Macrina Weidekehr, in her book The Song of the Seed, tells of when she was young how she used to enjoy sending coded messages to her friends by typing letters without using the space bar. Without the spaces the words were hard to decipher. The spaces were needed to make sense of the message. She makes the comparison that the same is true in our lives, "It's the spaces in between that help us understand life."
I have found that one of the most powerful tools God has used to sculpt me in my spiritual life has been solitude, extended times set aside to be just with God. It was nearly 15 years ago that an older woman at the church I attended invited me to join her and others going to a park to spend a half day in prayer. I remember thinking I was pretty sure I couldn't pray for that long, but still, something about it drew me. Perhaps it was the compelling, gentle spirit of the woman who invited me.
That clear, fall morning beside the Chesapeake Bay would change the direction of my journey with Jesus irrevocably. With very simple instructions my friend sent us off with Bible, journal and what felt like all the time in the world. Once I figured out that I didn't need to speak to God nonstop for the next three hours, I settled into a listening mode that was new and surprisingly comfortable. Unbeknownst to me, God began that day to answer a prayer I had uttered to him a few months earlier: "Lord, help me to hear and recognize your voice. I just want to know it's you."
In those three hours, God, in his lovingly tender way, began to teach me just that - how to listen to him. Like Elijah in I Kings 19, I discovered that God sounds much more like a soft whisper blowing through my heart than a raging wind tearing apart the mountains. It was an unimaginably rich experience for me, and it has only grown richer and deeper since then.
In the last few years, I have begun to do my own invitations to others to solitude. Of the dozens of people who have joined me for intentional solitude, for nearly all it was their first time. Each one came a little nervous, hesitant, not sure what to expect. Yet without exception, everyone proclaimed afterward - usually with tears in their eyes - that they had no idea how wonderful a time like this could be. They overflowed with gratitude that God would be present with them in such a palpable, intimate way. I know what they mean. What an unfathomable gift to be loved by the living God.
Some people think solitude is only for introverts or the "calm of spirit." Not true. Just because you're going off to be alone, and just because you are choosing to not talk to other people for a period of time, does not mean you can't be moving, active, or expressive. Hike. Snowshoe. Journal. Paint. Draw. Read. Do what you enjoy. It's important to use some of your time to be still, being intentionally open to God and to listen for what dreams he might desire to share with you, but that doesn't have to happen sitting down with your eyes closed.
Another misperception of many people is that silence and solitude are for the "super-spiritual" and that they're just too new at the faith journey to even attempt such an endeavor. In my experience God is just as eager and able to speak to beginners or even the "not yet convinced" as he is to long time followers of Jesus.
Group solitude may sound like an oxymoron, but like most new experiences in life, we humans prefer to try things with a friend. When I take a group on solitude, we carpool up to a retreat center together, chatting and enjoying conversation all the way there. Once we get there we split up to our various rooms alone and respect silence until we meet up together for lunch. After lunch we decide who wants to take a hike together or some other activity and who wants more time alone. No judgment is placed on either decision, We simply follow our hearts and wish each other well. Committing to dates and traveling together has been a great way to help each other make this spiritual discipline a priority.