the odd blessings of emptiness...

One of the challenges of nourishing our inward journey is the essential role of solitude and silence.  For many people, there is confusion about what both terms mean in practice. Solitude, for example, is not vacation or simply personal privacy.

We tend to think of solitude as a station where we can recharge our batteries, or as the corner of the boxing right where we can recharge our batteries, our muscles massaged and our courage restored by fitting slogans, In short, we think of solitude as a place where we gather new strength to continue the on-going competition in life... but solitude is not a private therapeutic place, it is the place of conversion. (Henri Nouwen)


From time to time I need to step away from the busyness of life for refreshment and rest. But this is not the same as solitude. Rather, sacred solitude in the care of our soul has to do with creating time and space to become fully empty. It is where I experience and encounter myself as vulnerable. It is where I realize I need God more than I need TV, books, music and all the rest. For many of us - especially those prone to distraction - such emptiness can be terrifying. For all of us it is uncomfortable for we're invited to own all those things we keep at bay while the lights are on and the noise is at full tilt boogie:

As soon as I decide to stay in my solitude, confusing ideas, disturbing images, wild fantasies and weird associations jump about in my mind like monkeys in a banana tree. Anger and greed begin to show their ugly faces... and I want to run from this dark abyss... and try to restore myself.  

This is where the practice of silence becomes healing.  Henri Nouwen writes that "silence is that moment in which we not only stop the discussion with others, but also the inner discussions with ourselves, the place where we can breathe freely and accept our identity as a gift." That is why all contemplative prayer insists upon some type of disciplined quiet time. It could be walking meditation, sitting centering prayer or a variety of other acts designed to both honor true solitude and increase our encounter with silence. 

Every one of us finds making quiet time for disciplined "emptiness" complicated. We are all certain that we are the exception to the rule - our minds need some form of distraction, our hearts do not require strict silence - but our exceptionalism simply proves our deeper need.

In silence we start hearing the voices of darkness: our jealousy and anger, our resentment and desire for revenge, our lust and greed, and our pain over losses, abuses and rejections. These voices are often noisy and boisterous. They may even deafen us. Our most spontaneous reaction is to run away from them and return to our entertainment. But if we have the discipline to stay put and not let these dark voices intimidate us, they will gradually lose their strength and recede into the background, creating space for the softer, gentler voices of the light.

And here's the pay-off: the "more we train ourselves to spend time with God and God alone" in
solitude and silence, "the more we will discover that God is with us at all times and in all places." Fr. Thomas Keating says that the more we nourish regular times with God in quiet prayer, the greater our inner reserves of God's grace. Nouwen puts it like this:

Once the solitude of time and space has become a solitude of the heart, we will never have to leave that solitude. We will be able to live the spiritual life in any place and any time. Thus the discipline of solitude enables us to live active lives in the world, while remaining always in the presence of the living God.

The light, weather and mood of this season encourages me to keep renewing my commitment to solitude and silence. Most of the stunning leaves on the trees are gone. The air is colder and the light lower in the sky. In the opening words of St. Paul's letter to the Romans he writes: "... ever since the beginning of the creation of the world, God's invisible nature, namely God's eternal power, has been clearly perceived in the things that have been made." (1: 20) Mystics have spoken of creation a the "first Word of God" - the truth of the Lord revealed before our sacred scriptures - and that resonates with me. But we have to pay attention - learn to read the signs of the times just as some know how to read the signs of the skies - and then honor them. The wise Quaker teacher, Parker Palmer, puts it another way: he invites us to learn to listen to our bodies and our lives.

There is a rhythm to living within God's grace: there is day and night, there are beginnings and ends, there are times of quiet waiting we know as gestation as well as seasons of anticipation that lead to bereavement. I continue to revel in the words of Isaiah:  In returning and rest you shall be saved; in quietness and in trust shall be your strength. If we open ourselves to emptiness, we shall be filled. 

credits: Dianne De Mott

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