I have fantasized for quite some time about participating in a silent retreat. My ideal vision involved going to a monastery in north Georgia (or somewhere else far enough away from Tallahassee to feel “gone”) and spending two days or so in contemplative silence.
As it turns out, life is harshly disinclined to release me from my Tallahassee obligations for a full weekend involving travel to and from, and my budget is rather slim for that kind of thing too.
When I participated in a Toastmasters competition at Unity Eastside Church recently, there was a flier for a silent retreat day on our sign-in table. Six hours, twenty dollars, fifteen minutes from home. Not exactly my “ideal,” but an option with much more likelihood of happening. I informed my husband I would be out of pocket on March 26 for six hours, suspended my usual Saturday morning long run plans, and prepared.
I had two main goals: 1) write my friend Kathleen, my one true “snail mail only” friend, who I have owed a letter to for a very long time, then 2) read a book which would frame the rest of the day. I chose Becoming Who You Are by James Martin, SJ.
There was a brief introductory session at the beginning of the day (where we were encouraged to “wander and ponder,”) and a 15-minute closing session at the end, but other than that we were free to do whatever we wanted on the expansive property.
When I signed in, I was given a handout about Noble Silence which directed us to refrain from writing to one another. Hmmm ….. although Kathleen wasn’t a participant in the retreat, my rule-follower brain worried if my personal agenda was a bad fit!
Fortunately, there were no Noble Silence police at this retreat so I forged ahead with my plans. My correspondence with Kathleen edifies me in many ways, so it was a blessing to write her. After I wrote Kathleen, I started the book. As books go, it is brief (97 pages), but I figured it would be a perfect fit for a 6-hour retreat. I’ve experienced a great deal of difficulty attending to books on paper (vs audiobooks) lately, so imagine my surprise when I had finished the book before the retreat was even halfway over!
A Day Well Spent
Before I share takeaways from the book, here’s how I spent the rest of the day:
- Co-existing with the wildlife (I had camped out in the nursery because the rocking chair was great. So had a green frog.) HMMM.
- Walking their labyrinth. The fact that it was raining made this one of the most lovely labyrinth walks I have ever taken!
- Walking their grounds
- Eating lunch
- Writing another letter when I was out of things to read and prayers to say (I also skimmed “Radiation Therapy and You” a publication I had taken solely to have a hard surface to write on. Maybe I do have trouble calming my brain!)
- Reading and re-reading the lyrics to Where Does the Good Go?, which Shonda Rhimes talked about in Year of Yes and I subsequently can’t. stop. thinking. about. Just can’t!
- Taking pictures with a disposable camera (because I was afraid if I took my smartphone in “just for the camera” I would not be able to resist checking Email/Instagram/Facebook/Twitter)
Silent Retreat Reading Takeaways
Now for my takeaways from Fr. Martin’s book, which focused on insights about what constitutes the “true self,” drawing heavily on Thomas Merton and Henri Nouwen.
Humanity is, in itself, holy. Holiness is not limited to the officially beatified or incessantly selfless.
Time is a gift. In a passage discussing how each moment is a sacrament (a parent preparing a child’s lunch, etc.), I was reminded anew that my tasks of caregiving are sacramental (even though that is not how they feel). Yes, I have grumbled audibly when closing our back French door which my FIL frequently inadvertently leaves open, uttered my share of sarcastic comebacks, and prayed for him to sleep in just a little longer in the mornings so I can have my house (and train of thought) to myself. Although I know I need to cut myself a break as a caregiver, I also owe these responsibilities the perspective they are due.
The idea (generated by Nouwen) that “the term burnout was a convenient psychological translation for a spiritual death.” Having said, as I left my job in May 2014, that my soul was being sucked out of me, I could relate to this passage!
As a follow up to the burnout idea, I was intrigued by the idea that “ordinary people,” who are leading “ordinary” non ministerial lives, are still serving God.
Merton calls these men and women “hidden contemplatives” who enjoy a kind of “masked contemplation.” Their ability to do so hinges on their willingness to find God not by trying to be cloistered monks, but by discovering the divine spark in their own busy lives.
Repeatedly throughout the book, Fr. Martin repeated his point that “being holy means being your true self.”
As I walked the labyrinth, I reflected on a proverb Fr. Martin had shared: “God writes straight, with crooked lines.” You can see the center of the labyrinth from the entrance, but you can’t get there without following, obediently, a circuitous path. As the path unfolded before me, I tried not to look at my watch, to let time elapse naturally. I saw a beautiful red cardinal, the raindrops on the trees, and a broken tree, its fresh splinters reflecting how jagged you become when you are broken. All of them encouraged my mind to relax and expand, to focus on enjoying the journey knowing that the center would appear eventually.
In a day of quiet, one idea persisted in asserting itself, wordlessly but forcefully:
The divine spark. It is worth seeking, protecting, sustaining.
(For more pictures from the day, click here.)
Wife of one, Mom of two, Friend of many. My pronouns are she/her/hers.