Solitude: To Hear God I Have to Get Past My Own Junk

“Solitude is a crucible” my friend preaches. She’s paraphrasing Henri Nouwen from Way of the Heart, who calls solitude a “furnace of transformation.” The kind of solitude I imagine, a span of time spent outdoors, is compelling. But I’m about to realize that another kind of solitude I experience every day I often avoid.

Finishing her message at our university’s faculty retreat, my friend conducts a lectio divina, slowly reading three times from Isaiah 55 as we listen prayerfully. The words that stand out to me are verse 3: “Give ear and come to me; listen, that you may live.” Give ear is sometimes translated as incline your ear. I envision myself struggling to hear someone and turning an ear in their direction. Ending the lectio, she sends us off to wander the nature center grounds for forty-five minutes without speaking to one another.

I sit on a bench overlooking a pond tall with cattails while I talk with God about solitude. I tell him about my mixed emotions toward the book I had been reading–Andy Crouch’s The Tech-Wise Family. Crouch proposes that we all put our personal screens away from our bed at night in another room. He excises my underlying assumption that this is a boundary for kids only.

I sleep alone sometimes because my husband experiences arm pain from a shoulder surgery. He attempts snoozing in a recliner downstairs instead. But I’m not alone when my phone is beside me. In fact, when my husband’s not there, I’m tempted and frequently succumb to skimming social media and reading news articles past a prudent hour.

What am I escaping?

Me.

Unlike during this retreat, viewing birds and reeds and sky, I’m forced to face what I don’t like about myself at the end of the day when lights are out.

My mind plays reruns of my mistakes and sins: the wrong reference made in class, my outburst when I hit my limit with my strong-willed daughter. It reminds me of my anxieties—what will happen to my daughter if she doesn’t learn to control her impulses? My guilt—am I neglecting the contemplative daughter for the strong-willed one? My shame—the house hosts dust bunnies large enough to propagate their own litters.

A counselor has recommended the prayer of examen, in which I muse where God felt present during the day, thanking him, and then muse where God felt absent and ask for help.

I’m required to lay out the negative thoughts that would have visited unbidden. Give ear for me means that I have to get past my own junk to get to God’s words for me.

It seems ironic.

I’ve been told to just look at Jesus, but that can be an excuse to avoid my own heart.

A Benedictine, Jean Leclercq, explains that Saint Gregory the Great believed we must experience our own sad state regularly. Once we know it again we can have humility. Humility is the combination of being able to “detach” ourselves from our messy insides while recognizing our desperation for God.

I’m reminded of Elisha in 1 Kings 19. He stood outside of the cave waiting for God to pass by. Wind, earthquake, and fire struck the mountain, but God was not in them until the gentle whisper. To give ear is to hear fully—get past the inner storm, and then letting go of that, receive his peace and forgiveness.

The last few nights, I’ve been charging my phone in our home office. I no longer set it to wake me up. I’ve bought a battery-powered alarm clock that looks like brass and has the clamoring bells with a tiny hammer. I’m trying to give ear.

Heather Walker Peterson

Heather Walker Peterson

Along with being a mother to two young and remarkably different daughters, Heather Walker Peterson is a member of Redbud Writers Guild and Chair of the Department of English and Literature at University of Northwestern-Saint Paul.
Heather Walker Peterson