In the morning, while it was still very dark, [Jesus] got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed.Mark 1:35
Fr. Henri Nouwen is one of my favorite Christian authors. I have read many of his books, and attended a retreat based on his teachings. One of the many helpful things that I have learned from Fr. Nouwen is the three-step rhythm of the spiritual life. It is like a three-step dance, with all kinds of creativity in the dance, but conforming to these three basic steps. And these three steps are: solitude, community, and prayer. When we keep all of these three steps in mind, we live in the way that Jesus taught, and we live out of our sacred center.
In this post, I want to focus on the first of these steps: spending time alone with God. Here is how another of my favorite Christian authors describes its importance:
Whoever cannot be alone should beware of community … But the reverse is also true. Whoever cannot stand being in community should beware of being alone.Dietrich Bonhoeffer
Both solitude and community are essential to the Christian life. Jesus himself modeled this very thing. In a wonderful presentation that Fr. Nouwen gave in Mobile, Alabama, (which I watched on the retreat but have not yet found online), he based his remarks on Luke 6:12-19, when Jesus spent the night on a mountain in prayer before calling the twelve apostles and heading down the mountain to do ministry.
Now during those days [Jesus] went out to the mountain to pray; and he spent the night in prayer to God.Luke 6:12
Out of this story, Fr. Nouwen asked a very simple but important question: “Where is your night?” Where is that place in your life where you spend time alone with God? It was part of the rhythm of Jesus’ life and ministry to find places apart where he could be alone with God. Shouldn’t it be the same for us all?
Where is your night? And, I might add, when is your night? When do you spend time alone with God? Because it is not easy for any of us to find (or make) the time to do this. And even when do find the time, it’s not easy to actually stick with it.
Why is it so hard to regularly spend time alone with God? Fr. Nouwen shared a reason for this that I initially found surprising. He says that oftentimes when we are alone with God, we come to realize how sad we are. And the sadness that arises within us can make it difficult to do this, to take the time to be alone with God. Have you noticed this? I have. For me, when I spend time alone with God, grief often seems to bubble up to the surface. It may be something different for you, of course, but it is in solitude that we discover what is happening under the surface in our lives. As Fr. Nouwen puts it:
We have to fashion our own desert where we can withdraw every day, shake off our compulsions, and dwell in the gentle healing presence of our Lord. Without such a desert we will lose our own soul while preaching the gospel to others.Henri Nouwen, The Way of the Heart
It can be challenging, for many reasons, to spend time alone with God, which begs the question: why do it? Fr. Nouwen teaches us that it is very important to embrace the pain, sadness, confusion and other emotions that rise to the surface when we spend time alone with God. The emotions are there, and suppressing them is not good for our souls. So, don’t run from them, he teaches us, or ignore them, but embrace them. And solitude is that place where our pain can truly be embraced. Why? Because solitude is not just being alone – it is being alone with God. And that is very different. When we spend time alone with our loving God, we discover, right in the middle of our pain, joy and peace and healing.
We enter into solitude first of all to meet our Lord and to be with him and him alone.Henri Nouwen, The Way of the Heart
The Christian vision, Fr. Nouwen teaches us, is that joy and sorrow are not opposites. In the cross there is both death and life, sorrow and joy. Solitude, then, helps us to face our pain and to realize that below our sadness and grief and confusion, and below all the voices of the world that encourage us to run from this pain, there is the gentle voice of God saying to us all: “You are my beloved child. I loved you from before you were born, before your parents even knew you, and I will love you even after you have died. You are my beloved.” And this life, Fr. Nouwen concludes in a beautiful way, is really at its root simply an opportunity for us to say to God: “I love you, too.”
To put it another way, being still in the presence of God helps us to become deeply aware of God’s love for us. God’s love for us is unconditional, eternal, and always present, but being still helps us to receive it. Being alone with God helps us to be loved by God, to accept and embrace that love. And we cannot love others until we receive God’s love (1 John 4:19).
Compassion is the fruit of solitude and the basis of all ministry. The purification and transformation that takes place in solitude manifest themselves in compassion.Henri Nouwen, The Way of the Heart
This is why solitude is such a vital part of that three-step dance of the Christian faith. This time spent alone with God leads to prayer and to community. Solitude is the place where we receive God’s love, and where we become aware of God’s love for us and for all the world; and this solitude naturally leads us both upward and outward, in prayer with God, and toward all of God’s beloved. Solitude is the beginning of a three-step dance that also includes community and prayer, a spiritual rhythm that Jesus himself shows us through his own life many times, including when he spent the night in prayer with God before naming his twelve disciples.
So, where is your night? When is your night? Where and when do you spend time alone with God? As a Christian, spending time in community is vitally important, as is prayer in all variations. But so, too, is solitude, spending time alone with God. When we learn this three-step rhythm we are able to live out our faith in a way that is a blessing to our Lord and to all those around us.