Solitude is another one of those words, like silence, that has several layers of meaning. Does solitude mean "alone" or does it mean "lonely?" Can you be alone and lonely while in the midst of a sea of people? Or does solitude convey a sense of strength and mastery of will, one lonely person standing against many?
In Scripture, solitary experiences are usually times of preparation. Jesus is often described as seeking solitary places to pray, especailly when he was seeking guidance in his ministry or strength to complete his mission. We read that “Very early in the morning, while it was still dark, Jesus got up, left the house and went off to a solitary place, where he prayed.” (Mark 1:35) The Gospel of Luke records that “Jesus often withdrew to lonely places and prayed.” (Luke 5:16). John writes that “Jesus, knowing that they intended to come and make him king by force, withdrew again to a mountain by himself.” (John 6:15)
Solitude is sometimes the only way to deal with tragic and overwhelming news. It was Jesus' response when he heard about the death of John the Baptist: “When Jesus heard what had happened [that John the Baptist was beheaded], he withdrew by boat privately to a solitary place. (Matthew 14:13) We also know that Jesus' disciples sought solitude as well. Peter prayed by himself, and Paul spent years alone in the desert before he began his ministry.
Solitude is necessary, then, in order to refresh and revive us for our mission, to spend time with God in prayer, to come to terms with difficult and overwhelming circumstances, and to prepare ourselves for the next chapter in our lives. It's important to realize, however, that solitude has a time limit. It is not meant to be a permanent state. At some point, we have to leave our solitude, and re-enter the world. We have to be willing to be concerned with the rest of the world, with the lives of other people and all that entails. Otherwise, solitude just becomes selfishness.
This winter, enjoy your solitude. Just remember, spring and summer are coming! The time for Winter Wondering will end, when the time for planting and cultivating arrives.
Hello, darkness my old friend...
I've come to stay with you again..."
Do those lyrics from Paul Simon's "Sound of Silence" start running through your head when you hear the word "silence?" Or do images of a previous school teacher, peering down at you over glasses, hissing "Silence!" come to mind?
People think of many different things when we ponder the state of being silent. Scripture refers to silence, as well, but it has a different meaning. Unlike a feeling of dread and isolation, like in Paul Simon's song, or an excuse to control and overpower others, like the teacher example, the word 'silence" in Scripture refers to listening. It is a call to quiet the prattling in our minds and remove ourselves from the distractions of every day life. The Biblical idea of silence reminds us to first BE, and then to bring that state of BEING into our DOING.
The idea of silence is usually accompanied with solitude, but again, this does not mean you are lonely or even alone. It means the seeker is searching for the presence of God. Let's look at some Bible verses on silence. Read them to yourself slowly, two or three times. Let them sink into your heart like the snow sinks into the earth.
“Be still and know that I am God.” (Psalm 46:10)
“Find rest, O my soul, in God alone.” (Psalm 62:5)
“In repentance and rest is your salvation, in quietness and trust is your strength.” (Isaiah 30:15)
“[Elijah] went into a cave and spent the night. And the word of the LORD came to him… a gentle whisper” (1 Kings 19:9, 12).
“But the LORD is in his holy temple; let all the earth be silent before him.” (Habakkuk 2:20)
If you have a chance to do some Winter Wondering and Wandering outside this week, write down one or two of these verses and repeat them to yourself. as you walk. Turn off the radio, unplug your phone, and go for a wander in silence, pondering these words. You'll find that this silence refreshes you, as though you've been somewhere special, different.
Take along the Winter Snow rosary, and ask Mary to pray with you, to help you hear the Word of God in the silence.
Wonder and Awe is one of the gifts of the Holy Spirit. This gift used to be called "Fear of the Lord," but that doesn't really convey the meaning of the gift. Although Fear of the Lord does not mean the trembling, shaking knees, clammy hands type of fear, still, calling this gift anything involving the word "fear" means that you have to immediately remind yourself that in this case "fear" refers to fear of disappointing or letting someone - in this case God - down. It's not a call to be afraid. Yet, that still doesn't convey the same thing as simply calling the gift "Wonder and Awe."
We know what it means to have Wonder and Awe. It means you are just swept away in an overwhelming sense of being caught up in something bigger, more wonderful, and simply amazing than you know what to do with. It is a vision or a moment that takes your breath away. You remember that moment for ever, because it makes such an impression on your senses and your heart. For the rest of your life, you can recall that moment as though it stands apart from the normal stream of life. If in this moment of Wonder and Awe, you are struck with the sense of the presence of God, this moment will forever be etched in your memory and may even change your life's direction. There is actually a specific word we use to talk about this kind of moment -"theophany." A theophany is a moment when God is made manifest in the life of a person.
Scripture records several of these moments, many around the Christmas story. One such moment occurs, for example, when the 3 wise men arrive at the stable of the Holy Family. The painting above does a great job of visually imagining what that moment must have been like, the moment when the 3 travelers gazed upon the infant Jesus and knew they were looking on the face of God.
The Gospel of Matthew records the Wonder and Awe they must have felt:
"And behold, the star that they had seen at its rising preceded them, until it came and stopped over the place where the child was.10They were overjoyed at seeing the star, 11and on entering the house they saw the child with Mary his mother. They prostrated themselves and did him homage. Then they opened their treasures and offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. 12And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they departed for their country by another way." (Matthew 2:9-12)
Although the writer does not tell us what the Magi are thinking, we know from their actions that this one moment has changed them forever. Before their theophany, their encounter with God, the 3 Kings sought out the high places of respect in the land. They went directly to King Herod, for example, and demanded an audience with him. Then they boldly asked "Where is the newborn King of the Jews?" This is a strange question to ask of the present King!
After they look upon Jesus, however, they are content to simply slip out the back door, as it were, and return home without fanfare. They have left their expensive, extravagant gifts behind and become men who believe in dreams. They have found what they were seeking, an encounter with the living God of the Jews. This is the gift of Wonder and Awe. It is a life-changing, momentous experience of God, one of the gifts of the Holy Spirit.
Have you ever had a theophany? Where do you see God in the silence and stillness of winter, now that the lights and rush of Christmas is finished?
"And Mary kept all these things, reflecting on them in her heart."
This Scripture passage is at the center of the idea for this month: Winter Wondering. Now that the hustle and bustle, the stress and the excitement of Christmas has passed, we are still left with one final task: to reflect upon the activity we have just experienced and to ponder where we should go from here.
At the heart of the Christmas story, of course, is the birth of Jesus. The moment when God "pitched his tent among us", living a normal life. We have just spent a great deal of time and energy celebrating that birth, even if we didn't always feel that is what we were doing. Now what?
We've all seen the car magnets that say "Keep Christ in Christmas," but what about after Christmas? Shouldn't it make a difference afterwards, as well? If we compare normal life to Jesus' birth, then yes, his birth makes an enormous difference! In other words, does a newborn baby make a difference in the lives of the family he or she is born into? Of course! Life is never the same - from the sleepless nights to the smiles of joy at the gurgling and cooing, to the feeding patterns and washing - all while keeping up with all the other responsibilities of everyday life - babies cause an enormous change, just by their mere presence! Ask any parent that. Our lives are changed forever.
That's what Mary was reflecting on in her heart. Beyond gazing down with love at her new son, that look of love on the faces of so many mothers, she was also likely wondering things like: How will my life be changed? Am I able to raise this child? How do I nurture his relationship with his family? his community? God? Will I be a good mother? Mary also had the added element that she knew Jesus was the Messiah, the Son of God. She must have been awed by the love of the Father, who was willing to send his Son to earth for the sake of humanity, and had to trust that God would aid her in raising Jesus well.
Let's take this month of January to ask ourselves the same questions. Now that the Child Jesus is here, what difference does it make in my life? How can I nurture Jesus in my heart, and also in the community? The cold, silent, snowy month of January gives us time to pause and ponder on these things in our own hearts.
Our special Winter Snow rosary is especially helpful for reflecting in the winter, as we pray with Mary. The Our Father beads are symbols of the winter, symbols of looking inward, of wondering where God is in our own lives. Where are the bare places, in need of more hay and softness? Like the snowflake, what are our own unique gifts we are called to use? Like the snowman, do we show joy in everyday life? These are some of the questions the habit of Winter Wondering can help us ponder.
Next week: the gift of Wonder & Awe