It seems that the Ignatian emphasis on silence and especially the silent retreat is one that either appeals to people or puts fear into them. We really don’t like to be silent. But if you’ve been on a silent retreat, you know the beauty of it. If you’re one of those people who would rather have a root canal than subject yourself to extended silence, or if you are on the fence about whether you should experience such a retreat, let me put your fears to rest.
SIlent retreats have been around for a long time. Recall in scripture how Jesus would often go away by himself to pray and be silent. Similarly, when St. Ignatius was recuperating from his cannonball wound, he spent many days in secluded silence, talking to God, reading the bible, reflecting and writing about the insights he had from his prayer time. His recovery time bore the fruit of the discernment of spirits and led to a powerful conversion.
The fact is, there is something about being silent that frees us to draw closer to God. Silence situates our hearts to receive God’s presence as nothing else can.
I come from a long line of introverts on my father’s side of the family. Being quiet and still comes naturally to me. And so, when someone suggested that I make a silent retreat, I decided to attend. I arrived at the retreat center with the usual clothing, toothbrush, etc. This was my first silent retreat, and I assumed all I had to do was not talk. And so in addition to my clothes, toothbrush and personal items, I brought along a suitcase full of books, puzzles, and other things to keep me busy while I was being silent.
What I didn’t yet understand was that silence is so much more than not talking. Silence is a frame of mind, a stillness of heart that goes beyond “no sound”. At first, it was awkward. But I prayed with the scriptures that my director had given me, and when I wasn’t praying, I read books or worked on the puzzles I had brought. If I had to be quiet, then I had lots of time to do other things that didn’t generate noise.
It wasn’t until my second day there, while I was eating lunch, that I began to realize there was more to silence than not talking. I noticed I ate more slowly and enjoyed my meal more. Not distracted by conversation, I was fully present to what I was doing. And I liked that. When I shared that with my retreat director, she just smiled and told me to take a walk that afternoon after I prayed. Just walk slowly, purposefully, and listen. On my walk, I heard birds singing as I never had before. I heard creaky swings and cows mooing. And I liked that, too. I seemed more calm and relaxed and so did the rest of the world around me.
As the retreat continued, I noticed I was meeting God more deeply in prayer. My prayer seemed to come more naturally and was rich with the feeling of God being near. My prayer times were longer than usual, I felt connected to God, and my journaling was deep.
And just when I thought I had it all figured out, on the last night of the retreat, I had the most amazing, totally unsolicited experience of God that I had ever had up to that point in my life. Sitting alone in the chapel, I started to cry. What is this about, I wondered. Why am I crying? The tears kept coming and lasted a long while. It was troubling at first, but then it felt cleansing. I began to feel lighter in spirit. And that’s when God poured unconditional love on me. At that moment, I couldn’t think, I could only be. I was just available there to receive all that God wanted to give me. It was the first time I had experienced God’s love for me that way. The tears turned into healing love and that in turn moved me to a deep gratitude. I can truly say that I left the chapel that night a changed person, a loved sinner. And I didn’t even know I had issues!
Was it the silence? I’m sure of it. God was teaching me that true silence, silence of the heart, was what I needed to be still and know God. It’s a different kind of being, not just the lack of noise, but an interior quiet which opens up the heart to God-given graces, insights, healing and possibilities. So this was what a silent retreat was all about!
I still make an annual silent retreat, only now, I don’t have the suitcase full of books and puzzles. Instead, I have learned that I only need to bring an open and generous heart. God will do the rest.
- If you’ve never made a silent retreat, check out a Jesuit retreat center.
- If you’ve been on a silent retreat, what was your experience? How did you embrace the silence? How did God meet you on your retreat?
- If you can’t get away on retreat, you can still benefit from silence in your day. Spend five minutes several times a day just being still with God. You’ll be amazed at what a blessing this can be!
- Consider praying with: “In quietness and confidence shall be your strength.” Isaiah 30:15
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