Solitude.

Last week I wrote about my plan to observe a weekly Sabbath rest; now, as the next step in plotting out my rule of life (see my July 15 post for a full explanation), I’d like to tell you about my experience with solitude this past Saturday and how I intend to fit this practice into my life.

On Saturday, I spent three hours in one of the group study rooms in the library at my university, which is quiet on a Saturday afternoon at this time of year.  Not by any particular plan (except maybe God’s), I ended up in a room looking out on the rooftop garden, so I got to see a lot of bees pollinating flowers, which ended up figuring into one of the spiritual observations I recorded in my journal.  I don’t think it’s any accident that some of Jesus’ most famous teachings began with invitations to look at the birds and consider the flowers.

I spent these three hours in fulfillment of a post-class assignment in the Regent College course Taking Your Soul to Work, which inspired my effort to create a rule of life.  I was instructed to spend three hours in complete solitude, using the Bible and the book Taking Your Soul to Work (by the course’s instructors, R. Paul Stevens and Alvin Ung) to identify and meditate on my greatest workplace sin/struggle (I chose anger) and the fruit of the spirit that corresponds to it (gentleness, according to Stevens and Ung).  The prospect of three hours of complete solitude was no big deal; I live alone and enjoy being alone, so I occasionally spend entire days without seeing anyone.  But three hours of slow reading, prayer, and thought, without anything tangible to show for it besides some navel-gazing journal entries–that isn’t something I generally do for fun.

I should be honest: I didn’t spend the whole three hours in that one room.  I got up a few times to use the restroom and the vending machines, and I did see a few people; I just didn’t interact with them.  Yes, I ate some snacks; fasting is a separate discipline that I might write about in a future post.  And I did listen to some instrumental music on my iPod; silence is also a separate discipline that is often combined with solitude but is not essential to the practice.  Different people might want to try the discipline of solitude for different reasons, but for me, the main point of the exercise was to 1) focus my concentration on a single activity for a long period of time (this is very difficult for me, which may surprise people who know that I love to read and have written a dissertation) and 2) meditate slowly and deliberately on what God wants to say to me, without immediately jumping to application (this is very difficult for a lot of evangelicals, I would venture to say).

I wouldn’t say that I received any earth-shattering revelations during those three hours, but I did fully recognize–in some cases for the first time–some things about God’s gentleness, my own deep desire to control everything, and the absolute necessity of contentment to the Christian life.  Of course, another topic of meditation might have taught me something entirely different, and that’s the lovely thing about solitude–what you do with the solitude is up to you, so the experience can be different every time.  I plan to incorporate this discipline by taking one of these three-hour mini-retreats quarterly–i.e., every three months.  I should add, by the way, that the three hours seemed to go by much more quickly than I expected.

If you’d like to share your own experiences with either Sabbath rest or solitude, or if you’d like to tell how you plan to incorporate these disciplines into your own life, please comment below!

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Remembering the Sabbath Day

This is the first of my posts describing specific items that will become part of my “rule of life”–see July 15’s post for an introduction.

The spiritual practice that most caught my attention during the class, as both something I’m not currently doing (at least not very well) and something I’d really like to do, was a weekly observance of the Sabbath.  I’m not just talking about going to church on Sunday–I already do that–or about not going into the office on weekends.  Observing the Sabbath means choosing one day per week (it probably will be Sunday for me, but it doesn’t have to be for everyone) to rest in a deliberate manner.

I know; “rest in a deliberate manner” sounds like a contradiction in terms.  But my point is that Sabbath rest is planned and zealously guarded.  It’s not the same as crashing in front of the TV at the end of the day because you’re so tired from work.  Sabbath rest will look very different for different people, but the common factors are that it happens every week (ideally on the same day every week, though I understand that this may not work for people with unpredictable work schedules), it lasts for an entire day (following the Jewish model, it could actually start on the previous evening), and it doesn’t get shoved to the side when life gets busy.  An exceptionally busy person is in exceptionally great need of a Sabbath rest.

The idea of observing Sabbath comes from two biblical passages: the creation in Genesis 1-2, in which God works for six days and then rests on the seventh, and the Ten Commandments in Exodus 20, in which God commands his people to keep the seventh day “holy” (i.e., set apart; special).  This command is elaborated on elsewhere in the Jewish law and clarified (never abolished) in the Christian New Testament.  Even people who don’t accept Scripture as authoritative in their lives often understand from experience that a weekly day of rest is physically and mentally restorative–and not merely a luxury, but a necessity to function at full capacity.

As I mentioned before, the actual observance of the Sabbath will look different for different people.  This is the “Sabbath policy” (subject to revision) I plan to put into effect for myself beginning next Sunday:

  1. No checking email
  2. No job-related* work of any kind, including grading (This may motivate me to work more efficiently during the week!)
  3. Perform a short ceremony to mark the beginning and end of the Sabbath.  This will usually be as simple as lighting a candle on Saturday evening and again on Sunday before I go to bed.
  4. Include other people in my Sabbath celebration whenever feasible.  (Note: Solitude is a separate practice, which I’ll write about in a later post.  I included this item because my tendency is to be a hermit on Sundays, but since I’m now treating Sunday as a little holiday, it makes sense to be with other people.)
  5. Increase the quality and (probably) quantity of the time I spend at church.  (Important note: Some people have no need to do the second part of this and should probably spend less time at church–I’m talking about those people who get burned out serving in every ministry.  But I’m not always mentally and spiritually “present” when I’m in church, and I tend to escape as soon as the service is over, so I’m challenging myself to enjoy my church–by that I primarily mean its people.)

I’m looking forward to implementing this first part of my rule of life.  What about you?  Let me know how you observe, or plan to start observing, a weekly Sabbath rest!

*For me, I think it’s okay to do work that has nothing to do with my career, like mowing my lawn or grocery shopping, although I’ll probably try to do those things on Saturday.

Crafting a rule of life

This week I audited a course at Regent College in Vancouver, called Taking Your Soul to Work.  (I really enjoyed this week of professional development and vacation, and I’m already thinking about doing it again next year.)  Going into the course, I was excited to learn about a theology of work, but I didn’t realize how much of the content would be drawn from historical Christian traditions such as desert monasticism, the Benedictine Rule, and Ignatian spirituality.

The main action item I gave myself based on the course is to craft my own rule of life, which is a new concept for me. A rule of life is a slate of spiritual disciplines, developed on one’s own and/or with the input of trusted advisors, to be incorporated into one’s life at set intervals: daily, weekly, annually, etc. Despite the rigid connotations of the word “rule,” the term in this context implies a “life-giving rhythm” (to quote Eugene Peterson’s paraphrase of Matthew 11:28-30 in The Message).  Rather than more items on a to-do list, the disciplines are a way to become aware of God’s presence amidst the “secular” activities of one’s life.  (Another idea we discussed in this class: There’s no such thing as a secular activity.)

A rule of life can include, among many others, such practices as observing a weekly Sabbath rest, reading Scripture daily, praying the examen prayer (more on this is a later post), and taking a semi-annual silent retreat.  My initial instinct is to sit down for an hour and quickly knock out a rule for my life, but I think it will be wiser to process what I’ve learned this week and craft my rule one item at a time.  My plan is to blog about this process along the way.  Want to join me?