Editor's note: this piece was coauthored by Hagelin's daughter, Kristin Carey.
The couple and their three lovely children were ushered to their table in the outdoor restaurant overlooking the grand caldera on the beautiful island of Santorini. The night could not have been more spectacular. The brilliant glow of the full moon reflected off the ocean waters and the lights of the ancient homes cascading down the side of the mountains twinkled like the stars above. Certainly, this would be a memorable evening for this precious family who had obviously gone to great expense to experience the enchanted Greek island.
Then, it happened. Shortly after being seated, each family member instinctively pulled out an electronic gadget: the youngest son quickly became enraptured in a hand-held gaming device; the two older children were immersed on their iPhones; even the mom and dad's eyes glazed over as they stared at their iPad screens, missing the glory of their beautiful surroundings. All evening they continued this way, barely setting down their gadgets to even eat. There was no notice of the moon, or of the sea, or of the fresh air and all-encompassing magic around them. There was no more conversation than a passing phrase; no more interaction with their family members than the occasional elbowing of the one next to them and pointing to the screen. It was a night lost forever to the addiction of technology.
Every few minutes countless millions of us allow our thoughts to be interrupted by texts, updates, and notifications. There seems to be a constant compulsion to refresh, to count the “likes,” a need to be noticed, a craving for instant gratification.
Is it our self-medicated “cure” for boredom; or an expression of our obsession with ourselves? The endless consumption of words and images never curb our appetites for more—more data at faster speeds, more pictures, more news, more ways to connect.
The quiet of life is shattered. The opportunity to enjoy the beauty of the present and the intimate company of those in our presence, gone.
Our life becomes a paradox: we are always available, but never fully present. We don’t want to miss out on what’s happening elsewhere, so we stop paying attention to what’s going on right in front of us. We even forget how to be alone with ourselves.
It isn’t technology’s fault. It isn’t the culture’s fault. It’s our condition. It’s this sin condition that causes us to try to heal ourselves, satisfy ourselves, save ourselves. We try to fill our hearts by busying our minds, but all the activity leaves us empty, hungry, addicted.
The stillness, the silence our souls need is replaced with noise and often meaningless tweets, texts, posts and flashing images. Our addiction is damaging our minds, our relationships, our very souls.
King Solomon put it bluntly: “Too much activity gives you restless dreams; too many words make you a fool.” (Ecclesiastes 5:3).
We hardly hear God in our loud, busy world because His voice is often a gentle whisper (1 Kings 19:12). But He is speaking, reaching out to us all the time, ready to meet with us if we simply slow down and start listening.
The Hope: Rest in Spiritual Solitude
For most people, making the effort to "be alone" takes being intentional. For extroverts like us, it takes a little more discipline. And there is a big difference between merely being alone and practicing the art of spiritual solitude. Spiritual solitude means getting alone and quieting our minds in order to listen for God’s gentle whisper.
Henri J.M. Nouwen described our need so well in his book, Out of Solitude:
“Somewhere we know that without a lonely place our lives are in danger. Somewhere we know that without silence words lose their meaning, that without listening speaking no longer heals, without distance closeness cannot cure. Somewhere we know that without a lonely place our actions quickly become empty gestures. The careful balance between silence and words, withdrawal and involvement, distance and closeness, solitude and community form the basis of the Christian life and should therefore be the subjects of our most personal attention. Let us therefore look somewhat closer, first at our life in action, and at our life in solitude."
It's tempting to think that all we need to do is take a time-out. Actually, that's a wonderful place to start. The discomfort we inevitably feel when we take a time-out from technology and busyness reveals how dependent we are on our distractions. And when we get past the discomfort, it's freeing, refreshing and motivating. But if solitude is something we turn to only when we are overwhelmed, then we miss out entirely on the all the gifts that God promises to those who make it a way of life.
At the other extreme, it's sometimes tempting to quit technology altogether. But if we want to live effectively in our modern world, if we want to connect to people in the manner in which they wish to connect and by all possible means save some (1 Corinthians 9:22), then it would be foolish to estrange ourselves from our technologically connected world for too long.
In Jesus' three years of public ministry, he was constantly surrounded by people, teaching large crowds and spending time with his closest friends, but he also “often withdrew to the wilderness” (Luke 5:16). He knew God intimately because he believed in and lived according to God's word in scripture, which says, “Only in returning to me and resting in me will you be saved. In quietness and confidence is your strength.” (Isaiah 30:15).
Somewhere, there is a balance between being available to the world and being in solitude. When we find that balance, we will discover that we are available to God at all times. It certainly takes practice, but over time, spiritual solitude can become second nature.
At first, you may have to retreat far away from the distractions that call your name. But as you learn to deny yourself those distractions, it becomes increasingly easier to retreat into a quiet place of prayer in your heart and mind, no matter what is going on around you.
A poem by John Oxenham, entitled "Make in My Heart a Quiet Place", is a wonderful prayer for any who desire to learn the beautiful discipline of spiritual solitude.
‘Mid all the traffic of the ways—
Turmoils without, within—
Make in my heart a quiet place,
And come and dwell therein:
A little shrine of quietness,
All sacred to Thyself,
Where Thou shalt all my soul possess,
And I may find myself;
A little shelter from life’s stress,
Where I may lay me prone,
And bare my soul in loneliness,
And know as I am known;
A little place of mystic grace,
Of self and sin swept bare,
Where I may look upon Thy face,
And talk with Thee in prayer. Amen