Today, I’m excited to offer an excerpt from Flee, Be Silent, Pray: An Anxious Evangelical Finds Peace with God through Contemplative Prayer, a new book by Ed Cyzewski, founder of The Contemplative Writer. Ed’s book released this week.
In the excerpt below, Ed explains why solitude, rather than more information and more effort, might be a good place to start when struggle, burn out, or crisis occurs. I know you’ll appreciate the wisdom he offers here.
A spiritual struggle, burn out, or breakdown in my conservative Christian tradition is often treated with more information. The assumption is that you forgot something, never learned it, or distorted the information in the first place, despite your best efforts. I remember worrying that my own sincerity or grasp of the information didn’t click. If I could just line up the right information with the proper mental outlook, things would finally fall into place. This is why so many young evangelicals struggle with sin and then pray the sinner’s prayer again (and again) or rededicate their lives to God.
The sentiment is admirable, as we can all relate to wanting to grow spiritually or getting on the right path, but such an approach to spiritual transformation remains more or less in our control and fails to proceed beyond a confession of faith. Professing our faith and commitment to Christ is certainly a good place to start, but it’s hardly what mature, growing followers of Jesus need.
Solitude isn’t my cure-all that guarantees a vibrant spiritual life, but it has become a vital refuge that saves me from my own inadequate remedies and faulty illusions of myself and others. Nouwen speaks of solitude as the furnace of transformation. “Without solitude we remain victims of our society and continue to be entangled in the illusions of the false self” (The Way of the Heart 25). I can think of no better thing for anxious evangelicals who have come to the limits of personal effort and knowledge. Entering solitude with open hands can free us to receive whatever God will give us. I have often gone into solitude with my own plans and agenda.
I’m not naturally comfortable with mystery, especially with a mysterious God, after dedicating so much time to theological study. Solitude strips away the script that theology can provide for God. In silence before God alone, I am forced to surrender any scripture verses that I may be tempted to manipulate in my moment of need, as if I could trap God by using his own words against him. I can only surrender to the mystery of God in the silence.
There are deep mysteries to God’s love and presence, and solitude is one of the ways I have inched closer to them. What I know of God’s love and presence feels very much like drops of water from a limitless stream. What we’ve come to believe and trust may crumble to dust in the pursuit of solitude. This is just as well. Any illusions or false conceptions of ourselves or of God will crumble eventually regardless.
Solitude allows us to preemptively expose these illusions before they let us down in the midst of a crisis. In solitude, we “die” to ourselves so that God can raise us up. Nouwen wrote, “In solitude, our heart can slowly take off its many protective devices, and can grow so wide and deep that nothing human is strange to it” (Out of Solitude 45).
The desert fathers and mothers saw solitude as a way to replace martyrdom when Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire. In his introduction to the spirituality of the desert fathers and mothers, John Chryssavgis writes, “The voice of the desert’s heart replaced the voice of the martyr’s blood. And the Desert Fathers and Mothers became witnesses of another way, another Kingdom” (In the Heart of the Desert 17).
There was no surer way to strip away what they depended on in place of God. This was a kind of “death” for them that lead to new life. They sought the union with Christ that Paul spoke of (1 Corinthians 6:17; Romans 8:9-11) and set aside every possible distraction. Nouwen assures us that “solitude molds self-righteous people into gentle, caring, forgiving persons who are so deeply convinced of their own great sinfulness and so fully aware of God’s even greater mercy that their life itself becomes ministry” (The Way of the Heart 37).