Several weeks ago, when my friend Louise invited me to be her roommate at a weekend Silent Retreat, I thought ‘What the heck’ and agreed to go. Since I intended this year to be one of rest and discernment, it seemed to fit my agenda nicely. Besides, I have never been on a silent retreat, and the notion has always intrigued me.
I subsequently learned that the retreat would be at St. Andrews Abbey, a Roman Catholic Benedictine Monastery in Valyermo, just north of Los Angeles in the high desert. After querying Louise further, I determined it was not to be a structured meditative retreat; rather, we would be free to do whatever we pleased as long as we kept quiet. I wasn’t completely sure what the point of that was, and my husband expressed doubts that I could last a weekend without a word, but I thought I’d give it a shot.
On the appointed day (a Friday) we drove to the monastery. Louise and I checked in at the office, where we found an elderly, stooped, and bearded monk manning the front desk. Just as one would expect, he looked up our reservation and recorded our arrival in a large journal by hand.
We located our room, which was Spartan but comfortable (and actually nicer than the Hotel Chintzy we booked in Scottsdale). It had twin beds, a nightstand, desk, heater and private bathroom with toilet, shower and sink. There was no TV, radio or telephone, and no Wi-Fi (which I confess I checked for almost immediately upon arrival).
Once settled, and after Louise gave me a brief tour of the grounds, we proceeded to the Dining room for a “talking” dinner. Afterwards, we headed to the Lounge for our preparatory meeting with the retreat leader and other participants (about 30 in all). After introductions, our leader, Shelley, reviewed with us the schedule and ground rules. At the conclusion of this meeting, after a closing prayer, we entered into our “Grand Silence” which would last until 10:30 AM on Sunday morning.
Shelley said the weekend schedule was very free and the time was ours to use as “needful” to us. She explained that the purpose of silence was to offer a break from the noise of the world and a time for rest and reflection. In the Lounge, there was a library of books, many on topics relating to prayer, meditation and discernment. There was a craft table containing art supplies and other materials (such as origami) for those who enjoyed arts and crafts. And then there were the grounds of the monastery, containing acres of desert landscape, including walking paths, a duck pond and a gift shop, that we were free to wander. The only rule (besides being quiet) was that we show up on time in the Dining room for any meals.
I wasn’t particularly nervous about the silence (since my current empty-nest-retiree home life often feels like a silent retreat) but I was curious as to how I would experience it. My biggest hope going into the retreat was that the Lord and I would have some high-quality dialogue, and that between us we’d come to agreement on some issues. My biggest concern was I’d get bored, so I brought my iPhone, my laptop and plenty of reading material.
Saturday morning, a monk ringing the bell awakened us at 7:30 AM, and we proceeded to the Dining Room to eat our breakfast together in silence. The bad cold I came with had unfortunately worsened, and my room was quite chilly in the morning (this being the high desert) so after breakfast I opted to hang out in the Lounge. I spent most of the day curled up in an armchair, by a crackling fire, with a box of tissues, sipping hot herbal tea, reading my book and writing a blog post.
I made one trip to the gift store where I bought a few of the ceramic angels that the monks make on the premises. On Sunday morning, I felt better, and walked around the grounds and up to the cemetery on a hill overlooking the valley. The time went by quickly and I never felt anxious or bored.
So what did I learn from my Silent Retreat?
- It is surprisingly easy to be quiet. Once I settled into the silence, it was actually a relief not to talk. It takes the pressure off having to think of things to say or to make conversation. It allowed me to concentrate more on myself and relax. There were a few times I wished I could talk to Louise, but mostly I was content being quiet. In fact, there were a few times during the weekend where talking visitors showed up at the monastery and I found it unsettling.
- It feels quite comfortable being quiet around others. Even though I did not know many of the retreat participants, it was not awkward hanging out with them in silence. In fact, it was unexpectedly comfortable, and I found it soothing having a few folks around me all day while I was reading my book and blowing my nose in the Lounge.
- There is a shared intimacy in being quiet together. Not only was it comfortable being around others in silence, I actually felt close to my companions. They became like dear friends, and I grew familiar with their rhythms, their walks, and their patterns. There was a trust and harmony that developed. There was one woman named Beth that I had never met before Friday. I found myself sitting next to her for several meals and appreciating the quiet calm that she radiated.
- I talk way more than I need to. I realized how unnecessary my speech often is. In social situations, my words are often used as mindless filler to avoid silence or to manage anxiety. It can feel risky to sit in silence, but that can actually be the most comfortable and intimate way of being with another person if we are not afraid of the stillness.
- The strength of a smile. Since we couldn’t talk to one another, we often smiled at one another as we passed on the grounds or ate together or caught each other’s eye. It was also okay to not acknowledge others. But a simple smile could convey volumes. There was a woman named Kay who was also sniffling, and the two of us bonded with sympathetic facial expressions all weekend. She worked on some sort of interpretive art project that she brought over to show me when she finished, and without exchanging a word we shared a moment of deep connection.
- I noticed a lot more when I wasn’t yapping. What I noticed (and saw and heard) when I was not talking was amazing. I heard the breathing of those around me. I noticed the wind blowing. I heard the birds chirping outside the window. I felt the rays of the sun on my face. I saw the lizards scurrying around the grounds. I tasted my meals more intensely.
The power of being served. Probably the most touching moment came at our first lunch, when the monks served us. There was peaceful orchestra music playing quietly in the background while the monks brought a bowl of soup to each of us in turn. I was suddenly overcome with emotion at the devotion of these men who take vows never to turn anyone in need away and to serve all as Christ served. I found myself suddenly in tears over the deep gratitude I felt in being ministered to.
- My social media habit. I must admit, the hardest part for me was being cut off from Facebook, email and texting for the weekend. I had this vague unsettling feeling that I might be missing something. I had 0 bars in my room or in the Lounge, so several times I walked surreptitiously around the grounds with my iPhone in my pocket to find coverage. When I walked up to the Monks Cemetery, I suddenly heard my text alerts go off and I had coverage! I spent more time than was piety-driven amongst the dearly departed, texting my husband and son. I probably should take more breaks from social media.
The monks are cool. I have to admit; I was slightly frightened of the monks at first. Not being Catholic, I have historically found nuns and fathers and monks a bit mysterious. All weekend, I was fascinated with watching the monks and found them utterly endearing. I watched one leave the Dining Room and slip on his cap (the hip kind Samuel L Jackson wears} as he headed to his car. I watched another completely quell a little boy’s (who was visiting with his parents on Sunday) potential meltdown with patience and humor. On Sunday, after we emerged from our silence, one of the other retreat participants relayed the hilarious story of her 30-minute “illegal” conversation with a monk in the gift shop. She asked him questions ranging from “So what do you Monks do all day?” to “Which Saint would be the best for me to pray to about my dating life?” He answered each one without skipping a beat.
- The silence itself was spiritual. Even though I didn’t do anything particularly “religious” most of the weekend, such as the intense prayer or meditation I thought I might, it was nevertheless a very spiritual experience. Each day, I asked God to give me ears to hear his word. I felt much closer to God and to who He created me to be, and left with a general sense of peace as I contemplated the verse “For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.” Jeremiah 29:11 (New International Version)