Read This if You've Never Been on a Silent Retreat
(Editor's note: Ashley Davis Bush does a beautiful job in this post describing the delights of a silent retreat in the Catholic tradition. It's worth noting that retreats are integral to Hindu, Sufi and Buddhist traditions as well - with meditation and yoga sometimes being themes in modern day silent retreats. Regardless of tradition or focus, retreants who stay silent over a period of days say it deepens awareness and refreshes the spirit.)
I recently told an acquaintance that I was headed for a silent retreat weekend. “I go to this monastery in Cambridge several times a year,” I beamed. She looked at me with a blank stare and asked increduously, ‘Why?’ The implication was that it must be dreadfully boring, even a waste of time.
Why do I go? Upon reflection, I would say that I go as an act of self-care -- to carve out space for personal contemplation, to be amidst a monastic community, to nurture my spirit, to rest; and to spend quality time with God.
When I first went on retreat, some fifteen years ago, I was a young mother. At that time, I went primarily for quiet, private time. I craved having space where no one was making demands on my time and energy. Now, as an empty nester, I must admit that I get plenty of quiet, private time at home. But I still crave the particular gifts that arise during a silent retreat.
In general, as I start on the journey, I try to lower my expectations. There is no pressure to follow a ‘to do’ list: I don’t need to read entire books, write inspired journal entries, listen to Gregorian chants, catch up on sermons, meditate on the Virgin Mary, create a contemplative collage, do spiritual direction, schedule an afternoon nap, or have an ‘aha’ insight on my life. I might experience any one of those things -- and have done so -- but I might not. That’s fine.
All I need to do is be present to each moment, to accept the flow of my energy as it unfolds in the monastic environment, in the presence of God. That said, there are certain touchpoint rhythms that define virtually every retreat: in the beginning, middle, and end. And somehow, a personal recalibration seems to occur during this journey, every time.
Starting Outward -- Whether I drive to the retreat in my car or take the train into Boston, there is a sense of being ‘full’ of my life. In preparation, I have wrapped up my work, read emails, sent emails, packed, advised my husband on how to manage our four pets in my absence. I have texted the kids, double checked the mail, and scanned the morning’s news.
With my usual pace being fairly intense, it takes awhile to pull myself out of the stream of nonstop communication and connection. I typically pick a moment where I say, “No more emails!” And even then, I go into a sort of techno-withdrawl as I wonder if I should check it just one more time? By the time I actually get to the monastery, I have to sternly commit myself to texts with my husband only -- no phone calls or emails or websurfing. Although I’d like to say that this is easy to do, it’s not! I am used to a sort of obsessive availability. Letting that go requires intention and a conscious time-travel mentality of ‘let’s pretend this is 1990 when there were no emails or cell phones or texts or internet!’
Sigh of Surrender -- Ah, from the moment I step into the reception area of the monastery, I begin to breathe more deeply. There is a sense of familiarity, of homecoming. And then, in procession, come three consecutive events that transport me into my retreat: settling into my room, attending the noon worship service with the brothers, & then, eating lunch with the brothers in silence.
Each one of these events has a ritualistic quality that shepherds a sense of coming home to myself. When I enter my room, I unpack my bag and bless the bed: “Thank you for this place of respite over the next 48 hours. May I have a blessed retreat. And blessings on the brothers and all retreatants here looking for respite.”
Next the worship service: because I have been here frequently, I am welcomed warmly by the brothers. This always makes me happy. And the service itself is deeply grounding -- slowly reading the psalms, chanting the ancient chants, singing hymns in harmony, smelling the incense -- I enter another world, a world with a quieter cadence.
Finally, the meal in silence with light streaming through the windows and gentle classical music playing in the background deepens the sense that “I have arrived.” It is safe; it is good. I can relax now. Ahhhhhhhh.
Connecting to Spirit --
One of the brothers once suggested to me that, when on retreat, a good place to start is to focus on mindfully doing one thing at a time. And the best place to begin is to sit with a cup of tea. So, after lunch, I go to a common room and sit quietly with a mug of Earl Gray. Then, I gaze out the window and simply drink my tea. I don’t read or write or pray or talk to anyone. I simply sit and sip.
How do I avoid the monkey mind, the simple ruminations about ‘to do’ lists or even my anxieties and concerns? I focus on the details of what I see in front of me. I focus on the details of the tea. I observe the light and shadows in the room. I listen to the silence. I allow myself the gift of being right in the moment, in a place where others come to find God. I bask in the energy of the monastery, a prayer-soaked place. I offer up gratitude for the gift of being in this place. I ‘just sit’ with no agenda. It’s heavenly.
Slowing the Pace - Whether one full day or several full days, this middle passage is marked by a kind of spaciousness. There is time, expansive time, to drift and dream.
I only commit to 3 meals (breakfast, lunch, dinner) and 3 prayer services (noon, evening, and compline). Nothing else must be done. I am not an early riser so I don’t even attempt to make the morning prayer. Whatever comes around and between this basic structure is a mystery. Wait and see -- do I want to snooze, read, listen to sacred music? Do I want to walk, write, pray with an icon? I wait. I stop and watch. I am open to whatever presents itself. I am open to divine guidance, to however the Holy Spirit wants to be with me.
Going inward -- By the middle of my stay, I am more accustomed to the stillness. I no longer feel drawn to checking my emails (not that I would, mind you!) My life feels further away, distant from the ‘now.’ I feel an inner spaciousness associated with the silence, as if I can effortlessly hear the still, small voice within. I experience God everywhere: in the flowers around the Virgin Mary statue, in the eyes of one of the Brothers, in a poem that I read, in a sermon that I listened to, in the texture of the blanket on my bed, in the gorgeous sunset streaming through my window. I am drinking deeply from the well of spiritual refreshment and I am filled with gratitude.
The silence is different than what I might feel at home or in a hotel. I think because I am surrounded by others who place a premium on a life devoted to spirit, I am supported in my own quest. The vibration around me is of others who desire to know God. Life around me feels ‘vertical’ -- deep and transcendent. I am gratefully exempt from the usual ‘horizontal’ pace of my days. I relish in moving with the breath of Spirit, amidst others who value this endeavor.
The Grand Finale -- At the SSJE monastery in Cambridge, MA, where I typically retreat, Sunday is marked by a large church service with Eucharist. I feel ready to open myself to the celebration of worship. I open myself to speaking again -- both at the service and at the final talking meal. I clean up my room, change the sheets on the bed, and say a prayer for the next retreatant who will follow in my footsteps. “May they know peace.”
Rejoining the world, renewed -- Now, 7 meals and 8 worship services later, I am indeed well-nourished. I am excited to see my husband but cautious lest I be instantly swept back into the minutiae of daily details. Having retreated from my life, there is a slight hesitation in returning to it. Slowly. Just go slowly. I want to bring back the gifts of insight, stillness, silence, patience. I want to be able to share the light that I have just steeped in. Fortunately, I know that God will return home with me.
I wouldn’t say that I usually arrive home transformed or changed in a profound, overt way. But I arrive home having been rebooted. It’s as if I hit the ‘restart’ button on the computer of me. If you have never been on a silent retreat before, I urge you to consider it. Like me, you may just get hooked on the experience. Silence is a beautiful sound. Blessings abound.
Ashley Davis Bush, LICSW is a spiritual director, psychotherapist, and author of seven self-help books. She lives and works in Southern New Hampshire with her husband who is also a psychotherapist. www.ashleydavisbush.com