God is found in solitude and silence! Few reputable spiritual traditions dispute this. Longstanding in Christian tradition is the dictum that nobody makes progress in the spiritual life unless he or she prays, alone and in silence, for an hour a day.
Moreover, even pop psychology insists that the key to psychic health and mental hygiene is regular withdrawal from the rat-race, a substantial and sustained period of silence every day.
I am not one to argue with that. That an hour of silence every day would do marvels for our spiritual, psychic and even physical health is, I believe, indisputable.
What’s more problematic is finding the time to do it. In spite of good intentions, practically, realistically in fact, most of us cannot (or, at least, certainly do not) find the time to take an hour a day away from everything for solitude and prayer. Pressures beset us from within and without and we simply do not, on a daily basis, pull away for an hour of silence and payer.
Many of us feel uneasy about this and our anxiety is often compounded by feelings of guilt when we are accused, by ourselves or by others, of being workaholics, addicts and persons who cannot find any meaning outside of their work.
What’s to be said about all of this? Is it impossible to make progress spiritually and to stay healthy psychologically without substantial daily periods of silent withdrawal?
One should always be uneasy when he or she does not have, on a daily basis, a regular period of silent prayer and withdrawal. But, as in everything else, we must be careful not to become fundamentalistic about this. The call to find God in silence and withdrawal too can become an idol. Let me try to explain:
Carlo Carretto, one of the leading spiritual writers of our century, tells the story of how, after spending nearly 25 years alone as a hermit in the Sahara Desert, he realized that he was not nearly as contemplative, prayerful and unselfish as had been his mother who, for most of her adult life, had been so busy with the duties of raising her children that she had virtually no time alone for solitude and prayer.
During most of the years of her adult life, her life had been so completely taken up in responding to the needs of others, her family, the church and the community at large, that she rarely had time for an hour of prayer and solitude. Yet, despite her busyness, she consistently grew in prayer and unselfishness.
Carretto draws an interesting conclusion from this. Rather than suggest that there was anything wrong with what he did as a hermit in the desert, he hunches that there was something very right about his mother’s total self-abnegation all those years when her whole life was taken up in responding to the needs of those around her.
That self-giving did for her exactly what countless hours of formal prayer might have done. It helped break her narcissism, displaced her from her own selfishness and consecrated her through a true baptism—immersion into the demands of charity. She prayed by conscription!
When Jesus consecrated Peter, he set him on a rock and, three times, asked him: “Do you love me?” Each time that the question was asked, Peter protested loudly that he did. Finally, after Peter’s third pledge of love, Jesus said to him: Because you said this, your life will radically change. “Up to now you girded your belt and you walked wherever you liked.” Now, because you have given yourself in love, “others will put a belt around you and lead you where you would rather not go!”
All true prayer, formal or ether, does exactly that. It puts a belt around us and takes us where we would rather not go. In the case of Carretto’s mother, as in the case of millions of other dedicated (and hurried, hassled, tired and guilt-ridden) women and men, the demands of life-of children, marriage, vocation, job, church politics, neighborliness, and mortgage payments—when responded to with a gracious heart, do exactly what proper formal prayer and solitude will do—they put a belt around you and walk you where, by your own choice, you would never walk.
They walk you where the deep demands of God and love call you to be.
God is found in silence and solitude… the saints are right in suggesting an hour of silence and prayer every day. Sometimes, though, and perhaps for many of the years of our adult lives, duties of state, circumstance and the only edict that can never be idolatrous—the demand to respond in charity—conscript us to a life of prayer that has very different contours but the same results.