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?
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)
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.
* * *
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.
- To hear voices, listen
- When you don’t know what to say
- Ain’t nobody got time fo’ dat – Centering Prayer
- Sit with the pain
- When spirits intersect
- Threats to our faith – Review of “A Christian Survival Guide”