October 26, 2020

Riffs: 03:05:09: Richard Foster on Solitude; Me on Silence

Next Reformation posted this bit of a 2008 CT interview with Richard Foster. (I mainly mention Foster to light up the radar of the discernabloggers. Boo!)

What is the discipline that you think we need to be exploring more at this point?

Solitude. It is the most foundational of the disciplines of abstinence, the via negativa. The evangelical passion for engagement with the world is good. But as Thomas à Kempis says, the only person who’s safe to travel is the person who’s free to stay at home. And Pascal said that we would solve the world’s problems if we just learned to sit in our room alone. Solitude is essential for right engagement.

I so appreciated in Bonhoeffer’s Life Together the chapter, “The Day Alone,” and the next chapter, “The Day Together.” You can’t be with people in a right way without being alone. And of course, you can’t be alone unless you’ve learned to be with people. Solitude teaches us to live in the presence of God so that we can be with people in a way that helps them and does not manipulate them.

Another thing we learn in solitude is to love the ways of God; we learn the cosmic patience of God. There’s the passage in Isaiah in which God says, “Your ways are not my ways,” and then goes on to describe how God’s ways are like the rain that comes down and waters the earth. Rain comes down and just disappears, and then up comes the life. It’s that type of patience.

In solitude, I learn to unhook myself from the compulsion to climb and push and shove. When I was pastoring that little church, I’d go off for some solitude and worry about what was happening to people and how they’re doing and whether they would get along without me. And of course, the great fear is that they’ll get along quite well without you! But you learn that’s okay. And that God’s in charge of that. You learn that he’s got the whole world in his hands.

Silence and solitude played a large part in my conversion. I wanted to play church basketball as a teenager, and to be on the team you had to do a “vigil,” which was 2 hours alone with a Bible and a lot of questions. It was one of the first times in my life I really sensed the presence of the living God speaking to and seeking after me.

I took a retreat at Merton’s monastery back in the 1980’s, when guests stayed in the old dormitory. The silence was thick. It wrapped around me and even though I was in a big room, I was intimidated. The silence the rest of the time was manageable, but that night silence was alive, big, ubiquitous.

This past year, my sabbatical gave me a lots of solitude and silence, and I wasn’t ready for it. I planned a week at St. Meinrad, and left after three days. The silence was driving me crazy. I traded it for the silence of the Brescia College library. More manageable for me.

In sabbatical orientation we talked about silence. They said don’t be afraid to sleep. Lots. That was good silence. I tend to forget that, and like too many adults, I get too little sleep. I should be asleep now.

My community is almost never silent, and when we are, we aren’t listening for God as much as we are listening for the next bit of trouble to break out. To really be silent, you have to stop listening. Go beneath the water and let the world above go on without you.

You aren’t silent to be pointed out as someone being silent. No, you are silent to pray. To hear. To hear the nothing that is the world in the presence of God, who is a crashing, blasting, exploding silence.

We’re a distracted world, piping in the noise any way we can. We now have devices that enable endless talking. We are in one another’s presence, but we can’t talk because we can’t be quiet. We have to talk into devices and listen to devices. Even at a seminar or prayer or a silent retreat.

Tell people they can’t have their talking gadgets and watch their faces.

This is one reason I’ve started playing chess again. It’s a game that values silence. It’s little noises are imperceptible to most people. Sighs. Clinking chessmen. Near silence, with movement only permitted in a complete respect for the game.

This is what prayer should be like. A canvas of silence, and on it we paint sparely, with few words and sounds. Our presence in His presence is noisy. His silence is absolute resolution to all our cacophony.

We gave up the tv. There won’t be silence, but there will be more silence of a kind. Less noise. More room to breath, sleep, read, pray, listen to the quiet.

Silence is no sacrament, no theological thing, no Protestant-Catholic thing. It is simply a good thing. A gift of immediacy; an invitation to the gifts that are as close as a heartbeat.

Lewis has Screwtape say that heaven is music, but hell is noise. Music has its pregnant, wondrous silences. Noise has nothing, but disturbs everything.

Silence is, in these times, incredibly cheap. Purchase some. Spend it wisely. Do something wonderful with it. Learn to be comfortable in it, rather than to run from it. Look into the silence, and see who is there, and how long he has been waiting.


  1. Ah – this guy is speaking my language. In my world silence is a luxury, a craving. I have a wife and seven children from seventeen down to three, a demanding primary career and part-time vocation as a CCD director. And I really look forward to silent retreats at a monastary. Because to sit quietly isn’t enough, while the world struggles to grab my attention. To be away, in a Church and empty myself, or to sit in a garden and feel life around, and smell, and listen without thinking – wow.

    Sometimes I just steal away and sit in Church for about 20 minutes or so, and leave my cell phone behind, because sometimes I need to empty to be full again…

  2. silence is a symphony bathing our ears with gods presence.

  3. I totally agree, and I’ve been struggling with this lately. Both of what I would consider “my churches” have this terrible habit of ALWAYS needing to have music going. In the sanctuary, in the middle of the day, contemporary “Jesus is my boyfriend” kind of stuff, all day long. During prayer, when the pastor is leading in quasi-extemporaneous prayer after the sermon or before the sermon, the guitarist is in the background, praying to his own little melody, and subjecting the rest of us to it. In the middle of the sermon, when the pastor wants us ponder quietly a particular point or Scripture verse, the pianist is providing a musical backdrop. Some days its all I can do to not stand up in the middle of Sunday morning worship and scream “Stop playing your instrument!”

    Rant over. Thank you for the reminder that we all need time and space to be quiet. 🙂

  4. Katie, one brief comment to your post…DITTO!

    Michael, I think the difference between your experience and that which Foster describes is probably little more than personality. A good chuck of the Church agrees that silence/solitude has a meaningful place, but how and even where it’s practiced can make the difference between success and craziness.

    Grace and peace.

  5. Foster’s book Celebration of Discipline was instrumental in my search for a deeper spiritual life. As an Assemblies of God minister, I was woefully lacking in an understanding of the classical spiritual disciplines. Reading this book drove me in my search for a “deeper” level of spirituality. My search for more eventually led me to be a monk for four years with the Brothers and Sisters of Charity. We observed silence and solitude, and I had up to nine hours a day to spend in silence, study and solitude. I wish I could say I used all that time wisely. But even spending time alone with God is a a discipline one must work into. For most of us, it is not a natural talent.

  6. “Solitude is essential for right engagement.”

    Amen to this and everything said here. I don’t know all the Church history and I don’t know all the terminology of all the Christianity “jargon” but I DO know that I must sit in silence and let my barriers drop away as God does his work within me. I thank God for the writings of Thomas Keating who has helped me to appreciate this need for silent prayer and contemplation.

  7. Great post, Michael. Thank you.

  8. I covet silence yet at the same time I find myself in a culture that shies me away from it. Growing up I always got the impression that emptying one’s mind (such as one would hopefully be able to do with the practice of contemplation and silence) would only allow room for the devil. I was told this in various ways. But the noise gets old and the silence I find essential. I sometimes say “You know you have a true friend when you can be silent together.” Some relationships are overbearing, constantly needing attention (ugh cell phones!), but the ones I cherish most are the ones where we can be silent and yet still grow together.

    I’ve been reading a lot of Merton books lately – really love the guy, though so much of his thoughts are FAR over my head. I have one on Eastern Mysticism and Christianity – in some ways comparing Zen to Christianity. Silence. It’s one reason I do yoga. I need to practice not being busy, it’s a habit that really needs to be broken. I’m/we’re bored: so we eat, we watch T.V., we read various blogs (hmm), we email… Why can’t I/we just sit STILL for 5 minutes? It’s discouraging, too, because it’s hard to find those times of silence. But I/we need them – not just to refresh, but to learn how to clear our minds so that we can think and so that we can fully listen to others – so that we don’t just see annoying behaviors but instead hear cries for help. Unplug the t.v., limit how many times to be on the computer…take a walk every morning…something…

    My fiancé and I want a prayer closet in our home…I already long for that closet! 🙂

  9. Thanks, Michael. This is a great call to prayer and communion. A good thing to be mindful of on a Lenten Friday.

  10. The Guy from Knoxville says

    I completely agree on silence – when you get right down to it, it’s something we all need. One of the more recent times that I remember was back during Advent last year I had went up to the church one particular evening during the week to work on music that was upcoming for Christmas and the auditorium was dark except for the parking lot light shining through the windows on the west side of the building and I just sat down in the back of the room under the balcony overhang where the light was coming through and I stayed in that back pew a good part of the time. I didn’t get much practice in that night because it was more enjoyable to sit silently in God’s presence than to be at the organ console making music. I enjoy the music but, from time to time, I just need to turn it off and be silent. It was refreshing and I plan to do it again from time to time.

    Silence has largly been forgotten in most churches and this applies to traditional and contemporary – there is always something going in the background whether it’s organ, piano, guitar or synths. We would do well to have a little more silence in our services – we might even hear God in the process.

  11. I am wrestling with this issue right now, and seriously considering changing my denomination from Methodist to Episcopalian because of it.

    At my Methodist churches, they’re a chatty, extroverted bunch who find God in feeding the homeless and breaking bread together. Conversely, at the Episcopal church I sneak off to, the sanctuary is quiet before the service and Be Still And Know I Am God is a major theme.

    I have spent as much as a week in almost total silence at retreats, and I love being able to spend that time in prayer and meditation. It feels right to me.

    The complicating factor is that I am very tied to Methodism and in the middle of a discernment period to try and figure out if I should start down the road to ordained ministry (I’m currently on staff at two different Methodist churches and the pastors are pushing me that way).

    My Episcopalian leanings aren’t in view, because if I’m not at Methodist Church A on Sunday, they assume I’m at UMC B, and B assumes I’m at A. Actually I’m not at either, but at the Episcopal church down the road, being quiet.

  12. Boethius says

    I love being silent. I am so fortunate to spend summers in the Lakes region of NH. There I can be alone and silent. There is no internet access and no reception for the cell phone. Because my better-half works more than I do, I am often there by myself (well, I have two dogs with me).

    What I find puzzling are the responses of those who want to go to church to be silent. When I go to church I want to be with people. I want to greet them. I want to hear our talented musicians play. I want to participate in cooperate prayer and hear the Word proclaimed. I do not go there for silence. I suppose it is okay to do a cooperate silent thing but only if all are in agreement. Obviously, if your church does not want to participate in the cooperate silent thing and you do, then there is a disconnect.

    I do think there are different personality types. For instance, I have three children. My oldest needs 80% alone time and 20% fellowship. My middle child has the numbers reversed. Her life is 80% fellowship and 20% alone time. My youngest is 50/50. I personally find I am most contented when I spend 70% of my time alone and about 30% with others. Of course, my 70% of alone time is not all spent in complete silence.

    So, I think all people should make an analytical judgement about themselves and see what combination of the contemplative life versus the active life is best for them in every way, spiritually, emotionally, physically, and intellectually. “The unexamined life is not worth living.”

  13. I crave solitude and silence.
    God has chosen to bless me with a wife who is nervous if someone is not talking all the time. I’m learning patience.
    Joseph talked about the difference in his Methodist church and Episcopalians.
    That brings to mind the odious practice of many churches that forces everyone to stand and greet those around you at the beginning of a service. I loath this practice being a shy and reserved person. Note to the well-meaning churches who practice this. I know why you do it but it is a guarantee that I will not be back.
    Oh, also I am in sales. I am forced to talk to strangers and people I don’t like every day.
    God will not let me rest in my weaknesses.
    I would be perfectly content to be in a room by myself with perhaps a book for days or weeks at a time.
    The silence and solitude is one of the reasons I like to get out of the city and go to the hills where you get a lot of both.

  14. One other thing.
    The cell phone is a device from hell.

  15. Boethius, I know what you mean about it being odd that people would think they would go to church to find silence. I find silence at home when my husband is asleep or gone. Going to church is gathering for public worship. And you said, “I personally find I am most contented when I spend 70% of my time alone and about 30% with others.” That’s about my average I think, too. I work in an office all by myself and the only people I see are those I schedule for meeting with me (I am a juvenile probation officer) or when I go to court or outside meetings. It works for me. I can’t work well in a noisy environment.

    I see “going to church” as a celebratory (sometimes healing) gathering of like-minded folks. We celebrate Jesus having come to save us, dying for us, rising for us and bringing us into the Kingdom of God. We are nourished by his Word, his Spirit and his Presence. The quiet times alone at home help us to be more able to be aware of his presence and help us to be conduits, if you will, of his love to the world. Anyway, that’s how I see it.

    P.S. I love New Hampshire. I live in Maine and yet it is in the mountains of NH that I go to with my husband or my sisters/cousins for fun, relaxation, shopping. I would like to go on a “spiritual” retreat sometime. I have fantasies about going to the monastery in Snowmass, Colorado where Father Thomas Keating is, but I doubt that will happen. Maybe I will do something local sometimes. My husband hates for me to not be home with him, though, so it’s difficult.

  16. Boy, did I need this post!

    I reverted to past Catholicism and gave up TV and Chocolate for Lent. It has resulted in my facing my aloneness, which I do like, but without the distractions of TV, which I enjoy very much (Christian and non-Christian programming.) That tv just distracted me from my solitude when I feel the lack of God’s manifest presence so keenly. I miss HIM so much in that way.

    I am sitting here struggling and complaining to God that I need more of Him but have no way to get there. I am tired of quantifying my prayer time with readings and prayers for needs of myself and others. I just moved my Bible, prayer journal and stack of books off my table – they make me feel like I’ve ‘accomplished’ something when I really haven’t.

    I have to thank you, and thank God for leading me to read you again today to see these words of encouragement. And yes, I have fantasized about being some kind of monk – in much corporate silence.

    I have to say that all the noise and works of the churches I have been to in my adult life make no room for silence. The judgement of your faith is determined by the level of your noise, attendance, and participation in ‘good works’ in same church. Sure, if you ask, any church will pay lip service to prayer and silent contemplation. But I can’t remember a time when they actually gave that a true sense of value by suggesting ways to do it, or even discussing it as a priority.

    Thank you.
    P.S. I agree with the cell phone comment.

  17. internetelias says

    IMONK>>>Look into the silence, and see who is there, and how long he has been waiting.

    I like that!

    ‘Be still and know’ and ‘let your answers be yea and nea’ is good gospel.

  18. I find that silence is selfish… maybe I just don’t get it but going on a silent retreat seems to be the epitome of selfishness and just another ritual. I find that God is with me where ever I am and in what ever I am doing… He just “IS”. But hey, to each his own.



  19. Terry,

    And the person across the table from you at lunch who never stops talking is…..selfless?


  20. Terry,

    I don’t think that anyone here is doubting that God is everywhere. But, just as a mother can hear her child’s soft cry better than anyone else, silent retreats help train our ear to hear God.

    As for me, I’m counting the hours until I get into my car and head for St. Meinrad for a retreat. Not silent, but with others. There will be time for silence, and joining the monks with their prayers, etc.

  21. The Guy from Knoxville says

    Some seemed suprised at the desire for silence in church…. I don’t think silence from start to finish in a service is necessarily what’s needed but, churches need to have some point in a service where you have a few moments of quite. I’ve started using more quite meditative music for my parts of the service such as preludes and offertories and certainly communion etc. I’m, sort of, over being thumped, blasted, twanged (guitar – couldn’t thing of a better word – created one..) out of the room every single Sunday. Silence is good from time to time in church and outside of it as well.

  22. The Guy from Knoxville says

    Yes Terry God is everywhere but sometimes we just need to…. well…. shut up to actually hear him!!!
    I’m preaching to the choir (that would be me) when I say that because I don’t shut up enough as it is. The idea of a silent retreat is anything but selfish – at least as it’s being talked about/discussed here. This discussion has actually got me to thinking about and considering just such a retreat and I’m going to be looking into it shortly.

  23. I don’t think worship has to be filled with silence, but moving the pre-worship conversation to post-worship conversation harms no one and I feel sets a holier mood.

    But during the service, 3 minutes seems like an eternity when you’re asking everyone to pray silently! It’s hard to wait that long before the urge to resume talking hits you, because you know there are people itching to move on.

    Every church is different — including the type of unchurched person they attract — and what works for one congregation won’t work for another.

  24. treebeard says

    On the theme of this post, I would highly recommend the movie “Into Great Silence” (“Die Grosse Stille”) to any here who have not yet seen it. Profoundly beautiful.

  25. Boethius says


    I am so happy to hear that you and your family members like to vacation in NH. Our mountains and lakes are great places to enjoy the solitude.

    I know what you mean about having a spouse who does not like to spend time alone. Perhaps, when you do go away for a time, the Lord is trying to teach him as well?

    Peace to you and yours.

  26. What a wake up call this post has been. I used to be alone a lot, and in silence often too, but since I filled a pulpit and took on a little flock as undershepherd that has been missing. No wonder I am a nervous wreck. It is so easy to get so busy that silence and solitude seem sinful, a waste of time. How foolish. Do silence and solitude count while holding a fishing rod? Please advise.
    Rob, my cell phone had to go, leave a message.

  27. Treebeard,

    I quite agree with your recommendation about “Into Great Silence.” I saw it twice, once in Columbus and once in Cleveland.

    Thank you, I will make sure that my CD of the soundtrack is with me next weekend.

    Willoh, I’d say that a fishing pole, a creek or lake makes a good time to reflect.

  28. I love silence too. For me that’s one of the blessings of being single. I can come home and just chill out in silence — no tv, radio, etc.

    I truly do think it’s a characteristic that will be valued by my future husband, if the stereotype holds true — women talk talk talk and men are more of the “strong silent type” 🙂 🙂

  29. I grew up in a rural Midwestern Quaker church, so I had heard of Foster fairly early on. As someone now leaning Anglican or maybe even further, I now think the Quakers got quite a bit wrong. However, the silence thing I think they definitely got right (and the peace thing and the simplicity thing). Weirdly, I see some connection between the Quakers and the Desert Fathers. Funny the similarity between a lot of Christian mystics from different traditions.

  30. Patrick Lynch says

    Dave138, you might be surprised at how similar-sounding a lot of mystics throughout the ages from any religion Judeo-Christian or not) come off.

  31. William Penn said: “True silence is … to the Spirit what sleep is to the body: nourishment and refreshment.”

    Modern Quaker writer Arthur O. Roberts gives these results of silence:
    1. fosters awe before the Almighty;
    2. indicates submission to God;
    3. provides a posture for worship;
    4. provides freedom from noise and distraction;
    5. condition for tranquility;
    6. sets the stage for prayer;
    7. signifies respect for others;
    8. renews wonder at the world;
    9. provides holy space;
    10. prepares for effective social witness.

    I’m not a Quaker, but I agree with their stress on the importance of silence.

  32. The thing about silence is that you can be in a silent place and still be all noisy within yourself. My husband says he cannot turn down the noise “in his head” unless he gets drunk. He does not like silence because then he is alone with the noise and confusion and crazy thoughts inside, so he will turn on loud music or something, just to not have to “hear” inside himself. Then you have the other side…people who can be in chaotic, noisy places and yet be silent inside. And it’s not empty silence. It’s more like full silence.

  33. http://www.cbc.ca/tapestry/archives/2004/092004.html
    There’s a nice 21 minute audio interview of Thomas Keating there about Centering Prayer and the value of silence in our prayer life. Near the end, there may be a couple things he says that would concern “evangelical” folks, but don’t worry, in his books you learn that he is very much a Christian! For those of you more familiar with J.P. Moreland, Moreland also recommends a similar method to deepen our love and union with God. I read Moreland’s book, Kingdom Triangle, in which he writes about this. The last third of the book was the best, in my opinion.

    There are some passages from the Gospel listed there pointing to the contemplative dimension of prayer.

    There was a place online that had Keating’s books all available to read online, but I don’t find that anymore. His book Open Heart, Open Mind is probably the one that best explains Centering Prayer.

    (Just thought I would give this info to anyone who may benefit from it. This post started four days ago, though, so on THIS site, that’s long ago (!!) so I don’t know how many of you will find it unless you get the Feeds like I am getting now.)

  34. I just read this series of posts from top to bottom. What a blessing! I, personally, need quite a bit of solitude and silence (but then I’m and old dude). I find nature to be helpful in this regard. However, I do have a semi-serious theological question: Will there be golf courses in heaven?

  35. Two years ago I was widowed. My husband had been ill for many years, and as his caretaker there was not a lot of “alone” time nor was there much opportunity for silence. After his death, all I heard was the silence.

    I am firmly convinced we as human beings flee silence as a dreaded enemy. The noise of silence can become deafening. Yet Scripture instructs us to “lie upon our beds and be silent.” Why? Because in the silence our pain surfaces. In the silence the Holy Spirit can gently recall incidences in need of cleansing, of healing, of confession. In the silence we can quietly behold a God whose glory shines within our hearts in silent revelation.

    When we yield to silence it is at first quite painful and disconcerting. But as we embrace silence and solitude we begin to discover something: the reality of the abiding presence of Christ. If we are born-again…it is a fact that He resides within us. But the noise of everyday life numbs us to that fact. In the silence we discover His awesome Presence.

  36. Wow! what an idea ! What a concept ! Beautiful .. Amazing …