Today I see that I’ve become a snob of silence.
My bestie C invited me to join in her faith community’s Quiet Day today. Well, Quiet Chunk, since we began 10ish and will knock off somewhere around 2. As we waited for our formal starting, I overheard various half-laughing, half-nervous comments about how the day is ‘quiet’ and not ‘silent.’ “I could never do ‘silent’.” The flurry of whispers right after the opening blessing lend force to that…
…though after those few minutes, I’m finding their (our) silence calmly pervasive. What is it about silence that’s so worrisome to us? That we have to disavow it?
In the early 2000s (2002? 2004? I refuse to look it up right now) I went on a weekend version of the Spiritual Exercises of Saint Ignatius. My Sweetie had gone the year before; he’d done many as he was growing up Jesuit (joke!), and was craving a centering he knew he could find there.
I knew nothing. Except that they held a rule of silence, and I would be there four days. (It’s the shortest form.) Still, I don’t remember feeling intimidated. Perhaps I extrapolated from my times in the woods growing up Girl Scout, or from my introvert’s delight in spending time in my room. Though I wasn’t bringing books or needlework or other diversions this time.
Four days of silence was straightforward. I quickly adjusted to communication by gesture, both absorbing and reflecting the warmth our temporary community of silence generated. There were sounds in our times of divine reading, in the open spaces outdoors, in the water against the dock and shore.
At the same time, this silent contemplation forcefully threw myself against myself. Hurts from my teens I had combed through many times rose again, unfolding in different ways. My strongest memory is of taking the most abject prayer posture–face-down on the floor, arms out to the sides–and praying an inchoate desire for mercy and understanding…mine, God’s, something. This was not a time I felt God’s direct touch or heard God’s spoken voice, though I’m pretty sure I’d hoped for that electric charge of revelation.
It was a wonderful retreat. It centered me, as it had My Sweetie. And because? it was not all sunlight and roses, it added a counterweight into my faith that helped sustain me into the next decade. Like my boss at the time wistfully commented, “It was good. I don’t know why I haven’t gone back.”
I think the worry about silence may arise from a lack of practice. In my hands-on parenting life, and in my life as a paid worker, silence was more scarce than hen’s teeth. As an urban person, I have no outdoor work to perform (perhaps) in silence. Any silence I might encounter I have to go get and bring back. No wonder that we practice silence so little!
Before I left on that retreat, I was intrigued by its deep dive into silence. It was, in a way, an adventure, and I strode into it as such. And afterwards, just as after other adventures, I straightened up and said: Well, I’ve tackled that, and I know its contours. I can tackle it again.
It hasn’t stopped surprising me, the number of things we humans must practice in order to drop our fears and worries. If I hadn’t experienced those days of warmth and gesture, I too would likely worry over meeting people, over passing the salt and pepper, of sharing and emptying spaces all in silence. Or worry over sitting patiently as the friction of myself against myself rubbed me raw, with no sounds to mute or distract me. Having practiced it once, I enjoy practicing again. I can share the silent warmth my retreat friends shared with me, over and over again.