Sunday, 13 July 2014

Adventures in Silence

Sheep in the fields around LLannerchwen, near Brecon.

My first two tastes of ecclesiastically managed silence were not terribly successful. Anglican Ordinations are always preceded by 'silent' retreats but for these to work, silence really needs to be accompanied by solitude, and a theological college stuffed full of 2 or 3 dozen other retreat-ants, a number of whom have never encountered silence at all and have no idea what to do with it, does not work well; especially for the more extrovert amongst us.

My next proper attempt at silence took me in 2012 to Loyola Hall (now sadly closed) where silence was plentiful, despite the presence of perhaps 20 or so others, but the difference was I didn't know anybody. A guided retreat (this one in the Ignatian tradition) sees you all arrive and eat the first meal together, chatting and settling in, then from day 2 there is silence throughout the building and grounds, except for the acts of worship and 30 minutes of daily one to one spiritual direction. 

Apart from the lovely modern chapel, the building was a bit institutionalised; you needed a bus ride to escape the suburbs; but the Jacuzzi was fun (seriously). I found the evenings long. When you've got no one to talk to, no TV, radio or social media, you do wonder how you can fill all the hours in the day. And silent corridors are very silent. I came away just beginning to glimpse the power of silence to help me enter the presence of God more fully, but it still felt a bit 'difficult' (see here why)

Beautiful Pembrokeshire, near Ffald y Brenin
In 2013, I decided Pembrokeshire was the place for silence. Having heard lots of amazing stories about Ffald y Brenin, a house of prayer in the Welsh hills, I phoned to see if I could be accommodated. They were full 9 months in advance, but after being encouraged to stay off site, like many other hopefuls, and drive in each day for worship and prayer in the chapel, I found a local hotel and, come July 1st, set off down the M4.

Ffald y Brenin was utterly gorgeous, the countryside stunning and the worship in the celtic style round chapel truly uplifting.
Ffald y Brenin. Wonderful worship but not silent.

But it wasn't very silent. There were lots of fascinating visitors (pilgrims) each day and the temptation to be ultra sociable was too much. In addition, down in the valley for the evenings, I lost the impetus to stay silent and instead would come back about 7pm, eat stodgy hotel food, watch three hours of detective shows on the TV and go to bed. 

I learnt a great deal that week about the charismatic and the celtic (and, obviously, Lewis)  - see here
however, real silence was still beckoning.

Welsh hills, and the spirituality of the great outdoors had just begun to seep into my consciousness, so I returned to Wales this summer, and on someone's good advice, got a place booked at Llannerchwen, a small Catholic retreat house run by the Society of the Sacred Heart. This time I would be on site all the time, self catering, and have guaranteed silence from sun up till sun down. 

I was nervous: silence AND solitude - I imagined a blasted hillside with nothing to do but pray, but I was determined 'this would be it'. Llannerchwen was suitably tricky to find, up a long winding track off a 'B' road above Brecon. It was gentler, greener and prettier than I'd imagined, consisting of a small cluster of 'hermitages' and a tiny chapel, with the sisters (all 2 of them) taking it in turns to live on site, alternating with an ecumenical team of lay spiritual directors, so there's always someone 'in' with a warm welcome and friendly advice when you knock on the main house door. You also feel connected in a small way to the others staying there, with a half hour of communal silence in the chapel at 5.30pm.

As soon as I arrived in Llannerchwen and saw the view from my window, and took my first walk across the field to meet the sheep, I realised what I hadn't ever properly understood about 'silence': outdoors at least, it's not ever properly silent. Instead of being an absence, what silence is, is space to be: space to listen to creation, to God and to yourself.

A typical self contained residence at Llannerchwen.

Apart from my 2 requested sessions of spiritual direction, which I found very helpful, my main 'guide' was Sara Maitland (or at least, her book). Maitland is a writer and practising Catholic who has sought out silence in some of the remotest places in Britain, and chronicled the effects of silence on human beings, from long distance sailors to hermits and explorers. I knew that rereading her book 'A Book of Silence' (2008) would help me navigate the hours spent alone without talking to anyone. And it did. 

The real joy was discovering I wanted to be outdoors all the time. I was very lucky with the weather. I took long walks in actual walking boots and read OS maps (very unlike me) and I listened. Mainly to sheep. But also to birds, insects, farm machinery, the odd jet, the wind rustling the grasses. I became attached to the sheep at the bottom of 'my' field'. Ridiculously attached, because they never shut up. Not even at night. It was immensely comforting. 
Easy to pray looking at this: you just sit and think 'wow', and watch the bunnies.

And I had one of those experiences Maitland warns about, towards the middle of the five days, when I knew I'd used up all my own spiritual/emotional resources. Reading was boring, I was tired of walking and tired of the inside of my own head. 

It was Paschal who said 'all man's miseries derive from not being able to sit in a quiet room alone'. It's true. I was thoroughly tired of my poor inner self by then, and low in spirits. I was grateful for the good advice of one of the sisters the following morning, about God's delight in us, and desire to give us everything as a gift. I spent the last day enjoying some more human company in Brecon, glad of the smile of a passerby, the free sunshine, the welcome of an ancient place of worship which cost nothing. Learning that everything that is worth anything in life is free, and that we own too much and consume too much was both freeing and sobering.
St Francis in the herb garden outside Brecon Cathedral

Most precious of all was this revelation: I'd spent a couple of years wondering why it seemed God didn't speak very directly to me. Why does he appear silent so often? In spending hours looking at those Welsh hills, and walking in them, I realised with a shock that God had never stopped speaking. He is constant. He is there. It's just that life is too full, life is too noisy, we want quick results in ministry, we want God to jump to our tune. That's just not how it works. I left that place absolutely steeped in a quiet joy, in gratitude, and in the silence which was in fact full of God and full of creation. A silence full of speech.

At last a retreat where 'silence' did what it does best: bring us to the end of our own resources and reveal the normal default of God's abiding presence everywhere.

Pen y Fan: the view form Llannerchwen.

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