I have just come back from a meeting with a spiritual friendship group I am facilitating here in Penang. I come back to Penang about once a month to spend time with mum and every time I am here I meet up with this group of brothers and sisters from my home church. We have been working through Gordon T. Smith’s Courage & Calling (2nd edition. Downer’s Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2011). Tonight we reviewed the last chapter. There Smith tells us that:
. . . we need two very particular anchors if we are going to grow in self-knowledge and have the courage to see and the humility to accept who we are. These anchors enable us to come to terms with our fears, to make sense of the difficulty and pain that intersects our lives and respond with heart — with emotional resilience to changes and trials of life and work, living and working with a life-sustaining joy.
There are no exceptions. The ordered life is structured around and is anchored in two realities: community and solitude. One without the other is of little value; it must be both community and solitude. (256)
We might think that Smith was engaging in some hyperbole when he says, “There are no exceptions.” But many writers in the area of spiritual formation, including two of my favourites, Henri Nouwen and Dietrich Bonhoeffer, refer to the same two spiritual disciplines. And Smith and all the others anchor their convictions in Scripture.
Smith reminds us that God Himself points out that it is not good for man to be alone (Genesis 2:18). We were created for a relationship with God but we were also created for relationships with other human beings. Smith and others champion the need for all of us to have a few close spiritual friends to walk with.
I have found that many have no close spiritual friends at all. A number have a few good friends that we connect with when needed. Very few are in intentional on-going relationships with a few intimate friends. Smith understands that we won’t have many close spiritual friends, but we need them.
We cannot find intimacy with all; we cannot share our greatest hopes and our deepest fears with all. But in the grace of God we can respond intentionally to a few with whom conversation becomes increasingly honest and true, without pretense or posturing. (259)
We need such life-giving community. We need friends with whom we meet up regularly so that we can encourage each other to be faithful in our common commitment to follow Christ.
We need community. But we also need solitude. Smith then points us to Mark 1:35–39. Here Jesus models for us the need for solitude.
Very early in the morning, while it was still dark, Jesus got up, left the house and went off to a solitary place, where he prayed. (v.35)
Smith explains to us the meaning of solitude and therefore why we need it.
Solitude is fundamentally a place of prayer — of personal and individual encounter with God. To be in solitude is to be intentionally present to God. . . It is the emotional and spiritual space where we give our unqualified and undivided attention to the one who calls us. (261)
When we make time for solitude in our lives we create special space to commune with God. In that communion we receive fresh clarity as to who we are and what we are called to do. In that communion we receive afresh God’s healing and forgiveness and find new power for our lives. But just as few walk with spiritual friends, few make time for their Divine friend.
We live in a rapidly changing world. All the more God’s people must know who they are and what they are called to do. I believe God wants to bless us and to use us to bless others. But we need to play our part so that we can receive all that God wants to give us. And God has created us for two primary relationships — with Him and with others. We are not surprised that the two foundational spiritual disciplines correspond to these two primary relationships. We need community and solitude.
The group tonight had people who ranged in age from those who have retired to those who have just started out in their careers. But at whatever chapter of life we may be, we need to anchor our lives in Him through the twin disciplines of community and solitude.