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Do you need peace and quiet to hear God?

11 May 2018

Four retreat experts explain the value of silence


Barry Preece

ONE of my favourite sayings is attributed to St Teresa of Ávila: “To offer our Lord a perfect hospitality, Martha and Mary must combine.” It applies to individuals no less than Christian communities.

If we spend all our time in the prayer group and are never helping out in the kitchen, perhaps we need to think again. Most people find it more difficult to step aside from constant activity, however, and be still and silent for a while.

I am passionate about the need for people to take care of themselves, if they are to make a positive and creative contribution to society. Without reflection, how do we assess the value of our activity? Without times of stillness, how do we replenish our energy and restore ourselves for the tasks ahead?

The stillness and silence of a retreat may well make us feel that God is absent. We may have no sense of his presence, or that he has anything to say to us. Spending time being open and attentive, however, will make us far more attuned to recognising his presence and his voice in the people and the events of our everyday lives — where, I believe, he is most often to be found.

As someone who enjoys photography, I have learnt that the best way to take good photographs is to go for a long walk without my camera. It can be frustrating, because there are always those “if only” moments; but the purpose of the exercise is to really look and appreciate the wonder of all that surrounds me.

In other words, I need to give time to fall in love with my subject before I can hope to do it justice.

It may seem an odd analogy, but I invariably return from a retreat finding myself more fully engaged with the people and tasks awaiting me.

The Revd Barry Preece is chairman of the Association for Promoting Retreats (APR) and the Retreat Association. www.promotingretreats.org; www.retreats.org.uk

Alison Woolley

FINDING your long-term retreat home is a gentle and gradual journey. You’ll probably try several places before discovering one that’s just right for you. Yet by noticing what does and doesn’t nourish you in each, you’ll learn things to help you settle into a safe rhythm on future silent retreats.

“Less is more” was an important lesson for me. In his book Everything Belongs, Richard Rohr talks about Jesus’s instruction to go into our rooms and close the door as naming our need for a place where, voluntarily under-stimulated, we can encounter God.

If this was necessary in first-century Israel, it is even more so today, when we are continually bombarded by information, images, and sound. Time for processing our experiences is a luxury that we long for, but rarely use well when we have it.

Although friends talked of the extent of their “retreat reading”, an elderly lady offered me this advice: “Take only a book of short reflections. Read one a day, at most.” Something like Benignus O’Rourke’s Finding Your Hidden Treasure is ideal.

With little to read, at first I felt bored with so much time on my hands. What was I supposed to do with it all? Many retreat centres have art rooms, and this space to explore beyond words can be liberating and transformational.

One day, however, I realised I was over-using them — and long walks, too — to fill my time. I was keeping myself busy doing: not allowing myself to remember what it is to be a human being.

Eventually, I understood the old lady’s wisdom. On retreat, our minds need space to rest from their constant force-feeding, not for more to be added. Now, I don’t take any books apart from my simple daily office, and, along with clocks, have abandoned all thought of what I “should” or “ought to” do.

Instead, on silent retreat, rediscover listening to your body: sleep and eat when it wants to. Halve your walking pace, and delight in nature. Find a tender balance between intentional prayer times and just resting with God. There is nothing else you need to do.

Dr Alison Woolley is the director of Seeds of Silence. www.seedsofsilence.org.uk

Christopher Chapman

I HAD been accepted for training as a Roman Catholic priest. I arrived at the seminary for my first day. A steep climb of steps led to large wooden doors opening to a cavernous hallway. With other newcomers, I was shepherded to the chapel, where a clock ticked like a heartbeat.

The Rector stood up and told us what a momentous and irreversible step we were taking. Then my first experience of a silent retreat began. I was terrified. Later in the day, I took refuge in the village store, seeking some normality. There, skulking in the aisles, were two of my fellow retreatants. We looked around to make sure we weren’t under observation, and then introduced ourselves. It was good to talk.

Paradoxically, since that unhelpful first experience, I have accompanied many people through silent, individually guided retreats (IGRs). The purpose of silence is not to intimidate, nor to set a test of endurance, but to provide the space to become aware of the deepest stirrings and longings of the heart.

An IGR starts, as God always does, from where we are. There is no fixed agenda. Spiritual directors usually meet each person they guide daily. They explore together the thoughts, feelings, and insights that arise in the silence.

From what has been shared, suggestions of prayer exercises are made for the coming day: Bible passages that connect with the person’s journey; a walk of awareness using all the senses; or time in an art space, expressing what is not so easily captured in words.

What emerges is often unexpected: a deep-down longing that has never seen the light of day; a new awareness of self, and the life choices that arise from this; freedom from an oppressive fear; and a fresh awareness of God’s being with them and for them.

Although silence is initially unsettling for many, it soon becomes a healer. In our busy, driven lives we can stay with generalities, not looking too deep. This is safe, but isolating. In silence, we can no longer outrun our confusions, questions, and desires. It is a relief to be met as we really are, with kindness and purposefulness, by the God who desires our flourishing.

Christopher Chapman is a spiritual director, retreat leader, and former spirituality adviser for the diocese of Southwark. www.christopherchapmanspirituality.co.uk

Anne Samuels

WHEN I went on my first retreat, I was shocked to discover that I wasn’t going to be able to talk to anyone. I was scared stiff. Silence felt like a vacuum.

I soon discovered it to be exactly the opposite. As I made space for stillness and scripture, I discovered the dynamism of God.

That was 30 years ago. Since then, I have been on, and led, other retreats, and have become convinced that times of silence can be life-changing — whatever our personality type.

Of course, as soon as you go into silence, you discover all sorts of thoughts whirling around in your head (positive and negative). Don’t panic. If you choose a retreat with a prayer-guide/spiritual director to support you, he or she will listen to any concerns and suggest ways forward. But there are practical things you can do, too:

  • Slow down. Walk slowly (notice things); eat slowly (taste your food); let yourself rest, and don’t worry if you go to sleep.
  • Work out a structure for your day. Allow plenty of space for rest and exercise and specific prayer-periods, usually centred on a Bible passage (one or two prayer periods of about 45 minutes each day is enough to start with).
  • Find a way to settle down at the beginning of each prayer-period. For example, awareness of your breathing; of different parts of your body; of sounds around you. When you feel distracted by random thoughts, or aches and pains, just let them be. Then return to your breathing, etc.
  • Keep a note of what emerges from each period, or day.

Silent retreats have been the backbone of my ministry. Sometimes, I’ve felt as if I’m wasting time; sometimes, strong feelings have surfaced. But, always, I have been challenged to a deeper commitment to Christ and his world.

Whoever you are, and whatever your situation, the precious gift of silence is waiting for you. If you want the gospel to move from your head to your heart, take the risk and book a silent retreat.

Canon Anne Samuels is a spiritual director, retreat leader, and recently retired chaplain at Foxhill House, Chester diocese’s spirituality centre.

Silent retreats:

The Sisters of St Andrew, in Lewisham, south-east London, offer individually guided silent retreats. There are also two organised silent retreats this year: a three- to eight-day silent retreat with personal accompaniment (IGR), from 27 July to 5 August, and a silent retreat for beginners (with personal accompaniment) from 26 to 28 October.

020 8852 1662; www.sisters-of-st-andrew.com.

Douai Abbey, Woolhampton, in Berkshire, offers silent retreats for individuals by arrangement, as well as one group silent retreat weekend annually.

0118 971 5399 (Guestmaster), 0118 971 5300; www.douaiabbey.org.uk.

Worth Abbey, Turner’s Hill, in West Sussex, has a few guest rooms within the monastery for male visitors. Meals are taken with the monks, in silence, and the monastic day centres around the rhythm of Divine Office and daily mass. The Open Cloister, at Worth Abbey, runs retreats for men and women at St Bruno’s retreat house. They are running silent retreats on 21-24 May; 16-19 July; 3-6 September; and 5-8 November.

01342 710318; www.worthabbey.net.

Ampleforth Abbey, Yorkshire, is running a retreat with times of silence from 29 May to 1 June, and again from 10 to 12 September.

01439 766000; www.hpo.ampleforth.org.uk.

St Beuno’s Jesuit Spirituality Centre, St Asaph, Wales, offers different types of silent retreat (there are 13 starting or finishing in June, for example).

01745 583444; www.pathwaystogod.org/org/st-beunos.

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