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What To Do With 192 Hours (Give or Take) of Silence aka What Is a Silent Retreat Like?

As a self-professed, recovering people addict and extreme extrovert, if you had told me I would ever register for a silent retreat for any length of time, I would have assured you that you had mistaken me for someone else. Strange then, to find myself this past summer at an eight-day silent retreat (for a refresher on why I was there, see my previous post).

The phrase “silent retreat” evokes all kinds of quizzical and exclamatory reactions, but quite honestly, silence was not even the most noteworthy trait of the week. I suppose it is called that because it is the most convenient term for it. But, in actuality, it was a week of freedom birthed by the boundaries the silence created – but “Eight-Day Ignatian Retreat Where You Finally Feel Human Again Because You Finally Have the Freedom to Just Be” is a bit unwieldy for marketing purposes.

This discovery of freedom began with my first meal shortly after I arrived. I was able to enjoy a delicious meal in peace–without having to make small talk, worry about whether the friend who had joined me felt included, wonder if others were judging me for my outfit or personality, or anything else. For once, I could be present with and savor every bite, instead of shoveling it into my mouth as usual, i.e. multitasking in front of my computer.

Additionally, every delectable meal was one that I did not have to plan, shop for, cook, or do the dishes for. My every basic need was taken care of–food, water (and yes, plenty of coffee for those who consider that a basic need), an adequately comfortable bed in sparsely decorated but safe and simple lodging. I went off the grid, with just an evening check for emergency texts, and had no responsibilities other than to just BE. I had the freedom to be with God…and to be with me. To just BE me.

I was free to walk the gardens or labyrinth, read, sleep, write, or exercise whenever I felt like it. I was free to drive ten minutes to the beach and glory in God’s creation and talk to him about it or anything else. I was even free to take a shower…or not – because who was going to be close enough to smell me if I did not (I did though, out of the sheer pleasure, rather than the usual social expectation)? Without the tyranny of technology, chaos, noise, and daily life, I encountered a kind of existence hitherto unbeknownst to me–a “lightness of being,” but unlike Milan Kundera’s novel, it was not only bearable, it was deeply satisfying.

I was even free to be in community, even in the midst of solitude. Optional Masses and creative worship services were offered every morning and every other evening so that I could worship with Catholic sisters in Christ for my first time ever. In passing, we would smile or nod a silent greeting; each of us was on our own journey with Jesus, but we were traveling together.

It was in this spaciousness of time and space that I finally found the deep rest and living water that I was inwardly craving and thirsting. Each day after breakfast, I had a 45-minute spiritual direction session (so I obviously did speak during those times). At the end of each session, my spiritual director would give me a few passages to read and reflect on. As I read and meditated on them, walked, prayed, and journaled, Jesus met me at his well of living water each day. Over the span of the eight days, he began to teach me a new way to live.

When the time came to leave, I cried. I was torn between a readiness to return and a burning desire to continue on in freedom. Like Peter at the Mount of Transfiguration, I contemplated cutting a deal with Jesus to build some huts at the retreat center so that we could all live happily ever after. But I knew, like the labyrinth I had walked many times, that I could not remain forever at the center with Jesus, but had to eventually make the journey back out into the real world.

At the end of the week, my burning question was, “How do I keep living like that?” or as my friend Mindy sagely ponders, “How do I find a new way of living in an old way of life?” My question was not so much about escaping from daily requirements, but continuing the experience of a deep presence of and with God.

I am still pondering the answer(s) as I plod along the path leading out of the labyrinth. I have not walked as well as I had hoped upon my return, but I trust that Jesus will guide me because I imagine he wants a new way of life for me even more than I do.

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