WEARY OF MY MEAGER PRAYER LIFE, needing to know God in a new way, I signed up for an eight-day silent prayer retreat during a recent sabbatical.
I sensed a need to retreat from the regular patterns of my life in order to find a space where I might be more receptive to God’s grace. I traveled to a Jesuit-run
Catholic retreat center in Ontario and during those eight days kept a journal of my experience. Leaving out the more personal soul business, I’ll let you in on the rest of it in the hope you’ll be encouraged to try your own retreat.
Eight days of silence. What craziness was I thinking? There’s a big part of me looking forward to gearing down, but there’s another part of me a little freaked out, pretty sure I’m going to end up running down the halls screaming, desecrating something holy.
I’ve brought with me spare necessities—my Bible, one book to read, a few snacks, and my MP3 player. Bringing much along is discouraged since the focus of a retreat is prayerful interaction with Scripture—a little unnerving because prayer feels like the weakest part of my life with God.
Tonight, after a brief introduction to the retreat, other
participants, and a simple service of prayer, the silence begins. Probably a good prayer would be “God, meet me here,” but right now it feels like “God, help me.”
I ate my first meal in silence. What a peculiar experience.
Not that I’ve never eaten without talking, but to do so sitting six to a table runs against the grain. Without obligation to be chatty you don’t need much time to eat; it’s easily done within 15 minutes.
I’m slowly getting used to the silence. The only trouble with turning down the volume on my mouth is that every other sound seems cranked up. There’s a woman upstairs (women and men are housed on different floors) who is making a lot of noise tonight. Helped out by a squeaky floor, it sounds
like she’s doing laps in her room. I’m thinking mostly bad thoughts about her right now.
Reminds me of the frightful part of silence, how it quickly reveals an ugly, judgmental underbelly in me. I’m thinking these unholy things about the pacing lady upstairs, and there’s another guy here who I already don’t like. Why? We’re not saying anything, so what could he have done? What’s wrong is not him but me.
This is a directed retreat, meaning I meet daily with a spiritual director (the only time I get to speak) who helps me take note of and respond to God’s presence and activity. Andrew, my assigned director, is a warm, gentle Jesuit priest from Ghana. As we set out a schedule of prayer for my retreat, he reminds me that rest and sleep are an important part of a retreat. Maybe God needs me to sleep to get a word in edgewise. Don’t you love these Jesuits?
I woke up with this thought: silence is the frost heave of the soul. The cold contraction of earth regularly hoists to the surface rocks and stones. Silence has this same habit, lifting subterranean rubble to the surface of our lives that we need to confess and clear out. No wonder we fill our lives with noise and busyness.
Along with me are 42 other crazies on retreat, mostly women, Caucasian and Asian, and older. There’s a snow-boarder-looking dude (his room could easily pass for a college dorm room, minus the Budweiser posters), a woman of perhaps 35, myself, and the rest seem to be above the 50-year median.
The lounge adjacent to the dining hall is a favorite hangout after meals. I usually join others to sit with a cup of coffee. We must be a funny sight, a hushed roomful of people staring off with distant gazes. Coming off the street, you’d wonder what drugs we’ve been doing.
It’s an odd look on our faces, this dreamy, distant gaze. It’s the look of divers descending into their souls.
Opening up to my spiritual director, a complete stranger, in a short period of time feels awkward, like spiritual speed dating. But leaving today’s meeting Andrew casually said, “Greet Jesus for me.” There was a playfulness in his face, yet he spoke with the conviction that nothing would be more certain or appropriate for me to do than to greet his friend, who happens to be Lord of heaven and earth. I can trust someone who easily balances reverence and mirth.
Andrew keeps on me about the power of request. He encourages me to begin each time of prayer asking God what I seek, reminding me of Matthew 7:7. Jesus asked people, “What do you want?” That’s a question I’ve been bred not to answer. Forget about myself; what does God want? But I’m learning that what God wants is likely planted in the longings of my heart.
Something strange going on—I often catch myself praying with an English, Scottish, or Irish accent (I’m either “channeling” some Celtic saint or maybe my inner child is a leprechaun). This is probably the closest I’ll come to speaking in tongues—praying in accents.
It’s likely connected to all the beautiful brogues I hear.
During the daily Eucharist services I hear Scripture passages, prayers, and homilies delivered in English, Scottish, Polish, South African, Thai, Tagalog (Philippine), and Ghanian tinged voices. It’s a beautiful chorus of inflection and accent, speaking the one gospel with clarity and color.
Last night I wondered whether this retreat was too indulgent. Eight days away from family, responsibility, and duty to pray and encounter Jesus—isn’t that a little self-absorbed? It can have that appearance, yet in the Ignatian way contemplation necessarily moves into action, prayer leads into a life of service. I’m so focused on doing and achieving that I easily neglect the necessary rhythm of renewal and service.
Is it day 6 already? I can’t believe how good the quiet feels, how at home in it I am. Entering the chapel yesterday, the silence was thick, holy, and inviting, and I felt wrapped in its peace.
In silence, music has this heightened power to undo my heart. An Alison Krauss song on my MP3 player has been regularly doing that. The title, “A Living Prayer,” is a fitting summary for this retreat, and a few lyrics capture well what I’ve experienced. Alison sings, “I find another voice inside my mind. He comforts me and bids me live inside the love the Father gives. In your love, I find release; a haven from my unbelief. Take my life and let me be, a living prayer my God to thee.”
Ignatian spirituality is wearing well, suiting me in many ways. Consider my tendency to evade God, others, and myself, instead offering up some air-brushed edition of my real self. I’m learning to come out of hiding, experiencing God meeting me in fig-leaf covered places and yet ravishing me with his love.
Then there’s the absolute hilarity in the Ignatian conviction that feelings are an important part of spiritual discernment and quite central to their spirituality. What a divine sense of humor, sending me (whose Neanderthal emotional range is “me feel good; me feel tired; me feel hungry”) to an Ignatian retreat center where my spiritual director keeps asking me what I feel in my prayer times. More evidence of God’s bigger and better wisdom.
But strangely, this Catholic order fits my Reformed background too. There’s much about St. Ignatius and the Jesuits that feels like home: they highly value learning and education, hold a big concern for justice, emphasize communicating the Word, and have an eye for spying God in every square inch of life. They’re like kindred spirits, our Catholic cousins.
Last day here. I didn’t merely make it, I loved it!
I’m surprised how little I miss what’s going on in the world. Completely unplugged—haven’t read a newspaper, listened to a radio, watched TV, checked e-mail, surfed the Net, talked on the phone—I feel more connected to life than ever.
Preparing to leave, I’m struck by how odd it is to be with these people, sharing eight days of eating together, worshiping, yet never speaking. Who are they? I’m drawn to their faces; without words, the face becomes the primary communication channel. Each face so unique—some puckered or pinched, one weathered, another stern and sergeantlike. There’s a woman with a face furrowed over with weariness and a man who neglected his mother’s advice that if he kept making that face it’d stay that way.
I study these faces, wondering what mystery lies behind them. We try all our lives to find our face, to uncover the real self we are. This retreat has been about unveiling more of my face and doing so by facing God. I’ve lived out John Calvin’s opening to his Institutes—that all true wisdom flows from knowing God and oneself. Isn’t that so like God, allowing me to experience a core Protestant truth in a Catholic context?
Ending eight days of silence, my biggest takeaway is the simplest and sweetest. I leave with the experienced knowledge that Christ lives in me. I’ve encountered him, communed with him, and heard his voice of love. What I’ve long been taught, I’ve now tasted. What more could I want?
Just for Mystics?
Contrary to common expectation, spiritual retreats are not meant solely for mystics, clergy, or spiritual elites, but for all God’s people.
Arranging for a retreat is relatively simple. Contact a retreat center or monastery nearby and find out what it offers in the way of personal retreats. Most retreat centers have a regular schedule of retreats planned long in advance.
To prepare for a retreat—or to answer any lingering questions about one—read Margaret Silf’s Going on Retreat: A Beginner’s Guide to the Christian Retreat Experience (Loyola Press), an easy and disarming introduction to retreats.
Can’t get away to a retreat center? An online retreat might be a good beginning. Check out www.creighton.edu/Collaborative
Ministry/cmo-retreat.html for an extended online retreat or visit www.sacredspace.ie for a daily 10-minute retreat. Both sites are accessible ways to experience a taste of retreat in your office or home that may whet your appetite for heading off to a retreat center.