By Michelle Francl-Donnay
He would withdraw to deserted places to pray.
– Lk. 5:16b
Earlier this spring, a friend wondered if I would write more about what it is like to be on a long silent retreat. This account of my travels to the silent land is an invitation to taste – or for those who have been, a reminder – the graces to be found there.
Elected silence, sing to me
And beat upon my whorlèd ear,
Pipe me to pastures still and be
The music that I care to hear
– Gerard Manley Hopkins, S.J. from The Habit of Perfection
Tuesday, 5:45 a.m.: I posted this tidbit of Hopkins as my status on Facebook, then walked to the station, more lines of Hopkins’ running through my mind. In the warm stillness I sense the Holy Ghost brooding over the bent world, stirring day into being. It seems retreat starts now.
7 p.m.: We gather in the fireplace room, poised to begin in earnest. We pray, then stand for introductions. Silence already settling over us, we are spare of words. Our directors beckon, offer a brief reflection and arrange times to meet. I claim an afternoon slot, sheepishly confessing that I inhabit the night on retreat. We scatter and the silence descends.
Wednesday: Finishing my shower, I hear a plaintive, “There must be lights here somewhere.” I break my own silence to tell the anonymous questioner where to look. In this old house, higher up the walls than you would expect. This silence is not meant to be a burden, but a freedom.
1:15 p.m.: Meeting with my director for the first time, we speak about what brought me to retreat and how I approach prayer. I’ve forgotten a hat, and she loans me a battered baseball cap. A good director makes it easier to see – in this case both the ocean and God.
9:30 p.m.: A storm crashes in. I sit in the chapel, wrapped in my shawl, safe within its rocky fastness, then retreat to the dining room for hot chocolate. I scratch a few notes about my prayer as the wind rattles the windows. I wonder what things this retreat will shake up in my life.
Thursday, 12:20 p.m.: I page through my journal and sift through my prayer, looking for threads, jotting notes before I see my director. I stick them to the front of my journal, then never once refer to them in our half-hour conversation.
Friday, 4:30 a.m.: I wake with a start; dawn has just begun to color the sky. I grab my camera and clamber out onto the rocks. The dawn over the Atlantic is stunning. Yet when I turn it’s the moon, full and rose colored from the rays of the sun I do not yet see, that captures my attention – what marvels might I see, if I were to simply look at life from a different direction? Long after the sun has breached the horizon, I’m still there. Praying.
9 a.m.: The dining room is hushed, though a half dozen of us are sprinkled about the tables. I wait for the kettle to boil. Behind me I hear the water running into the coffee maker, the drip and hiss as it hits the pot, the metallic shru-ush of the bread descending, to rise again with a ding as toast. This is the music of Matins in this silent place.
5 p.m. Mass: We’ve struggled to master a haunting plainchant. Today the celebrant quips, “we’ll sing it Al Capone.” It seems a gentle way to say he expects we’ll murder it without the support of the piano. He counsels us to sing lightly, be attentive to each other and be willing to fish around a bit for the notes. We sound marvelous. On retreat profound preaching is not confined to the homily.
Tuesday, 3:25 p.m.: When the first raindrop falls I hurry inside. Never mind that I was settled into my chair; after a week, I’m attentive to the first stirrings of many things. Water sluices off the roof in shimmering sheets of silk. The waters of the cove emerge, then the shoal on the far side. Here we sit, drenched in grace, waiting for the veil to lift, for clarity.
10:40 p.m.: A last hour’s meditation in the chapel. Back in my room the bare flicker of the Presence Lamp seen through my window reminds that I sleep under God’s eye, here – and I realize, always.
Wednesday, 2:12 p.m.: On the train, headed home. A torrent of words pours forth from a man holding a battered tweed suitcase. From the cradled silence of the last eight days I am lavishly flung forth into the world.
We are cradled close in Your hands – and lavishly flung forth.
– Rainer Maria Rilke, Book of Pilgrimages
Michelle Francl-Donnay is a member of Our Mother of Good Counsel Parish in Bryn Mawr. She can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.