Sunday, October 02, 2005


THE discipline of solitude reveals one of the most exciting aspects of the life of the believer. The Gospel of Jesus Christ brings us into contact with a God who is interested in individuals and not just tribes and nations.

All religions have a role for solitude - the state of being alone. But when a Christian deliberately seeks a place free from distractions, they do not believe that by looking into their own beings they will catch a glimpse of God. Instead, they are waiting for God to reveal Himself to them. This is an amazing revelation at the heart of the faith.

Traditionally, God could only be approached by journeying to the Temple with sacrificial animals to atone for one’s sins. But the message of the New Testament that God in His own freedom and according to His will has turned towards men and women because he loves them.

In one of Jesus’ last recorded prayers on Earth, in John 14:23, he says, “If anyone loves me he will obey my teaching. My father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him.” With that promise, the molecular structure of religion changes. It is no longer about seeking the divine in specific locations or by performing certain rituals, it is about knowing God in our own individual lives.

What could be more exciting or more terrifying than the prospect of God coming to our home? In fact, it is even more daunting than that. God wants our home to also be His home. When we seek solitude, it is to listen to God. We are acknowledging the reality of this new relationship with the Creator which was made possible by Christ’s death and resurrection. God’s Holy Spirit is dwelling inside us and, whether we like it or not, He is incredibly interested about how we lead our lives.

For the Christian, there is no split between public life and private life. Just as Jonah learned how daft it was to try and outrun God, we are no closer or further away from Him if we are sitting in a church building or the belly of a big fish. Actually pausing to attempt to gain an understanding of God’s presence and will in any situation is a brilliant use of precious time. Doing so reveals the new nature of the universe to us, and it also guards against some of the most catastrophic tendencies of religion to make mistakes.

If we regularly stop whatever we are doing to contemplate the power and righteousness of God and listen for his guidance, it becomes less likely that we will indulge in the type of shocking hypocrisy that gives faith a bad name. It’s when we are too busy to pray that ego and pride seep in.

Jesus said in Luke 12:1-3, “Be on your guard against the yeast of the Pharisees which is hypocrisy. There is nothing concealed that will not be disclosed, or hidden that will not be made known. What you have said in the dark will be heard in the daylight, and what you have whispered in the ear in the inner rooms will be proclaimed from the roofs.”

By welcoming God into our kitchens and bedrooms, to our office desks and cars, we are asking somebody who is the definition of righteousness and power to live alongside us. This should prevent us getting infatuated by the sparkle our own talents, deeds and possessions. When in the presence of his glory, we can look wretched and stained with sin. But when we think that he sent His son to die for us, and that despite several centuries of travesties and abominations He insists we are made in his image - wow! - we have a reason to feel astonished and joyful.

God knows us better than we know ourselves. When He comes to us, He is not coming to the person we would like Him to see. He is coming to the person we really are. He can see both the depravity of our nature and our potential for glory. It is in His presence we can begin to discover ours true selves.

Thomas Merton 1915-1968

Thomas Merton, a monk who was regularly irritated by how hard it was to find peace and quiet in a monastery, understood that all too often humans have a quite lunatic sense of their own identity and their importance. He wrote, “All sin starts from the assumption that my false self, the self that exists only in my egocentric desires, is the fundamental reality of life to which everything in the universe is ordered.”

Solitude can thus be humbling when we realise that God is God. Just as Copernicus caused ructions when he observed that the Earth is not the pivot around which the sun spins, but a tiny planet orbiting a giant star, so solitude teaches us to appreciate the magnificence of God and His centrality to our existence.

The serpent’s lie in the Garden of Eden was that God did not want to share Himself with us. But just as the light from the sun makes life possible on Earth, so when we meditate on the person of God as revealed in Jesus Christ, we see that He has withheld nothing from us. Gratitude and a growing sense of astonishment that we were created in the first place are two common and energising side-effects of solitude.

Merton, who was finally allowed to move to a cinder-block cottage and get a break from the hectic life of a regular monk, was bewildered by the generosity of God. The Greeks believed that mankind only had fire because a Titan named Prometheus had stolen it from the gods. Merton noted that the Christian God had not chosen to hoard His wealth. In fact He had done the opposite.

Prometheus, by Jan Cossiers (17th century)

He wrote, “Far from killing the man who seeks the divine fire, the Living God will Himself pass through death in order that man may have what is destined for him.
“If Christ has died and risen from the dead and poured out upon us the fire of His Holy Spirit, why do we imagine that our desire for life is a Promothean desire, doomed to punishment?
“Why do we act as if our longing to ‘see good days’ were something God did not desire, when He Himself told us to seek them? Why do we reproach ourselves for desiring victory? Why do we pride ourselves on our defeats, and glory in despair?
“Because we think our life is important to ourselves alone, and do not know that our life is more important to the Living God than it is to our own selves.
“Because we think our happiness is for ourselves alone, and do not realise it is also His happiness. Because we think our sorrows are for ourselves alone, and do not believe that they are much more than that: they are His sorrows.
“There is nothing we can steal from Him at all, because before we can think of stealing it, it has already been given.”

Merton’s words are beautiful, but the man who best understood the wonder of God’s goodness was Jesus Christ. He showed us how close God is to us, and if we follow his example we will treasure the opportunity solitude offers to enjoy being with Him.

In Matthew 6:6 he tells his followers, “When you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen.” The religion Christ wants from us is not ostentatious and spectacular but honest and heartfelt, rooted in daily life.

There are at least two good reasons why we shouldn’t trumpet the fact that we fast, do good works and pray. The first is that by avoiding the distractions of human adulation and applause we run less danger of falling into the trap of pride. Secondly, instead of playing to an audience, we can begin to learn to appreciate the reality of what it means to worship a living and listening God. Knowing Him - the designer of constellations - is far more life-enhancing that getting a pat on the back from some religious authority.

Jesus’ commitment to solitude in no way limited the impact he made on the lives of those around him. It is fascinating that two of His most spectacular miracles - feeding the 5,000 and walking on water - are each preceded with Jesus seeking solitude.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Bono

In an interview with Bono, the garrulous U2 vocalist, he recalled spending time with Archbishop Desmond Tutu when he was chairing South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Committee. He recalled, “I asked him a rather stupid question afterwards. I said, ‘Do you get time with all this work for prayer and meditation yourself?’ And he just looked at me, threw a scowl at me, a real rebuke. He just stopped in his tracks and said, ‘How do you think we would do this if we didn’t take time out for prayer?’”

I’m sure the sight of a fish on the back of a car sometimes starts a chain of events culminating in somebody repenting of their sins and becoming a Christian, but one of the most striking ways to send a message to your society is to quietly ensure you spend time with God each day.

In the Babylon in which the prophet Daniel lived, a law was passed that anyone who prayed to anything other than the emperor Darius would be thrown into a den of lions. In Chapter 6:10 we sees Daniel’s response to this legislation: “Now when Daniel learned that the decree had been published, he went home to his upstairs room where the windows opened towards Jerusalem. Three times a day he got down on his knees and prayed, giving thanks to his God, just as he had one before.”

Daniel’s faithfulness resulted in him getting a close-up look at some lions, which in an age before nature documentaries was an experience usually followed by being devoured. God rescued him, and the mendacity of the men who had devised the law was exposed and the righteousness of God was revealed. Daniel’s faithfulness had made Babylon a better place to live. We’re still talking about it today.

If churches and offices, buses and colleges, were filled with people who publicly witnessed to their belief in God by taking the time to listen to Him, true transformation of a nation could take place. Christians are daily asked their opinion on issues of terrifying complexity. Our instincts for judgement and mercy can pull us in different directions.

An eight cell embryo

When the rights of the embryo are seemingly pitted against the rights of the disabled and diseased, how do we respond? Has there ever been a time in history when it is so crucial that we ask God what we should do and actively listen to Him in a spirit of humility?

The Christian who embraces solitude in the right way for the right reasons will not be locked in a selfish piety, but will have his or her understanding of himself or herself revolutionised. They will never be able to look at other people without seeing them as created beings whose creator wants to come close to them.


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