…if you receive my words
and treasure my commands
Turning your ear to wisdom,
inclining your heart to understanding;
If you seek her like silver,
and like hidden treasures search her out,
Then will you understand the fear of the Lord;
the knowledge of God you will find;
Then you will understand what is right and just,
what is fair, every good path;
For wisdom will enter your heart,
knowledge will be at home in your soul…
–From the second chapter of the book of Proverbs
About once a month I take a long walk, to a spot at the edge of a field where there is no one with a half-mile of me in any direction. I stand there and listen. To the distant sound of traffic on 422, to the wind stirring in the leaves overhead, to the chitter of cicadas in the summer and the whistling of the cardinals in the winter. To God.
I might be alone in the silence, but these days I’m not alone in my desire to seek it out. Recently there was an article in the Philadelphia Inquirer about the growing popularity of silent retreats, as people seek to escape the noise and frenzy of daily life. While many people today might associate silent meditation retreats with Buddhism or other Eastern traditions, there is a long tradition of silence in Catholicism as well.
Reflecting on the many Christian religious orders that practice a discipline of silence Jesuit Father Federico Lombardi points out that silence is not just for the women and men who have chosen a cloistered contemplative life. “Reflection, meditation, contemplation are as necessary as breathing,” he said. “Time for silence — external but above all internal — are a premise and an indispensable condition for it.”
Silence lets us turn our ears to God’s wisdom, gives us time to search out the treasures hidden within.
While you don’t need to go on retreat to find pockets of silent time to spend with God, a dedicated time of retreat in a place apart from our daily rounds can help make those spaces easier to identify in our everyday lives.
Silent retreats can be short, as short as a few hours, or last several days or a week. Five years ago, I spent a month in silence, making the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola in a secluded retreat house on the Atlantic coast. In January, I spent an hour of grace-filed silence as part of an evening of reflection at the IHM Center right here in Bryn Mawr. The month spent listening to God was a tremendous gift but even the hour taken from the start of a frenzied semester contained blessings beyond counting.
If you are encouraged to find more time in silence to listen with God, but not quite sure you want to dive into a weekend retreat or are not able to get away from home, here is one way to try taking some silent time without leaving home.
Schedule an hour (or perhaps less if you are new at this) and find a place where you can sit or walk undisturbed. A park or a church are obvious spots, but I’ve walked through Philadelphia, and sat in libraries in bad weather. St. Ignatius advises starting a time of prayer by praying for a particular grace, so before you head out to walk with God, or sit down with Jesus, ask for what you desire in this time of prayer. Wisdom, strength, forgiveness? Then listen to what God has to say back. Gently, without strain. At the end of the time you have set aside, say an Our Father.
Know that silence in a retreat, even one as short as what I suggest here, is not always a gentle or consoling experience. It can feel dry or empty as if God is not there at all, or it may open the door to a distracting cascade of images and thoughts — at times I feel as if my to-do list starts dancing the macarena as soon as I sit down to pray.
Even Jesus had a hard time when he retreated to the desert for 40 days. A directed silent retreat offers time each day to talk over what is happening in prayer with someone who is familiar with the church’s long history of contemplative prayer and meditation and who can direct you to helpful advice drawn from this tradition.
“Give yourself to prayer at intervals, as you would to food,” advised St. Comghall, a 6th century monk honored as one of the 12 apostles of Ireland. Find some time with God to let wisdom enter your heart and knowledge make itself a sure home in your soul.
I ask the Father to give me an intimate knowledge of the many gifts I have received, that filled with gratitude for all, I may in all things love and serve the Divine Majesty. — St. Ignatius of Loyola, Spiritual Exercises no. 233
Margaret Rizza’s “Silent, surrendered”:
Going on retreat: A beginner’s guide to the Christian retreat experience. Margaret Silf, Loyola Press. A practical guide to the various kinds of Christian retreats, including silent retreats.
In Pennsylvania, A Quick Shot of Peace on a Budget. Writer Susan Gregory’s account of a five-day directed silent retreat at the Jesuit Center
Places to try some silence while on retreat locally:
IHM Conference Center in Bryn Mawr is a ministry of the Sisters, Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary. Many options for short, day-long retreats, or evenings of reflection, which offer some periods of silence.
Malvern Retreat House offers a wealth of options for retreats, from evenings of reflection to weekend retreats.
The Jesuit Center in Wernersville offers a wide range of silent retreats, from short weekend retreats in the fall to longer silent retreats in the spring and summer. You can even go for just one or two nights if they have the space, meals included. There are many lovely paths to walk. Do ask ahead of time for spiritual direction if this is your first time trying an extended period of silence.
Michelle Francl-Donnay is a member of Our Lady of Good Counsel Parish, Bryn Mawr.