“Speak only when it improves upon the silence.” -Gandhi
Silence. It was deafening to my soul most of my life. Truly deafening. I did all that I could to fill the void with noise…constantly initiating conversations, funny jokes, pointless rambling, playing music. Anything. Anything to drown out the silence.
Silence was something I could not understand. Besides being a natural talker, stillness frightened me. Speak only when it improves the silence? A way of being that was so foreign to me. So I turned up the volume, the louder the better. Music, my voice, everything.
And then, in January about 3 years ago, I went on my first ever silent retreat. It was eye-opening, soul-wrenching, and life-transforming.
A painful time in my life had engulfed me, and I was desperate for solitude. Desperate for a way to clear space in my mind and renew my inner strength. A retreat. A silent one. Anyone who knew me, would know just how difficult this would be. My nickname as a child was “Mouth” for goodness sakes. (#nicknamescantraumatize) But something inside was urging me, pushing me to follow this path.
I had remembered an abbey by Geneseo, where I had gone to college many many moons ago. Abbey of the Genesee. It is actually the abbey where they make Monk’s Bread as well. (Maple cinnamon is my favorite). The drive out to the country in winter, with the snow glistening and lighting the way was serene and beautiful.
As I pulled up into the driveway, I understood why people refer to it as “God’s Country.” Quiet. Still. Not a sound. Just acres and acres of rolling blankets of snow. He governs all that is peace and grace for sure. My stomach twinged a little as I gathered my belongings and headed into the retreat house.
I walked through the front door and stood there for a moment gazing around me. I almost turned around and left. Sprinted out the door was more like it. The silence…it was still deafening and extremely terrifying. Almost everything inside of me was telling me to run. “Fight it.” I told myself. Closing my eyes with deep breaths, I took a step forward and then another, and still another.
I would stay. Face fear and stay. I signed in the guest book and found my room assignment on the white board in the hallway. I would be staying on the first floor. My room was very simple. A feeling of nostalgia overcame me as it resembled my grandmother’s bedroom. A simple bed, with a simple blue wool blanket, a simple dresser, and a chair in the corner by the window. There was also a simple desk and a simple half bathroom (thank goodness for that).
I unpacked my things and sat in the chair. Silence. I covered my ears with my hands. Still silence. I squeezed my eyes shut to make it stop. SILENCE. And when that didn’t work…when the silence remained after I had uncovered my ears and opened my eyes, I did the only thing I knew; my only alternative to filling the space with music. I prayed and wrote.
Over the course of that weekend, I would fill my journal with 28 pages of writing and pray a countless amount of prayers.
January 25, 2013 5:11 p.m.
I’ve been here for 3 hours so far on this quiet weekend of solitude. I prayed in the chapel as soon as I arrived. I just sat there in a pew and tears just started flowing. I didn’t even pray yet. I sat in the pew for a half an hour and sobbed. Where the tears were coming from, I did not know…
I went back to my room, curled up in the corner chair with a blanket and watched the snow fall out the window until the dinner bell rang…
Dinner, or supper as they called it at the Abbey, was simple and quite delicious. Eggplant with polenta, salad and cookies for dessert. Again, simple. But perfect. Less is truly more. There was 6 other guests at dinner with me; 3 women and 3 men. The caretaker led us in prayer before we ate. Then they all began to eat…in complete silence. I picked up my fork in a feeble attempt to eat as well. I couldn’t. I began fidgeting in my chair. Looking around at all the other guests. The woman across from me was smiling while she ate. Smiling?? What on earth could she even be smiling about as she sat there alone??
What happened next was terrible. I began to cry. A soft teary sniffle at first…but the more I fought it, the stronger the emotion became. I burst into tears! Loud, sobbing, uncontrollable tears! As I began to rise from the table to clear my plate, the gentleman next to me touched my shoulder to signal that he would take care of my dinner for me.
Silence. It was so piercingly loud. When you are forced to sit in stillness, unresolved issues come to the surface. There are no distractions to push them away. It is just you and yourself. Alone with yourself. Your thoughts, your emotions. I had no where to run. Fight or flight? No. Not this time…instead, it was surrender. Surrendering to a higher power. Surrendering yourself to yourself.
This was the very first time in my life that I realized I did not know how to be truly alone. Not lonely but alone. There is a sense of peace within that one must feel in order to be alone. Clearly, I didn’t possess that peace. Instead, I was an overflowing pot of boiling emotions, spilling and spewing out in every direction.
I retreated to my room for the remainder of the night. I was embarrassed, ashamed, confused, emotionally drained. I decided that in the morning, I would embrace the time alone with myself. But for now, I slept.
And when I awoke…
January 26, 2013 11:00 a.m.
I made it through the night. I awoke a few times, went into the kitchen to make some tea and then fell back asleep. I walked today for about an hour on the grounds. The snow crunched beneath my feet as I wandered down to the frozen pond. Sometimes I think people take winter for granted. It is a time of rest and quiet. The Earth is sleeping, the trees are at peace, and the sounds of a lone bird are heard to remind us that life is still vital and well in the winter. The sun is peeking through the clouds so we remember to have hope and trust in the times ahead. But it also serves as a reminder…as to not forget the beauty in the simplest form that lay before us.
In winter, there is nothing fancy, no showy leaves or brilliant, vibrant flowers. No fresh green grass or abundance of life. Too often, people view this “lack of luster” as depressing and lifeless. But I think they are missing the point. Winter is a time of rest and quiet. But more importantly, it’s God’s way of showing us true beauty.
Just the bones of the earth are seen. I marvel at the way a tree’s form takes shape, branches and twigs intertwining in so many beautiful directions. We miss this honest beauty when she is covered with leaves. I ponder at the grass…short, brown, flat. But maybe, just maybe, this is when the grass can breathe, covered in her blanket of snow. Resting, rejuvenating, revitalizing for her hard work in the coming seasons.
Even the air seems to be speaking in a gentle whisper in winter. What is she saying? What do her whispers mean? She’s saying, “Do not despair…there is hope and restoration ahead. Now is the time for peace and breathing deeply and opening your heart to all that is before you.”
Winter is when the world is naked, totally exposed and revealing the meaning of true beauty.
I closed my journal…and the most peculiar thing happened next. I began to smile. Sitting there in the simple chair, in my simple room. Smiling. I smiled as I reflected on my journey through the snow that morning. I smiled as I closed my eyes, remembering how I knelt in the snow, next to the frozen pond and prayed.
I hadn’t spoken a word in 24 hours…and still had 24 more hours to go. I had tears rolling during lunch while we ate lentil stew and rice. But I toughed it out. I would finish my meal and clear my own plates.
I spent time in the dining room that evening, reading, writing and sipping tea. The silence had begun to quiet down. The more I sat in stillness, the more I could hear. Not all of what I heard was pretty…I dealt with some fairly painful darkness. But in that darkness, I was eventually led to the light. In hindsight, I uncovered that my tears through the silence were a result of self-hate. I couldn’t stand to be alone with myself. I faced some hard truths while I listened to the silence during my stay. But I discovered that my soul had inner beauty and light as well. The process of healing and self-acceptance had begun. It was a step towards emerging in the light. A very solid, hopeful step.
Eye-opening. Soul-wrenching. Life-transforming.
By the time dinner came again, a tranquility settled deep inside. I made it through the entire meal without one tear!! I had become, in that very short time, one of the guests who could smile while she ate. And the gentleman from the day before who helped clear my plates for me? He put his hand on my shoulder, smiled at me with a nod and placed his hand on his heart. Even in silence, you can be heard. I see you. I hear you. You matter. Every life matters. You’re going to be ok.
There was a strong sense of peace at the Abbey’s retreat house. A peace I hadn’t felt since I was a young child walking with my grandmother. Often, I reread my writings from that weekend, reflecting and even making new notes in the margins.
I learned that in order to heal and become whole, you need to practice forgiveness and self-love. (Easier said than done, but still so extremely vital to inner growth). I learned that I need time alone each day in meditation. I have found a peace that grows within from stillness and solitude. It is why I felt in love with the mountains and why I love the ocean so much.
When the mind is quiet, the soul can hear. Then the heart has space to grow and smile.
My smiling was a sign of rebirth. Peace. And the silence never sounded so sweet.
Still I rise…amen.