Martha, the patron saint of busyness, typifies most of us in the western world. Her busy preparations removed her from the presence of Jesus. Luke describes her as “distracted” (Luke 10:40). I can think of no more accurate adjective for busy Christians. When I am busy, I cannot help but be distracted, fragmented, disjointed. Note the difference between busyness and activity: I can be active and prayerful, but I cannot be busy and prayerful. They are mutually exclusive. And make no mistake—it is busyness that rules the day and, all too often, our souls.

When we open up space for God in silence and solitude, we take the teeth out of the busyness that would chew us up. We begin to feel whole because we become centered in a humble awareness of God’s presence moment by moment.

Silence and solitude together form a single path of quiet aloneness before God. They provide the two sides of the coin of undistracted devotion. Though we can practice them separately, when we employ them together, they place us before God in a special way. We are open, receptive and vulnerable to the Lord. All the outer props are removed. In the quiet of retreat, with all the competing voices stilled, we learn to hear the gentle whisper of God’s Spirit.

The psalmist wrote, “Be still, and know that I am God,” (Ps. 46:10). The first voice to be stilled is my own. As Howard Macy states with wit and wisdom: “To approach God with only an incessant stream of words is a filibuster, not prayer.” 

In reading Evelyn Underhill’s classic book Christian Mysticism, I observed that for many of the great saints, the contemplative life was previous to and in preparation for an active life of service. We have reversed the order. For us, if we employ silence and solitude at all, we often use them as rehabilitation for those suffering from the strains of the active life they were ill-prepared to handle. Whether we live it as a homemaker or third-world missionary, life is a spiritual conflict. We oppose the powers of darkness; we embrace God’s kingdom of love and justice. Silence and solitude prepare us for battle.

I’m certain that for some, the possibility of silence and solitude seems a million miles away. How could it be possible for the stay-at-home parent caring for three preschoolers? Or for the computer programmer who has to work seventy-hour weeks to keep a job? It seems difficult even for those who have some degree of control over their own schedules.

Yet by beginning with a small, even if uncertain step, anyone can walk the path of silence and solitude. As Henri Nouwen has said, “Though we want to make all our time, time for God, we will never succeed if we do not reserve a minute, an hour, a morning, a day, a week, a month, or whatever period of time for God and Him alone.” To develop a listening lifestyle, we like Martha’s sister, Mary, must begin by sitting at the feet of Christ. We start by setting aside a few moments to intentionally spend in quiet with our Lord. Here are some suggestions—which build incrementally upon each other—for developing this skill.

Claim the little solitudes that already exist in your day. The morning shower could symbolize a soul cleansing to prepare you to receive the day from God. Commuting could be God’s gift to this culture as a ready-made, twice daily “sabbath,” if we choose to embrace it by turning off the radio and listening to the softer voice of the Spirit. Nap time for the kids could provide a window of opportunity for a mini-retreat for the parent whose work never seems to be done. “Waiting time” at the store or at the traffic light can be turned into a reminder to “wait on the Lord” in silence. At the end of the day, as you rest your head on the pillow, gently reflect on how God’s presence was with you throughout the day.

Take a coffee break, lunch, or picnic with the intention of being quiet and alone with God. Rather than lunch with your coworker, slip off alone to the quiet solitude of a picnic in the park, even if the kids are along. Jesus did love the little children. Simply be aware of His presence with you, helping you serve the little ones.

Stay up a little later or get up a little earlier to find a few moments of solitude. Possibly a husband and wife could arrange to give each other “time off” to be alone with Christ in silence.

When possible, schedule your day more loosely. It can be wonderfully freeing to enjoy fifteen-minute “spacers” between tasks or appointments. You can use this time to reconnect with God’s presence in the midst of a busy day, as well as to gather yourself for the next meeting or task. I have found that I never miss those few minutes and that my awareness of God’s presence is much greater.

Slow down. Often the pace of our lives pulls us away from the Lord. Walk more slowly. Drive more slowly. Eat more slowly. Notice. Pause. Listen. God is here. Slow down. When you do, you can carry a sanctuary in your heart throughout the day.

Use times of physical exercise for silence and solitude. Enjoy the sounds of creation as you run or walk. Let the song of the birds remind you that you are of more value than the sparrows. Invite the Lord to run or walk with you and be conscious of His presence.

More intentionally, arrange to get away for a morning or day or even longer to a retreat center, park or motel. Before you dismiss this idea, think of the many activities in which we participate that we go to great lengths to arrange that are far less significant than time alone with the Lord. Even if it means lining up childcare, losing some time at work, or missing the weekend sports event, is it not worth it?

God desires to communicate His love, grace and peace to us, but sometimes we move too fast to receive them. In silence and solitude we extend the empty hands of faith to receive these gifts from Him.

Howard Baker (Th.M., 1978) teaches spiritual formation at Denver Seminary. He also serves as spiritual director for Young Life in the Rocky Mountain region. This article was adapted from his book Soul Keeping (NavPress, 1998).