Sunday, 8 July 2012

A Reluctant Retreatant

It was time for a silent retreat
I knew it. 
My overstretched mind and body knew it. 
My crazy overstuffed diary knew it.
Other (very spiritual) people seemed to be doing them.
Ministers are actively encouraged to do them and there was even a budget in our Ministry Team for doing one....Something about a gift horse...?

Going on past experience, however, I was not fully convinced I was cut out for the experience.
I tried silence on the pre-Ordination retreats but it didn't really work for me.
This was less to do with the actual concept and more to do with being 'on retreat' with 23 other fun people whom you know well, in a place which is rather familiar; in fact, in a place where you remember staying up quite late together on other occasions being very noisy in the bar. Drinking. Talking endlessly. And singing Abba songs. 

Furthermore, being in a confined space, in silence, with people you know well, who occasionally wink or snort in chapel because they can't do silence either, makes for rather a giggly time. (Okay, it was probably just me but I felt I'd failed miserably and couldn't wait for the 'silence' to be over on both occasions.)

So when I found myself in a Retreat House miles from home in a place I'd never been to before, with five days of silence spreading out before me, I naturally felt a bit apprehensive.
Here were my main fears about silence:

  • I have a preference for extroversion and like all forms of communication. Especially verbal. Retreats are for introverts.
  • I don't much like being alone and I get bored easily. Retreats are for people who like their own company; those ones who look at the floor when someone new introduces themselves.
  • I like being busy and achieving things on a daily basis. Retreats are full of nothing much to do.
  • I am a social media fan. On a retreat you really need to turn your smartphone off or you will reveal yourself to be a total lightweight.
  • I was worried I would miss my family and let them down by being unavailable. They would think I was losing it/experimenting with becoming a nun or something worse.

So...all in all, not a great candidate really...

And yet...

And yet... I rather enjoyed it...

Actually, I REALLY enjoyed it.

Here are some things I learnt (or in the jargon, 'the graces I received'):

  • I rush through life and need to slow down. I even walk fast everywhere, in tune with the restless pace of my thoughts. - this slowly changed over five days.
  • Multi-tasking and having a smartphone have robbed me of the ability to pay proper attention to any one thing. By 'attention' I mean deep, focussed awareness that enables you to 'see' things as God might.
  • Being connected to social media makes you think differently. This may not be an altogether good thing. E.g. I would see something beautiful, like a fat pink foxglove with a bee buzzing inside, and I would think 'That would make a good status update/photo/instagram snap for Twitter.'...... then I would think, 'oh, I have my phone switched off: well, I'll just sit here and thank God for this precious moment instead.' Revolutionary, huh? Just me and God and nobody else, but of great value nonetheless.
  • You can feel companionship with other people as you sit and share meals in silence. You may not speak, or know anything about them, but you still have fellowship together. This feeds the spirit.
  • You can feel companionship with other pilgrims by reading intensely about their lives, once Twitter, Facebook, texts and emails are not interrupting you. I enjoyed many an hour in the company of the famous Trappist Monk, Thomas Merton, and felt I got to know him well. He kept me company. My life was enriched by his journey. Long book*. Amazing man.
  • I need to buy a watch.
  • My body clock adjusted to natural light timing; I went to sleep and got up much earlier than usual. Minor miracle: I was sat in a chair praying by 7.30am on the final day. And enjoying it. This is almost unheard of for me.
  • The exterior silence enabled an interior silence which is a prerequisite for listening prayer, for adoration, for contemplation. I never thought I could do contemplation but in the end it just happened.
For those of you for whom all this is entirely elementary, forgive the initial misgivings and the now evangelical enthusiasm; but for a once reluctant retreat-er, I can see this silence thing is going to become, God willing, an annual event.

*The Seven Storey Mountain

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