Solitude: A School for Purpose

I’m writing this post in a moment of solitude from a third-floor guest room at the Sustainable Faith Indy urban retreat house in Indianapolis, Indiana. We have been hosted by our friends, Dave & Beth Booram. We enjoyed holding a talk and book signing for An Unhurried Life here during our visit. (By the way, I’ve enjoyed Beth’s most recent book, Starting Something New: Spiritual Direction for Your God-Given Dream, especially in light of launching Unhurried Living in the last year.

We came to Indianapolis to lead the executive team of a large international missions agency in three days of retreat. This is one of the most fruitful elements of our work at Unhurried Living. Encouraging and helping leaders enjoy unhurried time in the presence of the One they proclaim to the nations deepens their roots in God and produces fruit that lasts.

Whenever I lead such a retreat, I seek to build in space for leaders to follow the rhythm of Jesus who “often withdrew to lonely places to pray (Lk 5:16).” It’s not a common pattern in the lives of leaders, but it was a very deep rhythm of life for Jesus. In those times alone with his Father in heaven, I imagine Jesus remembering who he was, remembering who his Father is and gaining context for his ministry of announcing the kingdom.

With that transforming experience of solitude in mind, I want to share some words by Alexander Solzhenitsyn that I came across in my recent reading. He was reflecting on his years stuck in a Soviet prison. These words will almost certainly sound odd to you—at least they did to me.

“Bless you, prison. Bless you for being in my life. For there, lying on the rotting prison straw, I came to realize that the object of life is not prosperity as we are made to believe, but the maturing of the soul.”

It’s hard to imagine being grateful for such a dark, dirty experience, but somehow Solzhenitsyn discovers a deepening of his life in God in this most unexpected place. He says that prosperity (at least material prosperity) is not the object of our lives. Or, as Jesus put it, our “life does not consist in an abundance of possessions (Lk 12:15b).” My life is not rooted in something I need to go searching for to acquire. I remember this when I am alone in the presence of God. I recover my life there.

My own experiences of solitude have been far less demanding or painful as those of Solzhenitsyn, but they have often been, as Henri Nouwen calls them, furnaces of transformation. I am being transformed from an acquisition posture to a gratitude posture. I already have my life. I bring this life into my relationships and my work. I am not looking to acquire my life out there somewhere by putting something else in my closet, garage or wallet.

Many of my own places of solitude have been more prison-like than oasis-like. The solitudes of suffering have taught me just how empty so many goals really were or how futile were so many of my hopes. I’ve discovered that the maturing of my soul happens in communion with the Holy One. Being alone and attentive to God-with-me has opened my heart to the deep realities of God’s measureless love.

Some of my solitudes were chosen and some were not. But all of them became places of encounter with the One Who is Life. And that has made all the difference.

How might you find a few moments (or maybe even an hour or two) to simply be alone in the presence of the One Who calls you his beloved? You might find help in our free resource, “Retreats: What Are They and Why Make Them?” from our website.

(The quotation, by the way, was by Chuck Colson in “True Power and Security” and found in Dwight Johnson’s The Transparent Leader. Eugene, OR: Harvest House Publishers, 2001, p. 23).



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