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Silence, solitude, and prayer

Lynne Baab • Thursday July 20 2023

Silence, solitude, and prayer

I knew I wanted to write a blog post about the Christian myth that the most spiritual form of prayer is prayer in solitude. Throughout much of Jewish and Christian history, many believers have done a lot of their praying with others, and many passages in the Bible show the significance of communal prayer. I wrote an article for Christianity Today about this. And yet Christians also pray alone in many diverse settings, including in the “prayer closet” (literally “storage room”) that Jesus mentions in Matthew 6:6. I wanted to write some thoughts about these equally valuable places for prayer.

I wasn’t sure which language to emphasize in this post – solitude or silence – so I looked at the descriptions of both of these spiritual practices in the Spiritual Disciplines Handbook. Adele Ahlberg Calhoun describes these two practices in thought-provoking ways.

“Silence is the regenerative practice of attending and listening to God in quiet, without interruption and without noise. Silence provides freedom from speaking as well as from listening to words or music. (Reading is also listening to words.)” [1]

Calhoun’s focus in her description of the spiritual practice of silence relates to stepping away from the many kinds of noise that surround us. That noise obviously includes the wide variety of things we listen to intentionally, including music and people’s voices, as well as unintentional listening to street noise and the hum of home appliances. In our highly mediated world, "noise" also includes all forms of media ranging from the written word in a book to a podcast or game of Solitaire on our phone, as well as the inner noise that bedevils some of us. 

I encourage you to pray for the Holy Spirit’s insight into the patterns in your life of experiencing silence, and whether or not silence plays a big role in your prayer life. For many Christians, music is a major route into prayer, and music is not silent! Many Christians pray longer, more deeply, and about more diverse topics when they pray aloud with others, and those prayers are not silent. I long for Christians to stop hyper-spiritualizing forms of prayer that mimic the small number of monastics who prayed alone in the wilderness, and embrace the reality that prayer takes many forms, and usually we are likely to pray more often in the forms most comfortable to us.

Still, it’s worth asking God to help us notice the places and settings where we step aside from noise. It’s worth asking the Holy Spirit to illuminate the forms of noise that most distract us from God’s voice and priorities, that keep us from experiencing Jesus walking with us. 

Calhoun’s words about the spiritual practice of solitude also provide some great fuel for prayer. Note that she does not describe solitude as a spiritual practice on its own but as a “container discipline” for other practices. What a vivid term! She writes,

“The practice of solitude involves scheduling enough uninterrupted time in a distraction-free environment that you experience isolation and are alone with God. Solitude is a ‘container discipline’ for the practice of other spiritual disciplines.” [2]

Calhoun doesn’t give a detailed list of the other spiritual practices that we might engage in when using solitude as a container, but in her suggestions for engaging in solitude she mentions breath prayer, getting out in nature, and praying in the shower, imagining God washing away the dirt of our lives and refreshing us with clear, clean water.

In addition to praying about the sources of noise in your life and how you step away from them, I encourage you to ask the Holy Spirit to help you see the patterns of solitude in your life. Where do you experience solitude, if at all? Do you long for more solitude, or are you reasonably content with your balance of time alone and time with others? Has solitude functioned as a “container discipline” for you, and if so, what are the spiritual practices you engage in while alone?

In the next two weeks I’ll dive deeper into solitude and silence and their role in making space for prayer and their role as a container for other spiritual practices. Meanwhile, I encourage you to ponder and pray about the pattern of solitude and silence in your life, as well as any pressure you feel about prayer in general, as well as prayer alone.

Jesus our friend, throughout the centuries your followers have prayed to you in solitude and in the company of other disciples. They have prayed in silence and in busy, noisy settings. Help us observe where prayer comes most easily to us, and help us go there often. We also ask that you would stretch into new forms of prayer. We love you, and we want to spend time with you.

(This is the tenth post in a series on spiritual practices and prayer. If you’d like to learn more about spiritual practices and see a list of all the posts in the series, the first post of the series is here. Illustration by Dave Baab: Whitianga, New Zealand. If you’d like to receive an email when I post on this blog, sign up below under “subscribe.”)

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[1] Parentheses in original. In the Spiritual Disciplines Handbook: Practices that Transform Us, the section on silence is pages 121-124. (Adele Alhberg Calhoun, InterVarsity Press, 2015 edition.)
[2] The section on solitude in the Spiritual Disciplines Handbook is pages 128-31.

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