Can you be quiet?

Words are often two to three steps removed from true experience.
– Richard Rohr

A Catholic, an Episcopalian, and a Baptist walk into a room.

They ask the remaining 27 of us seated in a circle (Catholics, Episcopalians, a few Lutherans, two Baptists, and me) to keep silence for the weekend (excluding our conference sessions). Don’t talk in the dorms or at meals. It was no joke.

We were on individual vacations with God.

That’s one way to get us quiet—make it a requirement for the “Introduction to Centering Prayer” retreat.

But that’s only exterior silence.

How do we quiet down on the inside?

Prayer-Retreat-notes

After dropping off luggage into my private room at the new retreat house at the century-old Sacred Heart Monastery, I pulled my coat tighter for the walk up the hill to our prayer room for Conference One, “Prayer as Relationship.”

At the beginning of the session we shared briefly who we were. At the end of the session we asked any questions we had. Then we returned to silence until the next session.

We didn’t talk.
We didn’t tweet.
We didn’t text (well, not counting the three times I texted Jeff over the weekend to assure him I wasn’t converting to the nunnery).

(Oh, and the Benedictine sisters graciously allowed us to participate verbally with them in Lauds and Vespers in the chapel, even though my Protestant background hadn’t adequately prepared me for that. But I was pleased to shortly crack the musical code of chanting the Psalms with them. Go, God.)

(And one more, while I’m confessing . . . I did speak out loud to the cafeteria server Saturday night to ask her not to put the greens on my plate of spaghetti. I’m sure God understood.)

As it turns out, silence isn’t saying “no” to communication. It’s saying “yes” to communion. On a uniquely different level. The mind stays on, but it vibrates with a different energy.

When we turn off the words, we tune in to something else. To God, in other words.

  • To sounds (the woodpecker kept a beautiful beat as I walked the prayer labyrinth)
  • To smells (the candles gave off a soft aroma when we did Centering Prayer together)
  • To tastes (the oatmeal at breakfast took me straight back to my childhood and my mother)
  • To sights (oh, the icons to discover in a monastery!)
  • To touches (the warm sheets at an early bedtime were exceptionally welcoming)

prayer-labyrinth

shadow-plant

table-setting

And ironically, even through silence, we can tune more into seeing God in each other as well.

Clearing my mind of small talk conversation starters, I was free instead to notice a husband (silently) serve his sick wife so attentively (she also a fellow-retreatant). I noticed an older woman in our group place her hand gently on the shoulder of a younger one when tears welled up in her eyes. I noticed how, without words, we could still welcome each other to a new day just with smiles and better eye contact.

Does that mean we need to give up talking altogether? Of course not!

But does it mean we could try it occasionally? Definitely.

God has and will continue to use words (thankfully!) to show his love and demonstrate his glory. But he doesn’t have to.

There’s more to Christ than what we read in red ink on white paper.

Jesus—the Word himself from the beginning—fleshed out among us to give us what words alone couldn’t. He didn’t want to just talk to us; he wanted to live with us.

There are many ways to commune with God. We all have our favorites. We return to those the most. And perhaps rightfully so.

But God might have some favorites too, and they may or may not be the ones we’re most comfortable with or think we’re most “successful” with.

Show up for all of them now and again—including silence. God may do his greatest work through the method you think is the biggest waste of time.

Try quieting down the temporary noise a few times this week. See if you can better hear the eternal.

centering-prayer-retreat

* * *

For the final meal of our retreat—lunch on Sunday afternoon—we broke our silence and talked with each other, now all friends (or “My people!” as I discovered). It was delightful. Is it harder for you to speak up or to be quiet? What’s the longest you’ve gone in silence? Let’s share words in the comments.

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49 thoughts on “Can you be quiet?

  1. Victoria

    How wonderful! It looks and sounds so rich and beautiful. I have only taken day-long silent retreats, of around 6 hours. I loved them, so peaceful and wonderful time to hear from God. I would love to spend more time in silence of that nature.
    Victoria recently posted…Exploring SpiritualityMy Profile

    1. LisaNotes Post author

      I’m sure you would have enjoyed the weekend too, Victoria, if you’ve already enjoyed 6 hours of silence at a time. Maybe you’ll get more opportunity through your Spiritual Formation course! Of course we can always *make* the opportunity happen too, but I’ve never intentionally set out on my own to be quiet for a whole weekend. 🙂 It’s much easier to do when it’s planned for me, and everyone around me is in on the plan.
      LisaNotes recently posted…Can you be quiet?My Profile

  2. TC Avey

    I must confess, I have a hard time with silence…I tend to fill it.

    Love this line, “But God might have some favorites too, and they may or may not be the ones we’re most comfortable with or think we’re most “successful” with.”

    As I’m learning to listen more to God (and not talk so much), this part really spoke to me and helped motivate me to be silent even though I’m not “good” at it.
    So thankful that God is patient with my many “mistakes”.
    TC Avey recently posted…While I’m Waiting: Book Review and GIVE AWAY!My Profile

    1. LisaNotes Post author

      Well, I thought I was pretty “good” at silence, but one thing I learned on this retreat is that I fill my silence more than I realize too. With reading, with writing, with listening to podcasts, even with ideas, etc. So I had to take a step back from my books and papers and cameras to discover a deeper silence. It was good for me and I hope I’ll maintain pieces of it in my ordinary days as well.
      LisaNotes recently posted…Can you be quiet?My Profile

    1. LisaNotes Post author

      I bet you’d do fine, Elizabeth. They kept us fairly busy with sessions, so even though we had free time to be totally silent, it was segmented. They did tell us about a greater challenge though: an 8-day intensive silent retreat. Yikes. I know I’m not ready for that! ha.
      LisaNotes recently posted…Can you be quiet?My Profile

  3. Dolly@Soulstops

    Lisa,
    I laughed when I read your first quote because this morning I read Psalm 46:1-3,10 and the devotional talked about being silent before God…I think God might be trying to tell me something…as a Protestant, I’ve been so blessed like you to be introduced to centering prayer and being quiet, intentionally, before God…so glad you found your people and you had a great time 🙂
    Dolly@Soulstops recently posted…Renew 4: The work of perception (& 3 tips)My Profile

    1. LisaNotes Post author

      And the sad part is I haven’t realized how noisy I really am. 🙁 But I’m glad I learned it now. How awesome that you go to a silent retreat every year, Jean! I’d love to do another one–do I have to wait a whole year? 🙂
      LisaNotes recently posted…Can you be quiet?My Profile

  4. Rick Dawson

    I loved the opening – I was born into a Roman Catholic family, and among the other denominations I’ve been a member of have been both Episcopalian and Baptist. I also love retreats at old monasteries – a reverential hush seems almost mandatory in some places, but they are joyous events to me.

    Keeping silent is not the problem for me it once was; I can listen far more easily in quiet for the still, small voice than I can pick it out of the background cacophony that is most of our daily lives, so I cherish the quiet. Glad you had the experience! 🙂
    Rick Dawson recently posted…Hard TopicsMy Profile

    1. LisaNotes Post author

      So you’ve made the rounds, huh? 🙂 I’m sure that played a part in your learning to be more accepting of all kinds of folks. I hope to make it back to the monastery this fall for another retreat of some sort. It was so refreshing to my soul. I know you get that. Thanks for sharing, Rick.
      LisaNotes recently posted…Can you be quiet?My Profile

  5. Heather @ My Overflowing Cup

    Love the way you said this – “silence isn’t saying “no” to communication. It’s saying “yes” to communion.”

    And this – “There’s more to Christ than what we read in red ink on white paper.”

    It is definitely harder for me to be quiet, but I am learning the value in it. For it is when I am quite, that I can hear God speak to my soul. That is more valuable than anything I might have to say – which is an interesting comment coming from a writer who loves to encourage others.

    Thanks for sharing this experience with us, Lisa!
    Heather @ My Overflowing Cup recently posted…The Hardest Prayer To PrayMy Profile

    1. LisaNotes Post author

      What God has to say definitely trumps what we have to say–you’re right, Heather. And in order to hear him, I have to quiet me. Not always easy, but we’re all learning!
      LisaNotes recently posted…Can you be quiet?My Profile

  6. floyd

    I never ever won the “quiet game” as a kid… How interesting. Interestingly, I was thinking to myself not more than an hour ago how much I’d so enjoy a break from having to talk. The last couple days at work have left my almost hoarse. Maybe I’ll try it tonight? My wife might actually appreciate it… I know my youngest would!

    Got me thinking, Lisa. Thanks.

  7. Beth (@SimplyBeth3)

    Lisa, I very much appreciate this post. And this >>> Try quieting down the temporary noise a few times this week. See if you can better hear the eternal. <<< I just said to a friend this week how I needed to do more of this. Sounds like you had an amazing experience. Blessings to you.
    Beth (@SimplyBeth3) recently posted…How I’m Saying Yes to RiskMy Profile

    1. LisaNotes Post author

      It was an amazing experience! And I imagine it’d be different each time, so I look forward to going back again at some point. Thanks for dropping in, Beth, through all the noise.

  8. ~ linda

    Oh, Lisa, I consider the time you had such a beautiful blessing from God. There must be the learning curve with all that is around us in our daily worlds, yet the peace and tranquility and ears to hear the birds and God, especially, would be a joy, a calming time.
    Are the circles of stones the labyrinth?
    I would love such a period of time as that under those sweet conditions.
    Caring through Christ, ~ linda

    ps…I just perused your book lists and book challenges…I am bookmarking the pages to come back again and again.
    ~ linda recently posted…Empty, Purify, Fill Me, and Pour Me Out, LORDMy Profile

    1. LisaNotes Post author

      Yes, Linda, the labyrinth was made up of a maze/circle of bricks. You’d start at the entrance, which led you to the middle, then walk back out to the exit. So symbolic of our lives in so many ways! I loved it.
      LisaNotes recently posted…Can you be quiet?My Profile

  9. Anita Ojeda

    I’ve gone a day or two without talking–mostly because I was home alone and didn’t have anyone to talk to. I loved it. I’m a pretty quiet person (even though I teach high school ;)), and I enjoy silence and alone time. BUT, I’ve never been to a silent retreat–it sounds like a wonderful experience and a great reminder that we all have our communication preferences, but there’s nothing wrong with trying out some of the other ones (interpretive dance, maybe? 😉 ).
    Anita Ojeda recently posted…Kiss Those Monkeys GoodbyeMy Profile

    1. LisaNotes Post author

      Um, I don’t think the world is ready yet for my interpretive dance! haha. But you make me think; I’m comfortable with silence so it’s easy to suggest it, but what about the things I’m not comfortable with? Thanks, Anita!
      LisaNotes recently posted…Can you be quiet?My Profile

  10. Kathryn Shirey

    This sounds amazing! I’d love to do a retreat like this and take some extended silent time. I’ve been studying and practicing various prayer techniques, many of them focused on listening and it’s been wonderful. We need sometimes to quiet our outer and inner voices and just listen for God. I love how you talk about experiencing God with all your senses.
    Kathryn Shirey recently posted…Be Still and Know That I Am GodMy Profile

    1. LisaNotes Post author

      I’d love to sit down and talk about all the prayer techniques you’re learning, Kathryn! We definitely focus too much on our own talking in our culture, when we need to also do a lot more listening. I just got a new book today called “Simply Open: A Guide to Experiencing God in the Everyday” that I’m looking forward to reading and experiencing God with.

  11. Natalie

    I’ve always wanted to do this, Lisa. I’ve purposefully spent a string of 9 to 5 days in silence–alone–and while that was infinitely fruitful, I’d love to do that in community. Thanks for sharing about your experience. Perhaps one day.
    Natalie recently posted…A Great Deal of GoodMy Profile

    1. LisaNotes Post author

      It was a unique experience to do it in community. I highly recommend it to you, Natalie, if you get a chance! Even doing Centering Prayer together–where everyone keeps silence–brings a special energy to the room that can’t be explained. We don’t always needs words….sometimes we need NOT to have them.
      LisaNotes recently posted…Can you be quiet?My Profile

  12. Betty Draper

    Always harder to be quiet. And even in being quiet to quiet my mind for it continue son where my mouth leaves off so often. Your post makes me want to go to this place or some place like it, to see if I can be that quiet. I think it took courage Lisa to on purpose go where there was little conversation. thanks for sharing this.
    Betty Draper recently posted…The Spirits Never Loved UsMy Profile

  13. Tiffany

    Wow, Lisa. This really got me thinking. I have had periods of silence, but not really chosen silence. It sounds delightful in this culture where we are “connected” almost constantly to technology and other means of instant gratification. The way you describe the silence allowing more time to stop and observe – that really got me. How often are we compelled to make small talk and fill the quiet spaces with noise when really we could just sit back and watch? You have me thinking!! Just stopping by from Holley’s today. Blessings!
    Tiffany recently posted…Where the Days WentMy Profile

    1. LisaNotes Post author

      Yes, it is quite amazing how much more we notice when we stop talking. I’m the world’s worst about always staying connected with technology, so just laying down my phone for the weekend was hard but so profitable. Glad you stopped by, Tiffany.

  14. Ceil

    Hi Lisa! I am so happy for you! What a beautiful time to sit back and learn about the power of silence. I know that we have commented back and forth about diving into the prayer of silence. But to have a whole weekend time dedicated to it? What a wonderful thing.

    They do say that when you take away one sense, the others become sharper. I think maybe your eyesight was sharpened to see such scenes of love when speaking wasn’t an option. Your thought that being quiet opened you to communion was very powerful.
    Hope someday to do this too. You make it sound so rewarding.
    Ceil
    PS Are you more aware of all the chatter around you now that you are back? I wonder about that…
    Ceil recently posted…Always WorkingMy Profile

    1. LisaNotes Post author

      It was definitely a gift, Ceil! Having the weekend for doing contemplative prayer with others and just breathing in God with NO RUSH was so delightful. I know we can’t live that way all the time, but now and again, it’s awesome.

      About your question: As soon as we were able to break silence, I found there was so much I wanted to say to the others on the retreat that I hadn’t been able to talk to–all strangers at the beginning of the weekend, but even through the silence, I felt like we were all friends at the end. The chatter now? I do notice it more; hopefully I’ll learn to participate in it less…
      LisaNotes recently posted…Can you be quiet?My Profile

  15. Jennifer Dougan

    Lisa,

    This was so intriguing to read about. I’m not sure how long I’ve been silent. One summer I lived alone in Marseille, France, and worked long hours. Some weekend days could be solitary, but even then there were interactions on buses, metros, etc with people around me as I explored. Hmm. Thank you for your observations and insights here about how silence opened you up to see more communication around you and helped you interact with God in a new way.

    Jennifer Dougan
    http://www.jenniferdougan.com
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  16. David

    This sounds v interesting.

    I don’t really have a problem not speaking. I prefer listening anyway. If reading and writing were out too, that would be a challenge. Even imagining it, …

    … and you’re in an environment designed for this purpose.

    I think after a day or two I would start feeling very strange. The sensuality and the direct social interactions. I can imagine feeling almost panic at not being able to process it or keep it at bay. I imagine it would take a good while afterwards for all the ripples to die down.

    Did anyone like totally freak out on this retreat by any chance?

    David

    1. LisaNotes Post author

      Yes, the challenge for me was trying not to read or write. Of course it was all optional (nobody was enforcing anything on us), but I wanted to get the most out of the experience so I read and wrote very little. The time went by so fast that it was okay; more than the weekend would have been super strange. No one freaked out that I was aware of, but I do know that people do struggle at times with centering prayer because of things that come up in us. The leaders told us that the 8-day retreat requires pre-screening because it can be so challenging.
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    1. LisaNotes Post author

      Good point, Beverley. There are different kinds of silence. I’m often quite during a day simply because there is no one in the house to talk to, but that’s a different kind of silence than one I enter intentionally to sit in the Lord’s presence. “Heart and soul silence” – I like that!
      LisaNotes recently posted…Sometimes you do nothingMy Profile

  17. June

    This sounds heavenly, Lisa! I’ve always believed that Jesus is the best example of “actions speak louder than words.” Loved your examples of people caring for each other in deed rather than word. Blessings.
    June recently posted…Inspired by . . . owning itMy Profile

    1. LisaNotes Post author

      Thanks, June. It was a quite heavenly experience. I hope to be able to repeat it sometimes in the future (would be nice to make it an annual occurrence!). I agree with you whole-heartedly: Jesus was and is the perfect example of actions speaking louder than words. I know he wants us to continue following in his footsteps.
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