receptivity. I wouldn’t— I don’t think I would have had the ability to move into solitude and silence the way that I did at that time—to move through, you know, all the emotions and to move through all the chaos and to move through all the drivenness and to actually stay in the practice—without a spiritual director who kept telling me, “This is what it’s like, you’re on the right path.” She helped me understand what was happening in my experiences. Both of these resources are important for our human selves. Great question. I really do appreciate it.
Cherie Harder: We have so many great questions and we’re not going to be able to get through many more. But for our final question, what I’ll do is I’ll try to kind of roll up a number of practical-application-oriented questions.
Ruth Haley Barton: You are so good, Cherie. You’re the best one to be doing this.
Cherie Harder: Well, I don’t know about that. But you can kind of take a stab at whatever which ones of these really resonate. So Gerald Whiverly asks, “What do you do when you keep falling asleep?” Gary Althis asks, “What do you think about doing scripture reading first?” Stephen Roller asks if the silent repetition of a sacred word is necessary or helpful. Claire Leichardt asks, “How do you control your thoughts in the silence?” Linda Shadt asks, “How do you calm your mind to be open to discernment?” And Sue Zelly asks, “As someone who needs to write to help process, I’m wondering if writing can figure into the experience as well.” So a blizzard of practical questions to throw at you. You could pick any that you want to kind of answer.
Ruth Haley Barton: I want to answer each and every one. In our Transforming Community experience, we take two and a half days on the practice of solitude and silence and address so many of these things. So it’s hard to, you know, to bring it down. What was the first one? Because I wanted to answer that quickly. Falling asleep. That says you’re tired. If you’re falling asleep while you’re doing this thing you really want to do, it’s like falling asleep when you’re on a date. I mean, you really want to be on the date, right. But you’re so tired, you’re falling asleep. If it’s an important date, you want to make sure that you’re well rested to come in to that date because you want to give it your best. So if you fall asleep, don’t feel guilty about it. Realize that it means you’re too tired to be bringing your best to what it is that you most want. So your whole lifestyle needs to change a little bit to incorporate more rest so that when you come into solitude and silence, you’re actually rested and alert to be present to the one who’s always present with you. So don’t feel guilty, but see it as a signal that you need to change your rhythms a bit to get more rest because you’re not getting enough rest if, when you’re in these important moments of relationship with God or with others, you’re falling asleep.
So the sacred word. Yes, I think the sacred word is really important. And I failed to mention it when I talked about your body and your breathing and all of that. That to have a sacred prayer word—it can be a word or it can be a phrase—and I do write about this in Solitude and Silence—and it’s a phrase or a word that captures your desire right now. If you’re going to have a word, have it be a word that captures your perhaps longing and desire as it has to do with God. So when I first began, my prayer phrase was, “Here I am, Lord.” It was simple, but it expressed the deepest truth. And that is: “I don’t even know what I’m really doing here in solitude and silence. But I know why I’m here. I’m here because I want to be with you. So here I am, Lord. Here I am.” And I would come back to that phrase when my thoughts would distract me. Because your thoughts always will distract you. Everybody gets distracted. And so the sacred word or the sacred phrase can actually bring you back to your intention. And that is to be present to God and also your intention to consent to the work of God. And so the sacred word gets at Thomas Keating’s version of talking about centering prayer. And even before I knew about centering prayer, my spiritual director had guided me to have a prayer phrase that would bring me back, that would take me in to the times of silence: So “here I am, Lord,” that’s my beginning. Then when the distractions come, I pray again: “Here I am, Lord,” and it brings me back to my intention and it becomes a way of consenting to the work of God deep within.
What did I forget? Is there anything out there that I didn’t get to?
Cherie Harder: Controlling thoughts in silence, writing, and scripture reading.
Ruth Haley Barton: Yeah, I think it’s fine to start with scripture, but here’s the thing. When you think about a pond, it’s very choppy and wavy because there’s a lot of wind and you throw a pebble into the pond, you can’t even see where the pebble went in because the surface is so choppy. Our souls are like that. When we come in to solitude and silence, we’re all stirred up and riled up and it’s all very, very choppy. And so the word of God is spoken, but you can’t even see where it goes in. You can’t even— it doesn’t even penetrate the way that it could because there’s so much surface chop. If you can come in and allow some of that surface chop to settle down, then the word of God can penetrate more deeply. However, I think I hear in your question, though, that maybe the scriptures help you to enter in. And so maybe even the choice of scripture at that point could be important, to choose scripture that helps you enter into your rest, like a scripture like from Isaiah: “I have loved you with an everlasting love.” And to just let it have, just let it be a simple phrase that doesn’t get you intellectually engaged. I think many people— you have to work with your engagement with scripture first in order to answer this question, because if your engagement with scripture is intellectual primarily, then reading scripture is going to get you going intellectually versus letting you settle in. So that’s why maybe a phrase from scripture or it can even become your prayer word, you know—but it needs to be the kind of scripture that will settle you versus getting you into study and intellectual mode. So how you’re using scripture becomes really important to that question. If I was sitting with you in a spiritual direction, we would really work with that question for a bit.
Cherie Harder: Ruth, thank you. This has been absolutely fascinating as well as really encouraging.
Ruth Haley Barton: Thank you. I actually really want God to have the last word. I’d like us to experience a moment of silence. And so I’m going to lead us in a brief prayer. And in the middle of this prayer, there’s going to be maybe 30 seconds of just quiet to settle in to what we’ve talked about here. It’s so important not just to talk about this sort of thing, but to actually experience it. And then I will complete the prayer and that will be all for me.
So if you want to right now and you’re able, you could go ahead and put your feet flat on the floor, making sure you’ve uncrossed your arms and your legs. You could breathe deeply as a way of coming in touch with the spirit of God deep within, that God who is giving you your breath even in this moment and with your breath is affirming your life today. He’s saying to you with your breath, I want you to live. I want you to be alive in my presence. I want you to be in me for the world. Open your hands on your lap as a way of saying to God, “I want to receive whatever you want to give me in these moments,” even if it’s just a moment of ease in the midst of a busy day.
Oh, God. Gather me now to be with you, as you are with me. Soothe my tiredness. Quiet my fretfulness. Curb my aimlessness. Relieve my compulsiveness. Let me be easy for a moment. [Pause.] Keep breathing. Now, Lord, release me from the fears and guilts, which grip me so tightly, and the expectations and opinions which I so tightly grip, that I may be open to receiving what you give, to risking something genuinely new, to learning something refreshingly different. Oh, God, gather me now to be with you as you are with me. Amen.
Cherie Harder: Ruth, thank you. Great to be with you.
Ruth Haley Barton: Good to be with you, too, Cherie. Thank you.
Cherie Harder: Thank you to all of you for joining us. Have a great weekend.
Special thanks to Coracle, our co-host for this event
and to our sponsors, Bruce and Susan Gwilliam, and InterVarsity Press