I once avoided silence; at times, even feared it. Now I relish the silence, seek it out, embrace it and the gifts it provides. I begin most days in solitary meditation and spend many of my hours in silence, writing or working in my art studio.
So why, then, do I travel for three hours at the end of January each year to retreat with other Quakers in silence? This weekend Silent Retreat sponsored by my Quarterly Meeting has become one of my rituals to bring in a new year. This year, thirty-two of us gathered at our usual spot, a rustic camp at the edge of a state park. After a potluck dinner and introductions on Friday evening, we entered into silence to pray, journal, walk, read, prepare meals, sleep, eat, and worship together.
This year’s retreat was a wet one. The air was warm, almost like spring, and the rain was unrelenting. The rhythm of its patter on the cabin’s metal roof directed me to relax, reflect, and forget the clock. One of the disciplines I follow at the silent retreat is to re-read my spiritual journal of the past year. I read with attention to themes; I log the titles of books and articles I referred to during the year; and I recall the events that I recorded in my journal pages.
On Saturday morning, I followed the rain’s instructions so well that I nearly missed lunch. Absorbed in reviewing my journal, I was only vaguely aware of the leavings and returnings of others to my dorm’s common room. A subtle scent of tomatoes and onions circled the soft couch as someone sat down next to me. Thinking it was noon, I shuffled to my bunk in the next room and checked my clock; its digital face read 1:17. I gathered my dishes and side-stepped mud puddles to the dining hall. The soup on the lunch menu was gone, but I feasted on cheese; bread; a crunchy, sweet, russet-skinned pear; and a wedge of peanut butter cookie.
Back in the cabin’s common room after my late lunch, a fire glowed in the tiny wood stove. Rain-slicked hooded jackets in red, green, purple, and fluorescent lemon hung over hooks, doors, and chairs. I had no desire to leave the dry warmth, content with my journal and books in the company of silent Friends. Being with others in silence, together without interacting verbally, close to others without the pressure of interacting, is a relief for me. There’s an intimacy in sharing space without sharing words. There are a number of regulars at this retreat that I see only here. I don’t know many details of their lives—the kind of work they do, whether they have children, what organizations they belong to, whether they garden or are marathon runners— yet I feel I know them, and am known by them, more deeply than many people I see daily or weekly.
The silence of the weekend carried me to different places; to a depth of being I rarely get to in a typical day. I listened—not to music or voices, but to the groaning pines, the whispering wind, the rumbling river. I listened to my breath, exhaling out the jangle of sounds that usually surround me and inhaling, inhaling deeply and sinking into my meditation. Resting one sense took me to an awareness I usually don’t get to with my daily times of worship. During this year’s journal review, words I’d read and written in the past spoke to me in new ways. Ideas I’d considered, but put aside, re-surfaced with new urgency and clarity. Now I was ready for them when I hadn’t been before. The silence cleared space for God’s presence to enfold and guide me.
Forty hours of not talking, not putting my thoughts into spoken words, not listening to others’ spoken words, brought me to the doorway, beyond the doorway, into sustained connection with Spirit. This year, that connection bestowed peace and renewal.