I’ve recently been away on a silent individually-guided Ignatian retreat – 4 days of no talking, apart from a daily discussion with my retreat conductor. I’ve done it before, several times, although always 8 days. 4 days felt more concentrated, more intensive.
Simon and Garfunkel see silence as a bad thing, a cancer, something that means the absence of communication and love. It can certainly be this, but in the hands of God it is something entirely different and lifegiving.
Silence is a liberation. It cuts down great swathes of undergrowth around me and I’m able to come into a broad, open place where I can pay attention. Time changes, no longer a space to fill, but a space to slow down, to watch a raindrop forming on a leaf, and wonder when it will fall.
Best of all, it is a place where I can live mindfully in God’s presence. I know he is always with me, and I can turn to him at any time in my daily life. But silence means I can pay attention to his presence, and it doesn’t have to be full of words.
Silence can be relaxing – the usual demands of living socially drop away and the resulting energy starts fuelling my relationship with God instead, and his with me.
It can also be extremely challenging. There’s nobody between me and my God. Although this is amazing, it is holy ground. How will I get on, when there are no relationships or responsibilities to take my attention away from him? What will I find out that he is saying? Will it be hard?
Paying attention to God is as broad as the universe, but it is also as small as Mother Julian’s hazel nut. Concentrated inside the nut is the potential to live and grow, to spread out and bear fruit; but this potential is dependent on life-giving truth, and truth compels as total an honesty as I am capable of.
Honesty is not always comfortable. How can it be? The truth of the Spirit shines on us, in us , all around us, and if we keep our eyes open we cannot but notice, by contrast, the dark places within ourselves: the excuses I make, the running away I do, the lazy habits of thought I’ve got into, the assumptions that are broken or crooked or fragmented. As Rowan Williams says in his wonderful book ‘Silence and Honey Cakes’, ‘what you thought mattered … turns out to be empty and dishonest.’ Truth has a ruthless quality to it, which we often want to avoid because it makes us uncomfortable. We want truth, when we find it, to create a world of illusion in which my pet ideas are justified, when the mirrors I look in show me a distorted image, one that I want to see, rather than the real self. But God’s truth cannot make this compromise, and in silence it strips us and shows us for what we really are.
People talk about a retreat as a way of avoiding reality. This could not be further from the truth. In silence God confronts us with as much reality as he thinks we are able to bear. Are we settling for what’s easy, rather than what is true? are we being drawn into the games society plays, because it makes us feel better about ourselves – and therefore settling for illusion, rather than the reality God offers? Silence enables me to be honest and face the truth, and that can be shocking at times, because I am faced with reality, rather than the illusion I prefer to live with. These are desert experiences, when the retreat becomes a hard place, where it’s no longer possible to run back to the comfortable, because truth has pulled the cushions out and revealed that the bench underneath is rotten or in disrepair and it is not going to bear my weight for much longer.
The thing about God is that, even when his uncompromising truth makes me uncomfortable, it is always constructive. It is never accusatory, and this is where God’s truth is lifegiving, in contrast with the enemy who tells us what we are doing wrong, but always as an accusation that beats us down and robs us of joy and hope, makes us sick and despairing of ourselves and drains the world of colour.
The ruthless quality of God’s truth is profoundly different, matched by his simultaneous swift embrace of complete acceptance. This quality of God, of being able to be both truth and love, is the place where we most need to be: a relationship where there’s nowhere to hide, but where we discover that we don’t need to. We are truly set free. Christ’s creation of a bond between our innermost, deepest selves with a Father who is both truthful and loving is the one environment where I can grow, explore, and discover with wonder and delight the unconditional acceptance of the Father and the Son mediated in me by the Spirit.
This was the first retreat I’d attended where we were encouraged to be creative, and a common room was set out with puzzles, games, paints and colours of all kinds, and plaster of paris. Sitting painting for the first time since my childhood, in a communal silence which had a companionable quality to it, God spoke instantly about my true self and challenged me about the things that I use to try and maintain some sort of control over my environment.
During the week a storm blew up wildly. The wind thrashed the trees and the rain drove down noisily on the skylight of my room. Inwardly a storm had blown up too, and I was tossed like a rag in a tempest I seemed to have no power to control. My time with my retreat conductor that morning had been incomplete, and she had promised to consider what Scriptures to give me for meditation in the light of our conversation.
During this storm she pushed a paper under my door with the reference to the story of the prodigal son. I read it and searched it, over and over, the frenzy within my spirit increasing so that I had to take a break, wondering at the severity of it and why I could not find my way out of it as I prayed and meditated.
Finally, as I continued to enter the story as the elder brother, I suddenly realised I had a choice. I could allow the reaction of my prodigal brother to govern my attitudes to others. Or I could treat them with the father’s love, within which I had always stood. When that became clear, there wasn’t a choice any more. At that moment the external storm died down, suddenly and completely. I found myself filled and surrounded by a great calm, and the words that came to mind were those of Psalm 131:
I have stilled and quietened my soul,
like a weaned child with its mother,
like a weaned child is my soul within me.
Being solitary and silent is for me a necessary part of being a person in relation to others. Only as I face myself in the uncompromising light of God’s truth and the warmth of his love can I emerge with deeper insight to learn how to pay more attention to others. From within the total commitment of God’s love for me, I learn, all too slowly, how to love them better.