Solitude and silence

For other posts in this series on the book Life Together, click a number: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 789.

So far, Bonhoeffer has emphasized the corporate practice of the spiritual disciplines. Now he addresses our time alone:
Let him who cannot be alone beware of community. He will only do harm to himself and to the community. Alone you stood before God when he called you; alone you had to answer that call; alone you had to struggle and pray; and alone you will die and give an account to God. You cannot escape from yourself; for God has singled you out. If you refuse to be alone you are rejecting Christ's call to you, and you can have no part in the community of those who are called.... But the reverse is also true: Let him who is not in community beware of being alone.... If you scorn the fellowship of the brethren, you reject the call of Jesus Christ, and thus your solitude can only be hurtful to you.... Only in the fellowship do we learn to be rightly alone, and only in aloneness do we learn to live rightly in the fellowship (p77).
Bonhoeffer thus emphasizes the importance of personal silence and solitude for the spiritual health of both the individual and the community. For Bonhoeffer, the silence that accompanies solitude does not mean being speechless as though unable to talk. Rather it means willingly keeping silent--particularly as it relates to silence "under the Word." Bonhoeffer comments: "The Word comes not to the chatterer but to him who holds his tongue.... Silence is nothing else but waiting for God's Word and coming from God's Word with a blessing (p79).

Of course, being silent for extended stretches of time is difficult for most of us in this world so full of mindless chatter and empty talkativeness. Therefore, according to Bonhoeffer, silence must be learned and then intentionally practiced as a spiritual discipline: "Real silence, real stillness, really holding one's tongue comes only as the sober consequence of spiritual stillness" (p79). Doing so is worth the effort (and sacrifice), because being silent in the presence of the Lord, before his Word, bears wonderful fruit. "It leads to right hearing and thus also to right speaking of the Word of God at the right time.... After a time of quiet we meet others in a different and a fresh way" (p80).

Times of silence are vital for the spiritual practice of meditation, which, sadly, is absent from the lives of many Christians in our noise-filled world. Some, of course, are fearful to meditate. But as Bonhoeffer notes, rightly practiced, meditation, "does not let us down into the void and abyss of loneliness; it lets us be alone with the Word.... In so doing it gives us solid ground on which to stand and clear directions as to the steps we must take" (p81).

Bonhoeffer encourages us to focus our meditation on the words of Holy Scripture. Doing so leads directly to prayer and from prayer to intercession (a particular prayer focus). All these disciplines occur in the presence of the Lord our High Priest who leads us and carries our prayers, intercessions and thoughts to the very throne of the universe.

Such spiritual practices, of course, take time. And so we are challenged to offer our time generously to the Lord. As has been popularly said in our day, a mature Christian is "too busy not to pray"; not to meditate; not to be silent. Great blessings come our way, and through us to the community of faith, when we take time to practice solitude and silence.

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