This nothingness is so dreadful, everything in me wants to plug in something.
Journeying back to Jesus, I have discovered a certain monastic spirit within all kinds of believers throughout history drawing them to solitary places to be alone with God. Frankly, something about this doesn’t seem right to me. Jesus said, “The kingdom of God is within you,” and went to great pains near the end of His life on earth to point out that He planned to take up residence inside believers through the Spirit. So, if the flow of divine life and source of God’s kingdom are within us 24/7, why do we need special times and places to “be with God”?
Willing to try most anything once, I decided to give the monastic way a whirl and see if there was really any benefit to it. Learning about a retreat center in the mountains a few hours away, I made arrangements for a weekend visit at a place called St. Mary’s run by a group of nuns.
Far off the beaten path, the refuge was enclosed by stony mountains resting on the edge of a steep cliff overlooking a wooded valley with a flowing stream you couldn’t see, but heard. Breathtaking! Maybe I could handle being a monk after all. The main house was dormitory-like and I just happened to visit during a nun’s silence retreat. It was explained the nuns were not speaking to anyone including one another and not to take offense by the absence of greetings or pleasantries. This was my first clue there was not going to be a television in my room.
As the only male, my room was on the wing opposite the nuns. Rooms were simple with the bathroom and shower facilities down the hall reminding me of my college days. Free from the hustle and bustle of my frenetic everyday world, I could now kick back and refresh my soul in quietude. There was no television, CD or DVD player, radio, iPod or MP3 device, no room phone or cell phone, no laptop for surfing, working or skypeing. I was ready to run to the edge of the cliff, rip my shirt open and declare my abandonment of these modern distractions responsible for drowning out the voice of God within. How could I have possibly missed the freedom of silence and solitude? This was one of the most glorious and peaceful experiences of my life!
It lasted about 30 minutes.
With 32 hours left to go, I started calculating: seven for sleeping leaves 25. This was going to be a looooooooong weekend. OK, now what? … Who won that Yankees/Red Sox game? I think the premiere episode of 24 is tonight; crap! … Hope Rick emailed me about hooking up next week … Will Pam remember to mail those pictures? I should have mowed the lawn before I left … I wonder whatever happened to that runaway bride in New Jersey?
I’m not feeling so well. What if I have a medical emergency? How close is the nearest hospital? Maybe all this silence is really bad for you. What about those studies of babies dying who are left to themselves? I don’t even have Internet access to research it. I don’t think I turned off our back porch light; what if the house burns to the ground? I can’t take it anymore! I’m going to slide a note under a nun’s door, “Dear Sister, I’m a desperate man. Can you break your vow of silence to save a soul on the brink of insanity? I am burning with desire for meandering meaningless conversation. Meet me on the cliff at midnight. I’ll bring the coffee. —Jim”
A nice long hot shower comes to mind as a much more sensible way of reasoning with the voices in my head. Grabbing shampoo, a towel and a change of clothes, I head down the hall to the men’s shower room. The Sheraton it isn’t, but the water is hot. Either solitude shrinks people or many who enjoy it are rather short, as the showerhead height required my doing the limbo to get wet. My head stuck well above the little wooden shower door, providing full view of the entire room. Ah yes, this was the ticket! I could feel the “techno” tension releasing in the calming massage of the hot water. Shampooing my hair, I heard the bathroom door open. I guess I wasn’t the only guy here after all. At least there was one other fella waging war with solitude.
With soap finally out of my eyes, I peeked over the door to see it wasn’t a guy after all but a nun … in a bathrobe! What!?!? I was sure I saw pants, not a skirt, on the door sign. Flipping a towel over her shoulder, she began brushing her teeth. What to do? Say something and risk freaking her out or just hang tight and hope she leaves after scrubbing the pearly whites? Hanging tight flew out the window as she began untying her bathrobe. How am I going to explain to the police, not to mention Pam, what I was doing in the shower with a nun? A little chitchat with a sister on the cliffs is understandable; getting naked with one, well, that’s way out there, even for a guy seeking solitude.
As she started to disrobe, I called out timidly, “Ma’am.” No response. More boldly I repeated, “Ma’am!” She placed a finger over her mouth and sounded, “Shhhhhhhhhhh.” OK, this silence thing had gone way too far! Could she not recognize my male voice? I now know God truly answers prayer because after getting her robe untied she must have realized she forgot something, tied it back up and walked out. Still dripping wet with a head of foaming Suave, I jump out, wrap up in my towel, grab my travel bag and run a 4.5-second, 40-yard sprint to my bedroom.
Sitting back in the room I start thinking things can only get better. There’s no way I was visiting that bathroom again, at least not during waking hours. Well, the rest of the weekend, actually, went by without another such incident although the silence was still out there and suffocating.
Unplugged, I wonder if I’m carried along in life by illusions of a false self. My cell phone and computer make me feel like an important somebody. People look to me for motivation, instruction, leadership, enlightenment and inspiration. I am busy for a reason; I am needed, significant, relevant, influential and necessary. The solitude forces my hand: no friends to talk with, no telephone calls to make or emails to return, no meetings to attend, no music to entertain, no books to distract, just me—vulnerable, weak, broken, fearful, insecure, needy … me. This nothingness is so dreadful, everything in me wants to plug in something, to run to my friends, my significant endeavors and my distractions so I can forget this wasteland of emptiness and believe I am worth something.
Questions rattle me in the silence. Why do I do what I do? Why do I blog? Why do I exercise so excessively, and why am I so concerned about my appearance? Why am I so quick to broadcast to others my latest spiritual epiphany? Why do I want to project this image of being trendy and radical? Why am I so often being the funny guy? Could it be because I’m depending on these for a sense of identity and worth, even for my life’s meaning? On the cliff at St. Mary’s I discover this large empty hole I keep stuffing things in, even religious things, but they don’t satisfy. The sprawling wooded valley below stirs a longing for freedom. All these things I’m clutching to, what would letting go of them mean?
You hear of prisoners getting time in solitude as punishment or discipline. I’ve always thought, yeah right, being by yourself is real punishment, although as time passes on top of the cliffs, I’m beginning to understand what drives men mad doing time alone. Disturbing images, secret fantasies and strange hostilities pop up like a house of horrors. Anger and greed show their ugly faces. My imaginary hostile speeches to people who hurt me, embarrassed me or threatened my illusion of self-importance run like blockbuster movies back to back. I dream of being wealthy, powerful and the crazed guru everyone clamors for. I want to run, fast and far, from the dark abyss of my nothingness and restore some sense of normalcy even if based on my false self in all its vainglory. My illusions, misplaced dependencies, unreal expectations, false securities, true motives and secret aspirations remain muffled beneath the noise and clutter of my active, busy life. Escaping the racket of the outer world, I had run headlong into the racket of my inner one.
The desert image is making more sense—a vast, barren, lonely, solitary, humbling and sometimes maddening sanctuary bringing you to the end of your distractions and the beginning of yourself. Being unplugged and detached drives you to the heart of things. Maybe these strange wanderers were onto something, and perhaps one’s real desert is not the one of endless sand but one found deep inside yourself, once life’s distractions no longer occupy your consciousness. The solitude of St. Mary’s and what it revealed were sometimes grueling but necessary.
I wonder if God’s wisdom in His statement “Be still and know that I am God” has to do with the fact that the stillness first helps us know ourselves. If you don’t know your true self, can you really know God? Until we die to our false self, can we experience the reality of our new self? I wonder if this is what Jesus meant when He said, “Whoever loses his life will find it.” I am beginning to see the monastic way isn’t so much a matter of geography but fashioning one’s own desert in the midst of our daily existence, shaking off our compulsions and dwelling in conscious awareness of who Jesus is and depending on what He’s done and who He’s made us to be. Solitude has a way of melting away the layers and exposing the core of who we really are where true union with God is forged. Maybe in solitude the Spirit draws us into the wilderness, nourished only by the spiritual food of knowing Jesus.
Maybe you can’t get the “know He is God” part right until you get the “be still” part down. Maybe going unplugged periodically is part of a way of life in which we are cultivating this stillness. In the stillness we are confronted with our brokenness so we can be made whole. We are made aware of the life of Christ within so we can walk in the conscious awareness of our oneness with God. We reconnect with the source of God’s kingdom—a kingdom of grace, peace, joy, love and freedom.
Jim Palmer leads the Pilgrimage Project, a church in Nashville, Tenn., with his wife, Pam and daughter, Jessica. He is the author of Divine Nobodies.