Celebration of Discipline: Solitude & Preface

Blog readers: Chi Alpha @ Stanford is engaging in our annual summer reading project. As we read through Celebration of Discipline by Richard Foster, I’ll post my thoughts here (which will largely consist of excerpts I found insightful). They are all tagged summer‐reading‐project‐2019. The schedule is online.

In this chapter, Foster invites us to the spiritual discipline of solitude: periods of physical isolation which make us into people who are content regardless of the judgments of others. It is closely related to remaining silent.

book cover - Celebration Of Discipline

“One reason we can hardly bear to remain silent is that it makes us feel so helpless. We are so accustomed to relying upon words to manage and control others. If we are silent, who will take control? God will take control, but we will never let him take control until we trust him. Silence is intimately related to trust. The tongue is our most powerful weapon of manipulation. A frantic stream of words flows from us because we are in a constant process of adjusting our public image. We fear so deeply what we think other people see in us that we talk in order to straighten out their understanding.”

Richard Foster, Celebration of Discipline, pages 100–101

There are related comments in the chapter on study:

“If we will observe the relationships that go on between human beings, we will receive a graduate-level education. Watch, for example, how much of our speech is aimed at justifying our actions. We find it almost impossible to act and allow the act to speak for itself. No, we must explain it, justify it, demonstrate the rightness of it. Why do we feel this compulsion to set the record straight? Because of pride and fear, because our reputations are at stake!”

Richard Foster, Celebration of Discipline, page 74

When I was in college someone asked what percentage of my words were devoted to influencing how others thought about me. The question gripped me, and so I tried to keep track for a few days. Every time I said something I asked myself whether or not I had said it mostly to make other people think better of me. The results were shocking — it was a HUGE percentage of my conversations. I resolved to strike anything from my speech whose primary purpose was either to impress others or to correct a possible misinterpretation of my motives.

In retrospect, I often went too far and made things awkward for everyone else. Pursuing solitude and silence is not an excuse for being rude. We are commanded to love God and people, so if your spiritual practices make you act in less loving ways then you’re doing them wrong. You will likely make mistakes as you experiment in this area. Don’t beat yourself up over them, just apologize and recalibrate as necessary. If you resolve not to speak for a day and someone asks you for directions, give them anyway. If you decide to spend the next Saturday in solitude and an elderly neighbor asks you to help them move some stuff, reschedule your solitude. If you want to avoid justifying yourself but someone asks you a point-blank question about your motives, answer honestly and simply.

Also, don’t make your plans in this area vows to the Lord. Vows to God are potent things and should be made rarely, yet I often speak with students who have made a promise to God to do (or not do) something. In almost all cases the vow was an unnecessary add-on meant to give their plan more oomph, and now they are in danger of breaking a vow to God. If you are considering making a vow, first meditate on Ecclesiastes 5:4–6, Deuteronomy 23:21–23, Matthew 5:33–37, and James 5:12.

My personal practice of solitude currently looks like this. When I wake in the morning I come downstairs and put my phone where I cannot easily get to it. I prepare my breakfast and begin reading a spiritually beneficial book. After a bit (usually a few chapters), I boot up my laptop, open a word processor, and write something that will be helpful to others. I don’t check my email or any social media while I’m doing this. Once I’ve written enough, I retrieve my phone to check for any text messages that may have come in overnight and also open my browser to check my email.

My habit is similar to the thirty-minute abstention from technology Foster describes in the preface. His prescription reminds me of an old-school saying: “No Bible, no breakfast.” In other words, we must remember to nourish our spiritual life before we nourish our physical life. Perhaps a modern parallel is “No Spirit, no screens.” Don’t check your email until you’ve checked in with God. Leave your text messages unread until you’ve read the Word. This is not an absolute rule, for there are seasons of life when it might be unwise or even wicked to cut yourself off from communication. Are you a surgeon on call? Turn your ringer up to max volume!

If you do engage in a daily practice of solitude you will eventually find yourself wanting something more. Remember that you can always drive over to Fasting Prayer Mountain of the World for a personal day-long (or even overnight) retreat. More info at https://www.fpmw-sv.com/about-us

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