Our days of silent retreat had a rhythm, and for me, that contributed to the depth of the experience. The schedule held the day in a scaffold that allowed me to be present to the sunrise and deepening day and sunset and night and meals and centering and sleep – all within that cycle.
I got up around five so that I could sit by the lake before our first centering prayer periods. Sometimes I would get out there before the vapor light would blink off. I could hear the traffic of people driving to work and be grateful for the time away from the rush and hurry and obligations of typical life in the world. I’d have a cup of coffee that one of my fellow retreatants had brewed (whoever got up first made the coffee), and I’d sit with the lake and the ducks and goose and turtles and various birds swooping about.
Our first centering prayer sessions were at 6:30 AM. We’d all gather in our circle in the basement room, waiting for the three chimes on the Tibetan singing bowl to indicate the beginning of our centering prayer session. Then someone would read a psalm for the group, followed by a single chime, and we’d be in silence together for 20 minutes. At the end of the 20-minute period, signaled by a single chime, the group would stand together and take a slow, meditative walk around the room. And then we’d have two more 20-minute sits (begun and ended by the single chime) with a walk in between. The leader would ring the bowl with three more chimes to indicate the end of the session. We’d have spent one hour in centering prayer. And leave in silence individually. Sometimes I’d sit a long time after a session, and sometimes I’d leave fairly quickly. It depended on the depth of the session. No two were alike.
We’d have breakfast at 8. In silence, of course. Then we could do whatever we liked until the next hour of centering prayer (three 20-minute “sits”) at 10:30. Sometimes I’d nap. Sometimes I’d write in my journal. Sometimes I’d sit on a bench by the lake until the day heated up. Once I walked the labyrinth. After our three more centering prayer sessions at 10:30, we’d have lunch (in silence) at noon. Then I’d take a nap most days, and journal, and go to the 45-minute yoga session that Sister Mary offered at 2. At 3 o’clock we’d have the last of our centering prayer sessions (three 20-minute “sits”). We’d have supper (yes, this is the South. I’m sure they have “dinner” at northern retreat centers) at 5:50. In silence. The Eucharist was at 7:15. After that, I’d sit by the lake on some evenings until the bats came out. And some evenings I’d go straight back to my room and get ready for bed. It seemed everyone went to bed early. I seldom heard anyone up (the floors were very creaky, so you could tell if people were walking around) after about 9:30. And then it was up again at 5 the next morning for another day held in the scaffold of our schedule.
I liked the rhythm of the days. I was never bored. Just being was plenty to “do” for me. I felt safe and comfortable in that deep silence. Retreats are set up so that you gradually go into the deep silence and gradually emerge from it. So the centering prayer sessions at the beginning and end of the retreat are shorter. And you can talk at the beginning and end of the retreats. The silence is in the middle. But that’s what we were all there for. The deep silence, what they call “the Grand Silence.”
The silence scared me on my first centering prayer retreat 12 years ago. I’ve had retreats that were very difficult, ones in which I was very anxious and jumpy. But as I age, the retreats have settled for me. Because I have settled. This one was very deep, very calm. I think that has to do with my just having gone through breast cancer treatments. The treatments and their effects were like having back-to-back retreats, several of them, very intense ones. I let go of a lot during my cancer journey. Much more than I’ve ever let go of during a retreat. I could tell at this retreat how very much I am changed. In a good way.
So I could go on this retreat and truly be in the silence without wanting to escape it. Because I’m so much more comfortable with myself. I don’t need to escape myself anymore. That’s quite the blessing, isn’t it?
Though I’m back in the world and outside the rhythm of the retreat now, I still carry that week with me. The silence permeated me. It’s a part of me, even if I’m surrounded by people and noise. That’s what retreat is supposed to do. Let you change while you’re there, but also give you something to bring back with you. In you.
And so I did.