As Dallas Willard points out in The Spirit of the Disciplines, ‘The normal course of day-to-day human interactions locks us into patterns of feeling, thought, and action that are geared to a world set against God’.
For many of us, those interactions take place at work. Over time we cannot but help be impacted by the values and priorities that operate in our working environment, be those shaped by the culture of our organisation or the values of our team. Common to each one of these is a level of noise and activity that can, all too easily, pull us in to a worry-filled life – a life where we feel distracted and fragmented, pulled in many directions simultaneously.
We are called to be in the world (John 17:18), working, serving, building relationships, and bearing fruit. Yet we are not of the world. We are people who are guided and directed by the Holy Spirit and who walk, as Henry David Thoreau put it, to the sound of a different drummer. In order to hear that different beat we will need, regularly, to shut out the other noise. Primary among the spiritual disciplines in this regard are silence and solitude. ‘The discipline of solitude is one of the most powerful disciplines in developing a prayerful life. It is a simple, though not easy, way to free us from the slavery of our occupations and preoccupations and to begin to hear the voice that makes all things new’ (Henri Nouwen, Making All Things New).
As Richard Foster, in Devotional Classics, points out, it can feel as if solitude is the opposite of productive work. In fact, it is the pre-requisite for it. ‘Solitude is one of the deepest disciplines of the spiritual life because it crucifies our need for importance and prominence. Everyone – including ourselves at first – will see our solitude as a waste of good time. We are removed from “where the action is”. That, of course, is exactly what we need. In silence and solitude God slowly but surely frees us from our egomania. In time we come to see that the really important action occurs in solitude. Only then are we able to enter the hustle and bustle of today’s machine civilization with perspective and freedom.’
Disengaging from noise, activity and the presence of others can be uncomfortable at first. That very discomfort may signal to us how addicted we have become to feeling useful or productive. We may be bombarded by thoughts and feelings that our very activity was used to suppress, and with God’s help, now be required to face. Yet the choice to disengage, turn towards God, and wait on him without any agenda refreshes our spirits at a deep level.