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Prayer in solitude

Lynne Baab • Tuesday July 25 2023

Prayer in solitude
I learned to pray in communal settings. As a child, the majestic and eloquent prayers I heard in the Episcopal worship services I attended with my family moved me. One of them helped the congregation approach God, and despite the old fashioned language, I loved the words as a child, and only as an adult did I realize the prayer evokes Jesus's interaction with the Syrophoenican woman in Mark 7:24-30:
"Almighty God, unto whom all hearts are open, all desires known, and from whom no secrets are hid: Cleanse the thoughts of our hearts by the inspiration of thy Holy Spirit, that we may perfectly love thee, and worthily magnify thy holy Name; through Christ our Lord. Amen." [1]
Another prayer that went deep into my heart came right before communion. This prayer taught me about God's great love for us, based on who God is, not on our ability to earn God's love:
"We do not presume to come to this thy Table, O merciful Lord, trusting in our own righteousness, but in thy manifold and great mercies. We are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under thy Table. But thou art the same Lord whose property is always to have mercy." [2]
As a new committed Christian, between age 19 and into my early twenties, I prayed with others in informal settings, often after Bible studies. We took turns praying aloud, often asking God to meet the needs people had shared, sometimes praying about the passage of the Bible we had studied, asking God to help us apply what we had been studying. I heard a lot of encouragement to have a "daily quiet time," and I tried from time to time to establish a discipline of Bible reading and prayer in the morning. That pattern never stuck, but I continued to love prayer with others. 
Prayer in solitude was forced on me. When I was 27 and three months pregnant with my older son, I started experiencing long hours of insomnia. What do you do when you're awake for many hours? In addition to obsessing about various things, making mental lists of things to do, pondering the plots of novels I'd read or movies I'd seen, I also prayed. The insomnia continued after the birth of my son, and I kept praying in solitude in the wee small hours of the night.
In my early thirties, as a mom of one talkative young child, then two, solitude became a precious, eagerly-sought-after gem. I often hired teenage babysitters after school so I could get out on a walk alone. During those walks, I prayed.
So many of those early prayers in solitude, both in the middle of the night and while treasuring walking alone, went like this: "Help me. Help me. Here, let me lay these burdens and anxieties in your hands. In return, please give me back your grace, peace, and joy. I need your help." 
In my late thirties my church started offering classes where we learned about contemplative prayer and experienced it. The ancient patterns of breath prayer, examen, lectio divina, and guided meditations gave structure to silent prayer and broadened my options for topics to pray about when alone. There's nothing wrong with "help me" prayers. Who else than Jesus can we flee to when we are desperate? He alone has the words of eternal life (John 6:68–69). But throughout the centuries, Christians have engaged in so many additional forms of prayer when alone. Up until then, I had missed the richness that our tradition offers to us.
Adele Ahlberg Calhoun argues that solitude is a "container discipline." [3] (See my post from last week.) In other words, we engage in solitude as a means of doing something else. Perhaps we are forced into solitude like I was through my insomnia (which has continued throughout my adult life), or perhaps we choose it (like I did on my walks). In solitude we grow into diverse forms of prayer. In addition to many forms of prayer, here are some spiritual practices I have heard people talk about doing in solitude:
  • journaling
  • mindfulness meditation
  • listening to God
  • scripture memory (see my friend Steve Simon's book)
  • scripture meditation
  • many forms of reflection, including remembering God's faithfulness, thinking about the pattern of God's guidance and presence in our lives, and simply thinking about life
Or perhaps you don't want to enter into solitude at all. I am convinced some Christians do not thrive when they do spiritual practices alone. Sure, all Christians should experiment and try new things, but I have heard from so many Christians who feel they are supposed to sqeeze themselves into some sort of mold or ideal or model that doesn't fit with their personality. For millennia, in communal settings, Jews and Christians have prayed, fasted, observed the Sabbath, practiced hospitality, and engaged in many other forms of walking with Jesus and serving him. 
We stand in a long heritage of Christians who prayed alone and Christians who prayed in the company of others. Some of that communal praying happens in liturgical settings like I grew up with, and some of it involves praying extemporaneously. At the same time, some monks and sisters lived alone and prayed alone. We all have to find the patterns of drawing near to God that work best for us and that we can sustain over time. Most of us will thrive with a variety of forms of both communal prayer and prayer in solitude.
I've had physical therapy many times for joint pain and various injuries, and several physical therapists have said that what matters most is not the wide variety of exercises they can teach me, but the exercises I will actually do. Maybe solitude feels comfortable to you, and you could grow in finding new forms of prayer or other spiritual practices to do when alone. Maybe you are feeling drawn to solitude, and I encourage you to figure out in what ways God is inviting you to fill the solitude container with fruitful ways to draw near to God. Maybe you feel pushed into solitude, and you wish you could pray mostly with others. In that case, I encourage you to find a prayer partner and perhaps also a group to pray with.
God of relationship, we affirm that what matters most is drawing near to you. We want to walk with Jesus every day and allow the Holy Spirit to guide and empower us. We ask that you would help us abandon preconceived ideas about the role of solitude. Guide us into the right amounts of solitude and companionship for each of us. 
(This is the 11th post in a series on spiritual practices and prayer. If you’d like to learn more about spiritual practices, the first post of the series is here. That post also has a list of all the posts in the series. Illustration by Dave Baab: Botanic Garden in winter, Dunedin, New Zealand. If you’d like to receive an email when I post on this blog, sign up below under “subscribe.”)
Some past posts about prayer that still speak to me:

[1] The (Online) Book of Common Prayer, page 323
[2] The (Online) Book of Common Prayer, page 337.
[3] Adele Ahlberg Calhoun, Spiritual Disciplines Handbook: Practices that Transform Us, InterVarsity Press, 2015, page 128.

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