Lessons on Silence and Solitude

Speaker: Pastor Jason Ho

Passages: John 8:1-2

Author: Hilda

This year, in 2019, we are going to learn different ways of spiritual formation and traditions. Our aim is not to become a kungfu master, to prove whose method is better, nor simply to find a method.  So what is the purpose? There is only one purpose. That is to let us get closer to God and have a close connection with God. So, in this month, we are going to share with you the study of silence and solitude. Some spiritual masters talk about silence and solitude only throughout the whole book. According to Tony Jones, silence and solitude are coherent, but in fact they are not the same. However, this time I want to put them together, because their relationship is quite close.


If you have known me for more than 20 years, you will find that I was a very noisy person. When I was a primary 2 or 3 student, I kept talking in class while the teacher was talking. While the teacher said one sentence, I responded with thirty sentences. Sometimes the teacher threw chalk at me or slapped on my face. So silence and solitude are very difficult for me to learn. I took a lot of effort to learn to sit down and keep quiet. It turns out that in our belief, we have to do exercise on spirituality and solitude. You don’t talk only when you talk with your mouth. In fact, you can talk non-stop in your heart. Even if you don’t say it, you are already talking about it in your heart. So when we learn spirituality, we note that the noise is still in our hearts. The unhappy experience we had, or the grievances and worries at this moment, are the noises that keep us from getting close to God, preventing us from focusing on God. When we talk about silence and spirituality, we have to emphasize that there is a door in God to let us walk in, to experience the peace of God. We are not only influenced by the noise from the outside world, but also the sound of uneasiness in our heart. For example, when there is a problem in the interpersonal relationship, it is difficult to calm down when we exercise spirituality. Sometimes there may not be anger, but perhaps self-blame, or when there is doubt about your own value and sense of existence, we will also find it difficult to learn to be silent. Solitude is a difficult exercise. How difficult is it? Some time ago, I broke up with my ex- because I couldn’t be alone. For example, when a very close friend went to Taiwan with other friends, I felt very upset. I couldn’t be alone because I needed someone to accompany me. We may also have this tendency in our intimate relationships. If boyfriends or girlfriends are not present, we need to find another person to replace him or her, and we exhaust our means to find different persons to accompany us.


Sometimes we confuse solitude with loneliness. “Loneliness” means feeling lonely, while “solitude” is a positive word, so loneliness and solitude are not the same. Loneliness is the emotion of feeling lonely, where no one has a connection with him or her. Solitude is a very comfortable state where you can take care of yourself and accompany yourself. How to achieve solitude through the Christian tradition? Let’s look at this tradition together. In fact, we Chinese have a saying which is very consistent with the idiom. That is “Silence is gold”. In the Christian or Jewish tradition, we can trace back to the Hebrew Bible. There is a verse in Proverbs 18:21 “The tongue has the power of life and death, and those who love it will eat its fruit.” We usually use this verse when we talk about gossip. From another perspective, in fact, this verse teaches us that people like noises. So we have to learn the exercise of silence, not to stir up trouble with gossips. Silence makes one wise and look smart.

In the tradition of our religion, silence is an exercise to acquire wisdom. One of the reasons is that we can make a mistake and mess up relationships, or affect others by spreading the words without deep thoughts. Silence and wisdom are often linked up. What I want to say is that in the third century AD, there was a tradition to stay silent in the desert in order to get close to God. But this is wrong, actually this tradition emerged earlier and let me tell you the reason later. Why is it so important to Christians to be close to God? Is it because we are afraid of feeling lonely? Or is solitude a very difficult task? Are we afraid that no one accompanies us? Are we lonely to such a level that we are even afraid that God does not accompany us? If it is because we are afraid of loneliness, what do we use to replace it?


In fact, loneliness has its function. Perhaps we fill it up with noise, like those who are always playing with their mobile phones. You may need to subscribe Apple Music, Spotify, Grindr, and all kinds of apps that let us fill up the feeling of loneliness. Some people fill it up with noises, and some people use “I am very busy” to fill it up, including using work, submission of reports, dealing with bosses or students, or friends to make themselves very busy. Some may fill up the emptiness with a lover, and need to take up all his time. Some people around us are like this. They need to know what their lover is doing all the time. Our happiness is not founded on ourselves, but on others. This signal tells us that we are actually afraid of loneliness deep inside, and are afraid to face yourself and God naked.


For me, silence or solitude is not as simple as “not talking”. In addition to what I just said, we have to feel that our heart is full inside and outside, no matter we are talking or not, and no matter we are doing something or doing nothing. John of the Cross said that silence makes us see the night inside the soul. He is a special person. He said that knowing God is not to see God from the glory. Instead, we can only see God in the darkness, because in the darkness, we face the dark side of our life and we see the light. We need to see clearly where our darkness is, and let our darkness be shone by the light of God and allow us to know what our true self is.


What is solitude? Why is solitude so difficult? It is because the world teaches us one thing, that is, we want more and more. For example, it is good to have jobs with better pay, to have more friends, and to learn more things. Why is it so? Because we can’t accompany ourselves. The world makes our self-value “zero”. We are “zero” in terms of knowledge, material, and relationship, so we have to pursue more and more. Therefore, solitude is very difficult, but in our belief, spirituality requires us to get rid of the standards that the world demands us to meet with and let those greedy mentality die in us.


Therefore, spirituality also allows one to grow up. We don’t need to be accompanied to be happy and not feeling lonely. We can be happy with ourselves and present our true selves to God. We take long time to learn this lesson before we acquire it. Just now we talked about spirituality in the desert. All the masters of spirituality say that our ultimate ancestor is Jesus. Jesus was the number one person in terms of solitude. We can see in the Gospels that Jesus often went to the wilderness. After being baptized, he went to the wilderness for forty days and nights. It is often said in the Gospel that Jesus left his disciples and went to the mountains and other places. He stayed in solitude when John died. When Jesus had time, he would find a place to hide and stay in solitude. It might be a time when he was looking for a close relationship with God. No matter what, he often did this. We can see that Jesus even intentionally left his three most beloved disciples and prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane before being caught. So, He is the number one in solitude.


This painting is about the three challenges that Jesus faced while He stayed in the wilderness for forty days and nights. Are they also the challenges in our spirituality and life? The challenge on the far left is food, the middle is the temptation to jump, and the third is the glory of the nations. You often encounter these challenges in our spiritual practice. Satan said you can tell the stone to turn into food. This can actually be interpreted as the most important needs of the moment: being relevant. Hunger is our great concern. You may think about what to eat afterwards during your prayer or spiritual formation. Of course, this is not the most frequent challenge. The most frequent challenge is the imminent problem, such as submission of report, family problem, relatives’ problem, company’s problem, etc. These imminent problems tempt us and prevent us from focusing on God. The second challenge is that the devil asked Jesus to jump from the top, and let God catch Him. The devil said, if Jesus were the Son of God, the angel would catch Him. This time Satan made a challenge of being spectacular. It’s about how “saving face” is a lifetime challenge. What image do we present to others? How will others see me if I cannot do this? Is this the true self? Is it a fake mask? Sometimes we can’t live a true life because we spend a lot of effort to prove to others that “I am heterosexual”. In the third challenge, the devil took Him to the high mountains, and told Him that the glory of the nations will be given to Him. Are the problems and temptations of being relevant, spectacular and powerful that Jesus faced the same as ours when we face our true selves? Are they stopping us from living out our true selves?


Have we reflected on what kind of life we are living in front of God? This exercise of silence is, as a master of spirituality said, like a portable power bank. Silence is like a power bank, giving us power to stay in solitude with an impassioned heart wherever we go. Many people say that after the Umbrella Movement, their passion towards the social affairs disappeared. If you have learnt to live in solitude, you won’t demand hysterically to see justice in Hong Kong all at once. We learn that although the society and the government are not righteous, we will not let the flames in our heart burn out. We will not just yell, but we will keep this passion in our heart silently.


The Sexual Orientation Discrimination Ordinance has never been passed in Hong Kong since the 1990s. And has our fire burnt out? When we face unfairness in the system, sometimes we can choose to be silent, but it does not mean doing nothing. It is to recharge your batteries and develop patience, and you can take action to show your true self when the appropriate time comes. This is not just prattle. This is taking real action.


At the end of our exercise of silence, let me share the words of Jesus with you. Many people admire the teachings of Jesus. Many of Jesus’ powerful words were written in the Gospels. Jesus said, “The words I say to you I do not speak on my own authority. Rather, it is the Father, living in me, who is doing his work.” In other words, through words, people are led to the God. Words are not the ultimate goal. The ultimate goal of Words is to lead people to the God. Jesus said this not to ask us to worship Him, but to lead us to the God, and we can face the God alone.


How do we practice? Do we need to go to the mountains or retreat? In fact, we can build it ourselves. What we can do is to decide a place and time to stay in silence. It may be the time before work, or doing meditation at five o’clock like Pastor O Young Wen Feng, or sparing a period of time like 5 minutes or 10 minutes at night. If it is difficult to spare one whole day, is it possible to spare half day in a month, one day in a year? In any case, you have to spare some time at home, in your room. Mother Teresa said that she spent an hour a day doing silent prayers to get close to God. When you practice this way, you will learn to love and let yourself do the right things. We only knew that she helped orphans, the poor, and the widows, but we didn’t know that she spent an hour a day doing spirituality. Spirituality lets us love God more and share love with those around us.


We have learnt silence and solitude today. Let us be like Jesus, face our true selves, face our imminent worries and needs, and let God take care of them. Through silence, we train ourselves to let go of the pursuit of face, fame and power. Let us be frank and live our lives in our true selves given by God. How do we do a 5-minute silent prayer? Fr. Laurence Freeman, a renowned expert from WCCM recommends their mobile app to help you with meditation. Let’s find your time and place to learn to get close to God.


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