Back in February, I wrote that I had begun to see each of us as “haunted houses.” I had been reading through Isaiah when I realized that, if each of us is the house of God, we are definitely houses with cob webs in the windows and dubious stories. We are haunted houses, I thought, and we need to be able to embrace ourselves, to walk the dark hallways and revisit the old “memories that haunt the mind.” After all, when you finally get the courage to walk through a haunted house, you realize that your fears, while not unfounded, were overstated. We have pasts, we all had a childhoods, but we are merely human.
At the same time that I wrote these posts and processed these thoughts, I was also reading Dallas Willard’s The Spirit of the Disciplines. It really is an excellent book. In it, he spends only one chapter actually listing the individual disciplines, and only three pages on the discipline of solitude, but that is not a marker of its importance. “Solitude frees us, actually,” he writes. “This above all explains its primacy and priority among the disciplines. [emphasis added]” It was so odd to read this because I had always been taught that reading the Bible (study) and prayer were the most important disciplines. Ironically, in this American brand of Christianity, I was taught that the two most important spiritual disciplines were two of the “disciplines of engagement” rather than “disciplines of abstinence” such as silence and frugality. And even then, the word “abstinence” doesn’t usually have a good reaction among people who were raised in the church.
But indeed it is solitude, writes Willard, that prepares the heart for engagement, not the other way around. “It takes twenty times more the amount of amphetamine to kill individual mice than it takes to kill them in groups.”
But there is also a dark side to the discipline of solitude and this is what brings me back to my thoughts about haunted houses. “In solitude,” he writes, ” we confront our own soul with its obscure forces and conflicts that escape our attention when we are interacting with others. Thus,
‘Solitude is a terrible trial, for it serves to crack open and burst apart the shell of our superficial securities. It opens out to us the unknown abyss that we all carry within us … [and] discloses the fact that these abysses are haunted'” (Louis Bouyer).
And so I began to connect the dots between my own times of solitude this year and my newfound understanding of myself and my past. I was so social for the last eight years of my life, always moving from event to event, that I didn’t stop to see myself. I knew that there was stuff I didn’t like, but I didn’t slow down long enough to see past the surface. When I finally did, when I saw the depth of my depravity, I began to see everyone’s depravity. I took everything more seriously: every act, every word spoken, every story, every choice. While I began to believe more seriously that we are incredibly valuable, I also began to realize more profoundly that we are incredibly self-destructive.
And why? I think that much of it stems from our desire to ignore ourselves. Willard writes about solitude like it’s dangerous. He writes that many of us will not be able to embrace extended solitude in a healthy way because we still feel the need to have other people around for guidance. Sometimes, the pain of solitude can be too great and we have to respect ourselves and each other in the process. In my own life, I believe that solitude is actually a process of detoxification. When I am alone, the same old songs play on repeat in my head, I start to stress about the future, and I start to wish I were more comfortable. In these moments, I don’t think of myself as distracted, but instead I think I’m just slowly getting rid of all the habits that I’ve learned in my time with others during the day. All the gossip, all the comforts of life, all the habits begin to emerge.
In solitude, our humanity is restored in ways that are both painful and empowering. While we don’t always like what we find, at least we are finally giving ourselves some time and attention. Solitude, writes Willard, “is the primary place of strength” because we are left to reconcile life and to remember what we believe to be true. In solitude, we engage our haunted selves, but we also remind ourselves, quite plainly, that we are not of our communities and we are not of this world. We are not trapped by our surroundings and we are not limited by our own lives which we begin to see in sharp clarity without the noise of conflicting opinions.
This is where Willard claims we are to start our Christian walk, but this is actually a radical shift from much of what I hear today. He is saying to do this one thing before you worship, before you read, before you give, or go: give yourself some time to breathe and space to think. Just sit in silence and wait.
The rest of life can wait as well.