The Beauty of Silence
When I told some friends that I had planned to go on an 8-day Silent Ignatian Retreat I received looks that varied from a respectful, but incredulous look, to surprised but ardent support of an experience that is so very foreign in the culture we live. I live in an area that is the most densely populated bunch of folk in the entire country – it’s the Boston to D.C. corridor. And I live in the state that people most laugh at – New Jersey! And for the most part, it’s wealthy. I grew up in the highest per-capita zip code in the country. It still is. And yes, it’s the proverbial suburbs which many of my simple lifestyle friends abhor...but it’s where I live...but I love this hard-packed soil of busyness and hurry...but it gets draining and distracting with respect to what really matters.
So the beauty and luxury of silence has by and large been abandoned with those childhood days of fantasy of pretending I was cloud surfing or sitting in a tree that I had climbed 30 feet in the air where no one knew I was even there. It was delightfully silent. We used to have forts in the woods that when we weren’t having rock fights with each other (I knocked my friends two front teeth out with one) it was a place of solitude and silence – maybe even with a friend.
So, what happens on an 8-day silent retreat? Hmmm…”lots”…..and “nothing”. But, the nothing becomes the lots! Initially the silence was something I had longed for. Of course it was made easier in that the retreat house at Eastern Point in Gloucester, MA is one of the most sought after places to spend this kind of time. Even though most days strained to break 30ºF, I found an Adirondack Chair that was set on some grass that was still green and overlooked a granite bluff which served as a buffer for the breakers that relentlessly made their way to crash over the rocks. It is a beautiful place to watch the beauty and fury of God’s creation. Shoot, one day I woke up to gale force winds that blew a steady and formidable rhythm of 10-15’ waves that I thought were perfect to surf. As I was drinking my coffee and in awe of the enormity of the waves crashing, some dude in a full wetsuite (still 25ºF!!!) was running past my window in search of a tube he could ride. For about 3-4 hours there were 8 nuts surfing these gigantic waves. It was a beautiful sight to see. Ok back to the silence.
Seriously, can you imagine only speaking for one hour a day with a wise spiritual counselor who was a 78 - year old wise Jesuit and former Trappist Monk? Both the somewhat scary but comforting context of our time together was that we had the same type of sarcastic sense of humor which often led to simultaneous belly laughs as we talked about friendship with Jesus, and the process of listening to God in the silence. Father Richard Stanley (my now incredible forever friend) lives in an assisted living home where he is vested with praying for the world, the Society of Jesuits (S.J.), and those he is involved in for Spiritual Direction as I was/am. He has no email, no computer, no electronics. He has lots of pine smelling candles though. For three weeks of the month that’s pretty much all he does – pray with pine smelling candles burning a pleasant odor as if incense is lifting his prayers to the heavenly throne where Jesus reigns over all. For the remaining week of the month, he does these 8-day retreats at Eastern Point and listens to only 2-3 retreatants for the whole time (I had the amazing privilege of being one of them) and prays for us as we listen to God in the silence. Dick (his salutary name) has heard it all. There is nothing that could shock him. I could tell by looking in his eyes. There was no end to the depth of holy perception, encased in a love that wasn’t at all threatening but inviting – inviting to take a look at the heart of Jesus, and his desire to walk in friendship with me.
To be continued!