The Importance of Solitude
In the morning, while it was still very dark, he got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed (Mark 1:35).
The opening chapter of Mark’s gospel is a whirlwind of activity (Mk 1:14-45). After John’s arrest, Jesus launches his itinerant preaching ministry and calls his first disciples. In typical Markan fashion, a breathless series of events ensues in Capernaum. First, Jesus visits the synagogue where he amazes the people with his teaching. During the service he heals a man with an unclean spirit and news of it spreads throughout the town. After the service, Jesus goes to the house of Simon Peter’s mother-in-law, who is sick in bed with a fever and promptly heals her. Later in the day, the house fills with people desperate for Jesus’ healing power. He spends the rest of the evening healing and casting out evil spirits. Then, first thing in the morning, he seeks solitude and prayer.
Throughout the Gospels, Jesus is consistently wary of large crowds because he knows that people often come simply to take advantage of his miraculous powers (Jn 6:26). When he heals a leprous man in Mark 1:42-44, Jesus sternly warns the man not to tell anyone. His logic for doing so seems twofold. On the one hand, the true identity of Jesus is concealed until the end of Mark’s Gospel (Mk 15:39). On the other hand, Jesus most likely does not want to attract a crowd of people who seek him out for ulterior motives. Of course the man disregards Jesus’ instructions and spreads the word around town. Because of this, Mark says “that Jesus could no longer go into a town openly, but stayed out in the country (Mk 1:45).” Even then, people come out to the country, seeking Jesus and his powers.
Solitude in Jesus’ Ministry
Later in Mark’s gospel, Jesus gathers his disciples and says, “Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest awhile (Mk 6:31).” In this instance, Jesus invites others to share in his solitude. Mark makes it clear that Jesus is motivated to pursue solitude because “many were coming and going” and “they had no leisure even to eat (Mk 6:31).” When they arrive at the place Jesus has chosen for their retreat, they are overwhelmed by a crowd of people who are waiting for them. Jesus has compassion on the crowd so he changes his plans and decides to teach the crowd. As the day draws on, he recognizes that the crowd is hungry so he miraculously provides food for them to eat (Mk 6:34-44). After the scene ends, Jesus sends his disciples ahead in a boat and then goes “up on the mountain to pray” by himself (Mk 6:46).
Near the end of the gospel story, Jesus seeks solitude at another pivotal moment. He and his disciples eat the Last Supper together, and during the meal Jesus tells them that one of them will betray him. After the meal ends, the disciples go to the Mount of Olives to pray in the garden of Gethsemane. Jesus gives his disciples instructions to stay awake and pray, and then he goes on “a little farther” and throws himself on the ground in prayer (Mk 14:35). This moment, where Jesus accepts God’s will that he be crucified, is arguably the most important scene in the Passion narrative. Jesus’ ministry begins with a moment of solitary temptation in the wilderness (Mk 1:12-13) and ends in solitude and overcoming temptation.
Given the importance of solitude to the life and ministry of Jesus, it makes sense that his followers should seek opportunities for solitude as well. After all, “a disciple is not above the teacher (Lk 6:40).” The noisy demands of life necessitate that Christians withdraw and recharge on a regular basis. Solitude becomes a time of centering and focus where a believer can hear the voice of the Father and discern the will of God for daily life.
While many Christians know that they need to cultivate a regular practice of solitude and prayer, doing so can be challenging. This can especially be the case for parents of young children, students with demanding schedules, or adults with fast-paced careers. With this in mind, I want to offer some practical suggestions for how to integrate solitude into the busyness of life.
- Turn off the radio during your morning or evening commute. The practice of silence alone can be beneficial. Recite centering prayers like the Jesus Prayer, Lord’s Prayer, or Trisagion Prayer.
- Some evenings turn off the television and close up your laptop. Find a quiet place in your house where you can be still. When the weather is warm, I like to sit on my screened porch. Sometimes I read a book or listen to gentle music. Sometimes I try to just sit for about thirty minutes. A lot of times that means I fall asleep, but I take that as a sign that my body needs the rest!
- You can find moments of solitude even in a noisy or public area. Solitude can be found in coffee shops, cafeterias, libraries, and break rooms. All you need to do is find a space where there are minimal distractions. Put away technology and work distractions. Read a passage from the Bible and reflect on it. Pray silently in your mind.
- You can find moments of solitude without necessarily being still. The walk across campus can become a moment to pray for the concerns of your community. A ten minute walk during your lunch break can be a time to experience the presence of God. On the weekend, take a longer nature hike. I like to count birds as I hike. I find that it frees my mind from the distractions and anxieties of work and helps me appreciate God’s creation.
To a certain extent, it is impossible to completely silence all the demands and distractions of life. Even when Jesus practiced solitude, people hunted for him and found him (Mk 1:36). Instead of trying to completely isolate ourselves from the world, I have found it most beneficial to integrate solitude and prayer into my daily routine. Monks live by the saying “pray and work (ora et labora).” While they observe intentional times of quiet and solitude, monks also recognize that work can be a way to experience God’s presence as well. Whether they are praying in the chapel or working in the garden, they find ways to commune with God, which is the ultimate goal of solitude.