“Solitude and silence are the most radical of the spiritual disciplines because they most directly attack the sources of human misery and wrongdoing.” So says Dallas Willard, in his foreword to Invitation to Solitude and Silence.
The monastic movement experienced and taught prayer as the way of solitude and silence. They saw it as a journey into the silent desert of surrendering love.
We follow Jesus in our conversion through the waters of baptism, confirming our identity as God’s beloved sons and daughters. Then the Spirit leads us, as with Jesus, into the desert of prayer.
If we follow and obey, we enter the inner desert of the heart through solitude and silence with God. That is the sacred space of testing and purification that transforms us for fullness of life with God.
The monastic practice of stillness (hesychia, quiet rest, tranquillity) was the essence of this life of prayer. It was a way of death and dying to live eternal life here and now. That’s why the monks taught prayer as “the remembrance of death”, discussed in my book Doing Spirituality (I cite the sources, p.250/1).
They called it the remembrance of death because the daily practice of being alone with The Alone is a progressive self-stripping from idolatrous attachments, false dependencies, and selfish preoccupations, to be lovingly attentive and responsive to God – as Jesus was.
Such silence is a desert of spiritual warfare. Though we greatly need it, few want to go there. Because it presses our buttons and reveals who we are. Totally naked and utterly dependent on God. We learn, however, to let go, to relax and be still. To release control by surrendering our faculties to God, the Transcendent Reality of Perfect Love.
In fact, the monks went so far as to say that prayer, the way of stillness, was a regular rehearsal for the day of our death. On that day we (will have to) surrender the whole of who we are, all our faculties, to God, in one final act of faith. No one will escape the spectre of death that enfolds us in its shroud of silence.
Evagrios the Solitary (345-399) said, “The way of stillness (of silent prayer) teaches you to remember the day of your death… visualise the dying of your body… and the day of your resurrection”.
This is not a morose religious exercise, but a facing of death. We break denial of death by dying daily through silent prayer, to live eternally in each moment of every day. Because God, in Christ, has defeated death through resurrection.
We participate in Jesus’ silent stripping – naked on the cross alone with the Alone – by which we die to our false self and rise to our true self in Christ, to hear God’s voice in each moment of each new day. We rise to live the Transcendent Reality of Perfect Love. We echo silence, like Jesus.
In summary, solitude and silence with God is a daily dying to the distractions and clamourings that demand our attention, that hook and feed our “uncrucified flesh”, that constitutes our false-self (Paul speaks of “dying daily” in 1 Corinthians 15:31, Galatians 2:20, Romans 8:36). And so we learn to die well, to let go and let God be God.
By trusting God in our ‘little deaths’ through prayer-full silence, we will “never die” as Jesus said (“not taste death”, John 11:25). We will seamlessly pass from this world into the next. It will take us some time to realise we have died, due to the quality of God’s abiding companionship in the silence of surrendering love.