Note: we’re continuing this week’s look at the writings of noteworthy theologians and applying their ideas to our work lives.
I took a walk tonight by myself, which being an only child with a few kids of my own, is a rare indulgence. As I walked by a beautiful pond, the song Long December by Counting Crows came on my iPod as I briskly passed some ducks and blooming trees. At that moment, I remembered a sermon that I once preached at a Congregational church in Chicago about the noise in our lives and our inabilty to do what Elijah did – to find God in the silence. The irony hit me. Here I was alone for forty minutes, dashing by God’s creation on a sunny spring day, while listening to some guy sing in my ears about enduring a long December. Maybe that’s why I never made it as a preacher.
Perhaps no one has written so eloquently about solitude (amongst other things) than Henri Nouwen. Nouwen was a Roman Catholic priest, originally from Holland, who led a very full life – helping the mentally disabled, writing prolifically, and teaching at Yale, Notre Dame, and Harvard – before dying from a heart attack in 1996. A great 20th century theologian, he is a favorite among his fellow Catholics and is equally popular amongst Protestants, a testament to his unifying theology.
About silence, Nouwen once wrote,
“Without solitude it is virtually impossible to live a spiritual life. Solitude begins with a time and a place for God, and him alone. If we really believe not only that God exists but also that he is actively present in our lives – healing, teaching, and guiding – we need to set aside a time and a space to give him our undivided attention. Jesus says, ‘Go to your private room and, when you have shut your door, pray to the Father who is in that secret place.’ (Matt 6:6)”
I don’t know about you, but solitude is non-existent in my crazy schedule, and when I do get some quiet time, I can sit still for about six seconds. Nouwen understood this and suggested that we use our highly scheduled workdays to our advantage. He suggested that we, “…write it in black and white in our daily calendars so that nobody else can take away this period of time.” He suggests starting with as little as five minutes each day. Five minutes of being alone, clearing our thoughts, and allowing God to speak into our lives. He suggests that after many attempts, even weeks or months of trying to do so, that we’ll begin to look forward to it, and when that happens, “…we come to know not only with our minds but with our heart that we were never really alone, that God’s Spirit was with us all along.”
If we are able to find those five minutes alone during the workday in a private location (like the windowless project room I lock myself in to get through my e-mails) then we should try fostering a discipline of silence. As Nouwen wrote,
“The discipine 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.”