By Linda Weistaner
I went on my first silent retreat around ten years ago with a group of 15 others. The retreat began with the leaders, Benedictine sisters from The Monastery of St. Gertrude, near Cottonwood, Idaho, making introductions and offering a brief orientation. Then, with a blessing, we were dismissed to observe the Great Silence. For the sisters, the Great Silence ended after Morning Prayer the next day. For those of us on retreat, the silence lasted a full week.
Some of us paused our silence for daily spiritual direction. My director’s gentle questions and prayer were valuable; thanks to her I remained on solid ground while I navigated the unfamiliar and stunning terrain of a silent retreat. She encouraged me to be still in the silence and simply consent to be in God’s presence. Avoid filling up your time and space, she said; no multi-tasking on retreat.
This is great advice, but even after seven or so retreats, I find it difficult to practice. With each retreat, I get better at not filling up my time and space, but I have made some notable mistakes. Like the time I brought all the piles of curriculum samples, magazines, and mail that had been sitting on my desk for months; what a great opportunity to sift through the stacks and finally figure out what to do with them, I thought. As a retreat plan, this was a soul killer.
Once I brought War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy to read, just for fun. I got two-thirds of the way through it for the second time in my life. I sensed God telling me that it was time to let go of War and Peace, Leo Tolstoy, and for that matter, Russian literature altogether. Brushing up on the classics is not the best use of silent retreat time.
On one of my retreats, I got sick. For a month I looked forward to a life-changing, silent retreat and all I got was a bad cold. I guess it was a safe place for my overtired body to say, “Enough!” I stayed in my room and rested. I don’t remember much about that one.
When my focus shifted from filling up my time to consenting to be in God’s presence, great things happened. Several years ago, I brought only my Bible, no other books, and read through the Hebrew Scriptures. I sat in a recliner with a lap quilt, reading my Bible, watching the snow fall on the Camas Prairie and dozing now and then. Pure bliss: relaxing with Scripture and having time to let it sink in. This is what my spiritual director was talking about: being filled by God, not simply filling up my time. It was very good.
One time I brought an art project to my retreat, fashioning it over a week’s time. Other retreatants saw it and referred to it as a visual and tactile experience of creation and renewal. That was nice. If you ever go on a silent retreat, by all means, bring your art, but avoid projects that will distract from peace and solitude. The kind of projects that make you scream with frustration, for example, should stay home.
Silent retreats may not be for everyone, but I like them. They are necessary for my spiritual and physical well-being. I’m already planning my next silent retreat. I’ve learned my lesson: I will not bring too much to do or read, lest I be tempted to fill up time and space instead of allowing myself to be filled by God. I will bring my Bible, my journal, and maybe a little recreational reading; but no Tolstoy, no piles of mail. And I will bring an open heart.
That’s the most important thing of all.