Solitary, Silent Christianity – It’s a Thing

Do you know someone who says, “my Sunday worship service is time on the lake,” or “I spend time with God hiking the Smokies”? Maybe you feel this way yourself?

With church attendance continuing to drop and as more and more Americans classify themselves as “none” or “done” with religion, it’s time to acknowledge that there’s more than one way to practice Christianity than to go to church on Sunday morning.

Those who practice their faith in the privacy of their own homes, out in the garden, up in the mountains, or sitting in a boat in the middle of a quiet lake are just as Christian as those who show up to sit in a pew every Sunday morning. In fact, during the early years of Christianity, those who took their faith the most seriously fled the noise and drama of communities and went out into the most remote places they could find to be alone and silent with God.

We’re told time and time again that Christianity “must” be practiced within a community. But running counter to the story of Christianity in community is the story of a quieter, more meditative Christianity practiced far from the maddening crowds, far from any institutional requirements or expectations, far from any sort of so-called human authority or hierarchy.  This was the story of those who sought God in the lonely solitude of the deserts, the forests, the caves, and in far-flung, off-the-beaten-path places.  This quieter story was lived out by holy men and women we now call “saints,” by monks and nuns, and later by simple pioneers and settlers who without fuss incorporated faith into their daily agricultural chores. Early Christian saints sought out the wild, the untamed, and the deserted as they sought God and deepened their own spiritual lives.

The “Desert Fathers and Mothers” – men and women who moved out to far flung places in the deserts of the Middle East – sought a heightened spirituality, a life lived close to God.  They craved the quiet, the solitude, and the serenity of life in the wilderness, away from the daily dramas of community life.  Perhaps they craved, too, a little danger as well.  The thrill and confidence of surviving an unforgiving environment, wild animals, and a focus on the bare necessities of life likely gave them perspective, heightened awareness of their surroundings, clearer thinking, and time to wrestle down any emotional demons they had carried with them into the desert.

Like any wilderness experience in both ancient and contemporary times, the challenge of surviving in the desert toughened up these men and women, burning away all selfishness, hedonistic desires, greed for material goods, and anger.  One “desert father,” Joseph of Panephysis, was said to have advised a young disciple that the point of this tough-love spirituality was to become “all flame.”  Perhaps that’s what modern people who are “done” with church seek as well – a purer, more authentic spiritual experience than sitting on a pew in a stuffy building.

So the next time you look askance at someone foregoing a church service to spend the day in the garden, on the lake, or off in the mountains, it’s okay. So did a lot of Christians we now call Saints.

Several paragraphs of this blog post are excerpted from Considering Birds & Lilies: Finding Peace & Harmony With the Everyday World Around Us by Cynthia Coe, available in e-book and paperback editions on Amazon.com.

Spirituality in the Wilderness – A Practice of Early Christianity, More Relevant Now Than Ever Before

In my book Wild Faith, I encourage people to get out in the woods to work on their spiritual lives.  Seemingly, this is a rather new idea.  In my years of teaching Christian formation, most programs I encountered involved “programs” set up inside church buildings.  With the exception of church camp programs, the idea of simply going outdoors by yourself is not one of the spiritual disciplines the church has encouraged in recent times.

But in reading up on the history of ancient spiritual practices, I find that going outdoors to be by yourself in relative silence is actually a very old and revered spiritual practice.  In fact, the early Christians who were most serious about their spiritual lives were the “Desert Fathers and Mothers” who left the city, went out into the wild, and lived very simply, quietly, and either alone or with a few other similarly-minded souls.

As I work on an upcoming book on Faith & Nature, I’m wondering if this practice of going outdoors by yourself for “alone time” will become more the norm than the exception of Christian spirituality.  With all the constant, unrelenting disruptions and interruptions of all our devices, I’m wondering if all of us need a little time in nature (if not the wilderness) to clear our minds, relax, and unplug.

Here are some of the books I’ve just finished reading as I write this new book:

Henri Nouwen, The Way of the Heart: The Spirituality of the Desert Fathers and Mothers.  This little book is an oldie but a goodie.  As always, Nouwen says a whole lot with only a few words.  Highly recommended.

Brett Webb-Mitchell, School of the Pilgrim: An Alternative Path to Christian Growth.  This book tells of the history and nature of pilgrimages in Christian spirituality, with vignettes of his own pilgrimage experiences.  Excellent.

Peter H. Gorg, The Desert Fathers: Saint Anthony and the Beginnings of Monasticism.  I read this for a nice history lesson on the Desert Fathers and Mothers.  It’s a good little paperback for church history nerds.  (Translated from the German, and no my computer doesn’t do umlauts.)

Belden C. Lane, The Solace of Fierce Landscapes: Exploring Desert and Mountain Spirituality.  It took me a long time to get through this book.  It is excellent, but it is slow going.  The author combines his primary topic with a parallel story of his mother’s slow death in a nursing home, which I wasn’t expecting and (quite frankly) didn’t appreciate.  As a mountain girl, I did appreciate Lane’s inclusion of the forests and mountains in his discussion of “fierce landscapes.”  This book would be terrific for a seminary course on this subject, but for more casual readers, I really liked Lane’s Backpacking with the Saints quite a bit better.

Thomas Merton, No Man is an Island.  I read this for devotional purposes, but I found it had quite a bit of wisdom on spirituality in nature as well.  Isn’t it funny how we often stumble upon exactly what we need to read, without even trying?

Stay tuned for news of my new book!

Blessings, Cindy