of the elders said: "Just as it is impossible
to see your face in troubled water,
so also the soul, unless it is clear of alien thoughts,
is not able to pray to God in contemplation."
-- from Illuminated Life, Monastic Wisdom for Seekers of Light
by Joan Chittister
The Rev. Margaret W. Jones
I was invited to lead an out-of-town retreat. I agreed, and began
to discuss plans for it with the woman who issued the invitation. Almost
an afterthought, I added, "I didn't say this earlier, but I only
do silent retreats."
There was a pause, a rather long one. "Oh," she finally replied,
"we have never had one of those before." Before I even thought
about what I was saying, I answered,
"That is the only kind of retreat I do." Period. The strength
and conviction of my reply surprised me. The woman agreed that they would
like to try one, so I began to explain to her what they were like for
me, and why I was convinced that SILENCE, particularly silent retreats,
were the best way to open oneself to the presence and peace of God.
I came upon
silent retreats purely by accident. Thirty years ago a good
friend "sent" me to one by literally taking me in her car and
leaving me at
the retreat site. I will never forget her conviction, or the experience
itself. Though initially I was uncomfortable, that silent weekend broke
something in me - some barrier, I suppose. It was as if I had protected
myself by busyness, words, activities, and never taken the time to hear,
receive, or feel what God wanted to give me, without my saying a word
or doing a thing.
I left the
retreat more grounded and more at peace than I had ever been. And
I had a new tool to use, one that helped me regain some of the peace I
at the retreat. The tool was, of course, SILENCE.
writes Joan Chittister in Illuminated Life, "is the lost art
society made of noise." I agree. She goes on to say that "the
real material of spiritual development is not in books. It is in the subject
matter of the self." As a book lover, that is hard for me to follow,
yet I believe she is right. What God works with in my silent times is
ME. No matter how many books by Henri Nouwen I read, or how many of Barbara
Brown Taylor's sermons I ingest, it is only with ME that God deals when
I permit myself to be quiet.
Chittister continues, "is that place just before the voice of God....Silence
is the cave through which the soul must travel, clearing out the dissonance
of life as we go, so that the God who is waiting there for us to notice
can fill us."
That is what
happened to me at that long ago retreat, and continues to happen
when I practice silence, either in private contemplative time or at a
retreat. The latter is particularly effective for me because of the
community effect of silence, and also because of the structure of a retreat.
The structure provides a safe container for me: There are times to listen
the person presenting material (the only one who talks!), there are times
sit before a roaring fire with other silent women, there is even the
surprising joy of eating without talking to anyone. If you haven't tried
that, do! You won't believe how good food can taste when you aren't distracted
by conversation, or a television program.
On that first
retreat I attended, the opening talk by the priest was based on
Isaiah 43, which he read aloud to us: "But now thus says the Lord,
created you, O Jacob, he who formed you, O Israel: do not fear, for I
redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine. When you pass through
the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not
overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and
flame shall not consume you....Because you are precious in my sight, and
honored, and I love you."
I heard those
words deep in my bones, and I felt my throat swell and tears
fill my eyes. And, because I was being silent, I had only my reaction,
my emotion, the lump in my throat to deal with. I felt those words in
bones, and I can still feel them. God had been waiting to tell me that
long time and only in the silence could I hear them.
live alone ask me what they will "get" from a silent retreat,
since they spend much of their time by themselves. Although all people
are different, I find that making a commitment to go away, to open oneself
intentionally is different from "spending time alone." Being
about it is what counts. As we know, God is always with us; it is in turning
to God, without words, and allowing ourselves to be in the mystery of
that we begin to see the world differently, and by the "world"
I mean the
outer but most particularly the inner.
On that first
retreat so long ago, I received many gifts: insight,
appreciation, wonder. Those gifts remained with me and have sustained
The Episcopal school I graduated from has as its school prayer, "Help
Lord to remember, through the example of Jesus Christ, that what we keep
lose, and only what we give remains our own."
So it is only fitting that I would pass along to anyone who reads this
conviction about the wonder and joy of silence.