advent, day three: solitude for normal people
One of the easiest things to do when reading a book is to forget grace. When we read ungraciously, we run the risk of interpreting an author's intentions as though he or she arrogantly presumes to have found The Way It Works and, in our own confusion or insecurities, grow frustrated. We forget to apply grace to this person who is sharing what he/she has learned along the journey...the same one we are walking together with He who IS the Way, the Truth, the Light.
I've been slowly reading through Nouwen's book over several weeks. (When I mean slowly, I mean...slowly. I read a bit, then stop. Take some notes, read. Stop. Switch to a different book. Stop.) It's a hard read, given the reality that I am home with a toddler, not getting to hurry off into the desert for solitude. It is tempting to just throw in the hat, because the content could be misconstrued as this is the only way. I could choose to be easily discouraged that my days are not currently built to allow for hours and hours of silence before God. It would be easy for me to fail to read with grace.
But this is the season where I must consider the biggest act of grace and life and there is hardly a better way to do so than to engage in solitude and silence before God. And yet...how? How can I create space in my days for this beautiful monastic practice, when my days are largely training a delightful, curious, messy Happy Baby to not play in the trash can and that food is for eating, not throwing? "We say to each other that we need some solitude in our lives.", writes Nouwen, "What we really are thinking of, however, is a time and a place for ourselves in which we are not bothered by other people". It's true. I can't even head to the BATHROOM without being "bothered" by a most adorable little person and in the Advent season, at the very least, could my solitude begin by just going to the bathroom in peace?!
Nouwen writes that the gift of the monastic life is the freedom to have real, live solitude - a literal escape from the daily realities of life for a period of time, in which to face the false self. He calls it "the furnace of transformation", but goes on to say that for most of us, we don't have that gift. So when we battle with visions of perfect solitude and quietness, we must "give them their due and then let them wander off"!
Give them their due and let them wander off.
So he's saying perhaps there is another way to solitude? Another way to let my heart be still before God and perhaps even learn to live in the tension between my ideals of solitude and the reality of my days? For normal, every day life to include this blessed discipline of spirituality?
Nouwen describes solitude as a "holy place where ministry and spirituality embrace...the place where the old self dies and the new self is born". If that's not my daily reality, I don't know what is. When I start my days asking God to show me how to be present in each little task, tantrum, project, and relationship, I have a heightened awareness of ministry and spirituality embracing and working together in my day. In each moment of caring for the Happy Child, the husband, the friend, I get to experience (when I choose to be aware of it) the dying to self and the emergence of the new self, the Christ life, that is at work in me always.
But let's be real: that awareness part is super hard. Letting our visions and ideals of solitude wander off is hard. I want actual getting away to quiet places. I want to be still on the corner of a couch with no loud child or husband taking calls in the office. I want to sit in a quiet garden or on the beach. I would really prefer the actual desert for solitude to fashioning my own desert in these days.
And yet. The reality is that disciplines never come easy. Since I am not called to the monastic life, even briefly for this holiday season, though I may wish it, I am responsible for creating the space in my heart, mind, and home for solitude. A place to withdraw, in some small way, "to shake off compulsions and dwell in the gentle healing presence of our Lord".
Oh, holy child of Bethlehem, descend to us we pray... Cast out our sin and enter in, be born in us today. We hear the Christmas angels, the great, glad tidings tell! Oh come to us, abide with us, our Lord Emmanuel.
Solitude for "normal" people may look different, but He is God with us. So I can choose to create my own desert this Advent. I can choose to dwell in the gentle, healing presence of the Lord, Emmanuel.
- from The Book of Common Prayer, The Advent Project, The Parish Anglican