My sister asked me this the other night:
“So what do you DO on a silent retreat?”
It’s a good question, one that worried me tremendously on my first silent retreat 14 years ago.
On centering prayer retreats and spiritual direction retreats (like the one I went on last week at the Benedictine Sisters Retreat Center, Sacred Heart Monastery, Cullman, Alabama), the leaders suggest you don’t read or use electronic devices. The point of these retreats is to be with yourself and God, the expressions of this higher power. Reading and checking email and Facebook and even crocheting or sewing are ways we can try to escape ourselves, just as watching television or surfing the internet or cleaning or a myriad other activities can be.
If you’re willing to let go of your habitual escapes, on a silent retreat you can go deep enough for thoughts and worries and all of the clutter in your mind to settle – at least somewhat.
It takes time for this settling to occur, though. For me, this last retreat from Monday through Friday wasn’t quite long enough for the deep settling. But perhaps that was partially because I didn’t feel called to the deepest parts of myself this time.
As for the initial question, what do you DO?
Well, you have time to get comfortable with being. I like to be outside in nature, and this last week was a real blessing for that, as July in the South is usually unbearably hot during the day. But last week was nearly perfect.
On Wednesday, the middle day of our retreat, it was very temperate and not humid at all. So I spent nearly all day outside. I was up at dawn to watch the sun bring light to the lake. I did a couple of centering prayer sits. I had breakfast on the patio. I walked the labyrinth two or three times. I wrote in my journal. I reflected on my dreams and my life. I tried to be present to what was around me, to the trees and flowers and birds and bugs, to be in my body, to allow myself to feel my feelings and not try to escape them.
And I slept a lot.
I told my sister how in each one of my silent retreats, I feel exhausted. I’ve had leaders tell me it’s because letting go and going deeply into ourselves is hard work. Typically on a silent retreat, I take two or three naps a day, sometimes long naps of a couple of hours. I go to bed earlier than at home. I dream deeply. I always have some really interesting, involved dreams that give me a window into my subconscious self, to what is concerning me and to how I can grow.
Sometimes I do read a little at night from a spiritual book. But I’m not reading to escape. I’m reading for prompts, for nudges toward growth. Because I find that the book I take is synchronous with what I need at the time of my retreat.
And I write in my journal. On some retreats I write a lot, on some I write very little. It depends on whether the retreat stirs up junk or helps it settle.
On this spiritual direction retreat, I met with my spiritual director for an hour on each of the middle three days. That gave me some input on what I was experiencing, a focusing conversation.
This retreat was much more unstructured than a centering prayer retreat. Really, the only structure was meeting with our spiritual directors and lunch and dinner (because breakfast was on our own with food provided in the retreat house). That openness was very inviting for me because I could follow my intuition as to how I wanted to spend my time. We could go to services with the nuns, but I didn’t choose that. Liturgy has been dry for me for several years now.
Yes, there were other retreatants. This time there were six of us. We’d see each other in the kitchen or coming or going or on the grounds or in one of the chapels. We ate lunch and dinner in silence together. After I got used to being in silence with others on my first silent retreat, silence hasn’t felt awkward. It doesn’t seem it would be this way, but even in silence, you feel each others’ support. I suppose it’s because you’re all there for the same reasons, at least at the root.
We are there to be.
And that takes me back to the question, so what do you DO on a silent retreat?
You practice being.
Not that you are present the whole time. But you allow yourself the time and space to learn to be, to get a little comfortable with it.
And you bring some of that being back with you into your everyday world when the retreat is over.
So the retreat helps you both during the retreat and in your everyday life after it.
One day, I hope to have that presence – that being – nearly all of the time, in every situation in my life.
But for now, I’ll practice it a little at a time. Except for during retreats, when I can take a crash course.
A crash course that I hope will help me grow in presence, that will give me some presence to bring back with me.