I recently spent a weekend being quiet. My Quaker Meeting sponsored a “Silent Retreat,” a whole weekend in which participants gathered for morning and evening worship and sharing, but were in solitude and silence the rest of the time. Disconnected from the internet and our phones, we read, wrote, played music, created a craft, walked in the woods or sat quietly. Some of us took a nap.
Both Muslim mystic Rumi and Christian mystic John of the Cross wrote of silence as God’s first language. This weekend was space for listening to the silence. It was time for simply “hanging out with God,” as one friend commented.
I had agreed to guide this event months ago. Unfortunately when the time came, I didn’t want to go on retreat! I had too much to do at home. I had a garden to weed, people to talk to, work to do. I was behind on all my tasks, and felt as though I’d never catch up.
The blessing for me was that I couldn’t change my mind at the last minute. I was committed to show up–and so I discovered once again the quiet stillness that is my soul’s deepest need. Lost within the stress of tending my “to do” list, I had forgotten that we humans were created for stillness as well as activity, for restful reflection as well as bustling achievement.
This retreat was a counter-cultural adventure. We slowed down and paused to pay attention. What we received would come as a gift, and, in our pausing, we created space to notice the gift. Perhaps it felt like a new deep breathing, perhaps like a flash of lightning suddenly illuminating the night. We may have named an insight, discerned a next step, or discovered new questions. And sometimes we were simply still and aware of the presence of the Holy.
Many years ago, in need of spiritual renewal, I took a retreat entirely on my own. After settling into the cabin, I took a walk in the woods, read a bit, went for another walk. In a little while, I began to question: God, why isn’t anything happening yet?” It took me a full day to shed my impatience. It took another day to release my questions and simply open my heart and mind to whatever would come. In letting go, I opened to receive.
Taking a retreat away from daily life is one way of honoring our need for quiet and stillness. But our greater need is to build spaces for quiet and stillness into our daily lives. It can seem almost impossible to claim “retreat time” at home, surrounded by tasks and people and many concerns.
In my Quaker tradition, we gather together in the quiet. We engage in silent worship every Sunday. It’s an expectant waiting worship, trusting that the Spirit is present, expecting that we will receive something through spoken messages or from deep within us. But there, too, the noise in my head can be clamorous and jangling. I need the community’s silent support, gathering me up in a group experience of opening to God.
In some Jewish traditions, there are detailed rules for Sabbath regulating travel and acts of work. Those who observe the rules are building opportunity for quiet, for a pause in their lives. I need a Sabbath practice to help me remember how I want to live. Could I be internet-free and refrain from text or email one day each week? Would this help me build space in my life for quiet?
There are many practices that open us to the Divine. There is music and the spoken word, there is fellowship and service. All these are important. The path we too often ignore is the way of silence and stillness.