It what would seem to some as an act of sheer insanity, in the middle of the afternoon on New Year’s Day—when it was -5º outside—I donned my Smartwools®, ear muffs, down jacket, and gloves, and went for a couple-mile walk on the Rock River Sinnissippi Park trail. Along the path, I came across a lonely bench, inviting me to stop awhile and enjoy the solitude. Other days I took up the invitation, but this time, the cold drove me on. It was indeed bitterly cold, yet I stayed nicely warm—mostly—just not warm enough to stop and sit! Nevertheless, the time outdoors was delightful. During those 40 minutes, I was alone, except for a brief encounter with an ice fisherman headed in the opposite direction. On this walk and many others in recent months, I’m learning more and more the solace that comes from times of solitude.
“Solitude” is itself under assault, and has been for quite some time, in our culture. We get in our cars, and have to have the radio on (in some form or another). If we’re energetic enough to go to the gym or go for a walk, we have to have the ear buds in listening to something. Young or old, we have to be connected via our phones, tablets, wristwatches, etc. And most of us want it that way because the alternative is at least uncomfortable.
Writing in the Winter 2018 issue of Plough Quarterly, university professor Stephanie Bennett suggests that “silence, as well as being uncomfortable, can be fearsome. Leaving us alone with our thoughts, it forces us to address matters we often sidestep in our active outer lives.” For over a decade, Prof. Bennett has required her students to go on a 24-hour fast from electronic media and then write and essay on the experience. “Frightening,” “lonely,” and “depressing” are some descriptors of the day of solitude from digital devices. She observes, “Over twelve years of assigning this exercise, I’ve noticed students have found it increasingly difficult to successfully stick out the digital fast. For many, severing the link to their main conduit of information causes something near emotional pain.” Some of her students carry out the assignment and come to discover a taste of what I experienced on my sub-zero stroll. “Ye those who persevere through the initial feelings of loss often report an unexpected breakthrough. Some say they attain great moments of clarity and awareness; others find themselves gaining an almost ecstatic creativity. It’s not uncommon for students to feel the urge to pray.”
There you go. Something that was commonplace, regularly encouraged, and practiced in past generations is a dying, nearly lost art. A few hundred years ago the English puritan Thomas Manton wrote,
The closet and solitary prayer is a necessary duty, and a profitable one. It does much for the enlargement of the heart. When a man seeks to deal most earnestly with God, he should seek retirement and be alone. Christ in His agonies went apart from His disciples. It is notable that when Jacob sought to wrestle with God, it is said, “And Jacob was left alone” (Gen. 32:24). When he had a mind to deal with God in great earnestness, he sent away all his company…..Make a prudent choice yourselves, and consecrate such a part of time as will suit with your occasions, your course of life, and according to your abilities and opportunities.
In other words, if possible, go for a walk…alone.