Defying the Din to Hear God
by Edward Waters
For solitude sometimes is best society,
And short retirement urges sweet return.
One summer as a teenager I whiled away a few hours exploring the library and attic of the church I attended. I found a large placard announcing revival services held in what seemed the antiquity of a former decade, and various pictures of the building itself when it had been smaller and surrounded by farmland rather than factories, car dealerships, and convenience stores. I also came upon an old photo album of youth events from another generation, and noticed that many of the participants strangely resembled adults I knew.
I have always been intrigued by what I call 'accessible history' -- details from the past which touch in some way on people and places known to me in the present, or on events I remember independently. No formal historical record can evoke the same sense of wonder as do such discoveries, or part the seas of time and difference so that, if only for a moment, 'what was' becomes less remote, even as one's world grows a little larger.
About a half-hour drive from where I live now there once lay a denominational conference centre on some hundred acres of wooded land near the headwaters of the
Haw River. When not fully booked with church or corporate events, its facilities were opened to individuals for days of private retreat. Most often, for a negligible fee, such guests used either a small common room or one of the hotel-style 'sleeping rooms'. Eventually, however, a modest, two-storey house on the edge of the property was donated and converted into a retreat cottage, then made available free of charge for stays ranging from a few hours to several nights. My wife and I spent a weekend there each January for a number of years. We kept a wood-fire burning nearly the whole time and seldom left our places before the hearth -- reading (individually and to one another), writing, praying, talking, dozing, and drinking many pots of tea.
On our first visit, however, I also took a few moments to look through the 'cottage journal', a spiral-bound notebook left on a desk near the door, in which previous guests had written comments. Soon I felt stir the old fascination of that summer long ago. Here was a wealth of accessible history! The cottage being then but lately acquired, this one volume still contained entries going back to its opening. Among the earliest I recognized a passage as the source of a quote used later in the conference centre brochure; other pages mentioned a day of unusual weather I recalled from months before; and the signatures included several of our own friends and acquaintances.
Yet most interesting of all were the glimpses into other lives and minds. While some visitors simply thanked their hosts or quoted Scripture (and a few sermonized), the majority alluded to or even detailed the pace and pressures of their regular daily existence beyond these walls. Work, marriage, divorce, parenthood, finances, technology: Whatever the cause, they had felt the need for a break, a time to get away and collect themselves. And, entry after entry, people wrote of how in this cottage they had found some measure of relief. Having withdrawn for a while from their burdens and responsibilities, having rested before God, and having caught their breath (or perhaps the Breath), they felt better prepared to resume the race that still lay before them.
Although I have been a Christian for almost forty years, I continue to struggle with daily devotions, what some call having a 'quiet-time'. Early on I made a conscious effort to order my life so that temporal concerns crowded the priorities of faith as little as possible. Yet still I find quiet a very elusive thing. We strive to reserve time for God in a world that seems to begrudge us every stray minute, but even more daunting is the challenge of making this time meaningful.
Any compassionate soul understands when, on certain mornings, one's spouse can only give a quick kiss while rushing out the door; but no one imagines that a healthy marriage can subsist solely on such fare. Many of us, however, rarely afford our relationship with God more attention. The spirit may be willing, but the flesh is overwhelmed! If we do manage to spare a moment, it is apt to be a blemished offering of hackneyed prayers and half-conscious readings, much as every day before and always with frequent glances at the clock. Indeed, sometimes no more is possible, and it is a testimony to God's grace that so often He honours even this. Yet real prayer, real conversation with the Creator of the universe, in which we not only speak but have time and sufficient freedom from distraction to hear Him speak to us, requires more.
When two people love each other, they make time to be together, beyond mere gestures of recognition in passing. Whatever the obstacles, they find a way. God's love for us and our devotion to Him deserve no less.
I have long understood Christ's first recorded temptation in the wilderness to concern breaking prematurely the fast to which He had committed Himself. If so, His reply to Satan suggests the very rationale behind fasting: 'Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds out of the mouth of God.' Our Lord was temporarily abstaining from earthly food in order to concentrate on spiritual sustenance. While fasting is, sadly, an aspect of devotion much neglected today, its principle applies not only to food but to all in life which may distract us from the voice of God. Many things, though perhaps innocent and healthy in themselves, must be set aside on occasion that we may attend to needs far more basic, or those ordinary concerns will lose their innocence and become unhealthy in their tyranny.
This is why, for many years, I have tried to designate one Saturday out of almost every month to spend in solitude and devotion. If some sort of retreat centre is available, I may go there; but I have also set up in out-of-the-way corners of libraries or in public parks. I know of individuals who visit monasteries, or invest in a stay at an inn or hotel.
The form of the day also varies, according to both personal temperament and divine leading: My wife has focused some of her retreats on serious Bible study, and spent others almost entirely in listening to worship music. Most often I divide my time between prayer, singing, and reading Scripture -- and I may fast from food and entertainment a few days beforehand. Once or twice a year, however, I will simply pack a small Bible in my bag and spend the entire day hiking through some wilderness area, praying as I go and stopping occasionally to read short passages, listen to the wind, and watch the light play in the leaves. These retreats are not meant to replace daily devotions, but we find in them a potential for quiet and focus nearly impossible amidst the din and rush of everyday life. They have become an invaluable part of my communion with God, and I feel the loss whenever circumstances beyond my control still preclude them.
Some people, on learning of this practice, can conceive only of boredom in so many hours spent alone without familiar diversions. Others seem to regard such measures as either the sanctimonious extravagance of a fanatic or evidence of a piety too exalted for the common believer. Many, however, without doubting the worth of retreat, see it nonetheless as a luxury. They assume we have more time to spare, as if we planned these days with no sense of a thousand other things more obviously urgent that we could be doing. A normal person's life is too full, too busy, too hectic, too demanding to allow even one day away, let alone a regular observance.
But does not this prove the point? Those who know quiet least are surely the very ones who need it most. I would suggest, in fact, that a Christian should give priority to scheduling times of retreat in direct proportion to the difficulty of doing so.
Our discordant world, our technological age, our harried lives, our very hearts are filled with noise. And God will seldom shout. We little understand how great a mercy lies behind such self-restraint; but, consequently, if we are to hear Him, if we are to know Him and to follow Him, we must make time for quiet and solitude, away from all that clamours for our attention. It is not a luxury. It is vital. It is more important than work, than marriage, than family, than ministry, than physical health -- more important even than food and water. For it is in hearing the 'still small voice' of God that we are restored and learn to answer wisely the more frenetic, imposing voices once we return to them.
Making this time will indeed be harder for some than for others, and for most it will yield neither vivid revelations nor surges of spiritual power. God continues to speak softly even in the quiet. But He does speak, His voice does give strength, and it is in the quiet that He is heard best.
Besides, true lovers do not draw near calculating what they stand to gain from each other's company, nor while they remain in love do they dwell overmuch on what practical benefits have come of being together. Simply because of their love, they make the time. They already know it to be worthwhile. And so, whatever the obstacles, they find a way.
We go forward seeking truth in the Divine speech, or the Word;
and then by our actions we conform ourselves to true righteousness.
We may take nothing with us on this way, neither bag nor cloak;
and we need no staff to walk with or sandals to wear.
The way alone is enough:
He will provide all we need for our journey.
Revised from an article which first appeared in Stirrings of the Greywind [sic], Candlemas 2001 (vol. 7, no. 1). Copyright © 2002, 2008 by Edward Waters.
Milton, John. Paradise Lost. 1667.
Origen. Commentary on the Gospel According to John. [Early 3rd Century].