Solitude Matters: Listening to Your Soul

I find it wholesome to be alone the greater part of the time. To be in company, even with the best, is soon wearisome and dissipating. I love to be alone. I never found the companion that was so companionable as solitude. —Henry David Thoreau

There was a big oak tree behind my school, Ridgecrest Elementary. I can’t tell you how many hours I spent in that big tree as a young boy, sometimes with friends and sometimes all by myself. It was close enough to our house that I could either walk or ride my bike to the tree, so I visited it several times a week. In a stunning display of precocious creativity, I even came up with a clever name for it: The Big Tree.

I still remember the feeling of freedom I had when I was sitting alone in The Big Tree. There was no noise, except for the rustle of the leaves. No people around to distract my thoughts. No pressure. No worries. No demands. Just the glorious freedom of solitude. Even as a third-grader, I didn’t take that freedom for granted. And I wanted as much of it as I could get.

Frankly, I’ve never taken that freedom for granted and have spent a lifetime trying to get as much of it as possible. I’ve always found versions of The Big Tree as I’ve moved through the stages of life, ways to escape the noise and pressure of the world “out there.” When I think about my life today, I still see Big Trees everywhere.

Forty years ago, I read Henri Nouwen’s book The Way of the Heart and highlighted this passage about the temptations facing those of us in ministry:

Just look for a moment at our daily routine. In general we are very busy people. We have many meetings to attend, many visits to make, many services to lead. Our calendars are filled with appointments, our days and weeks filled with engagements, and our years filled with plans and projects. There is seldom a period in which we do not know what to do, and we move through life in such a distracted way that we do not even take the time and rest to wonder if any of the things we think, say, or do are worth thinking, saying, or doing.

(Nouwen, 10)

In addition to highlighting that passage, I wrote “Ouch!” beside it. I knew that this could be true for me, that I could become so busy being a “successful pastor” that I would lose my soul. So all through my years as a pastor I looked for Big Trees. I tried to find ways to be by myself, to stay in touch with my soul, to experience the blessed freedom of solitude.

For years, that included a daily run through the neighborhood. After a typical day of doing pastoral “stuff,” like preparing a sermon, leading a staff meeting, visiting people in a nursing home, or planning Sunday’s worship service, I would rush home, slip on my running shoes, and hit the road. For the next hour or so, it was just me, the wind, the road, and perhaps the smell of hamburgers cooking on someone’s outdoor grill. It was a time to unwind, be quiet, think, and pray. A time to stop being a workaholic pastor and start being a free spirit.

I’m keenly aware that not everyone needs solitude as much as I do. I once was asked to preach at a church in Virginia and was hosted by a pastor there whose needs were different from mine. When I got to the church, I realized that I would be preaching not just one Sunday morning service but three—a contemplative service, a traditional service, and a contemporary service.

I started the day in a clerical robe, preaching in the fellowship hall to a small group at the contemplative service. Then I hastily ditched the robe, put on a coat and tie, and sprinted to the sanctuary to lead the traditional service. Then I shed the coat and tie, put on more casual clothes, and preached to a younger crowd at the contemporary service.

By the time I finished that third service, I was exhausted. I felt like I had run a spiritual marathon and barely made it to the finish line. After that service, I was alone with the pastor in his study and told him how tiring that was for me.

“How do you do that every Sunday?” I asked him.

“Oh, I love it,” he said. “Preaching three times every Sunday morning gets me excited and energized. I look forward to it every week.”

I’m quite sure that he was telling the truth. He’s an extrovert who thrives on people, activity, and excitement. He finds his joy in the crowd where the action is. I, on the other hand, am an introvert who thrives on being alone, having no agenda, and hearing the sound of silence. I tend to find my joy where the action isn’t. Two pastors. Two temperaments. Two ways of coming at life. Neither is better or worse than the other. But both of us need to know who we are and focus on doing what keeps us alive, what feeds our souls.

This post originally appeared in Panning for Gold: Looking Back on a Life of Joy by Judson Edwards.

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