A guest’s experience of a silent retreat at Lee Abbey
This article was published in the May to August 2015 issue of Rapport magazine.
Recently I had a new experience. Three whole, intentional, days of silence. Three days without conversation, without email, without telephones, without shops or traffic, without television, or radio or even books or newspapers. Though I may, possibly, have peeked once at a football result in the sports pages.
I had been interested for some time in the idea of a ‘silent retreat’ and finally took the plunge signing up for a Monday to Friday stay at Lee Abbey on an ‘Individually Guided Retreat’. We guests, around 20 of us, arrived on Monday and had one evening of ‘normality’, welcomes and chat before reaching the point on the programme, after Night Prayer, marked ‘Silence Begins’. This was rather ominously symbolised on the page by a thick, black line. The next thick, black line, marking ‘Ending Silence Together’ did not appear until days later, 5.15pm on Thursday. In between, on my timetable, were no programmed activities at all except, each day, midday ‘Communion with Reflection’ and ‘Night Prayer’ before bed. An empty timetable. A sight for sore eyes.
It was both comforting and a little daunting that we were thoroughly briefed beforehand. We were told to expect all manner of possible reactions to our experiences of silence. We were warned that ‘entering silence can be like going on a starvation diet’. We learned that we may experience reactions ranging from anticipation to fear, anger, insecurity, panic and embarrassment. Personally, my feelings beforehand veered between delighted anticipation at the thought of a lovely long rest and worry that I might get terribly bored, experiencing, well … nothing. In the event neither of these applied.
We each completed a brief personal questionnaire and were assigned to our Spiritual Directors with whom we would meet, individually, for up to an hour each day, to talk and pray, if needed. I had a very wise member of the Northumbria Community who met with me and, in my case, with great patience and sensitivity, really challenged me to go deeper and a bit beyond my comfort zone in prayer and reflection. For me this was not easy, but it was just right. Each day he also gave me some carefully chosen pieces of Scripture or short meditative readings, mainly from Celtic Christian traditions, which I could choose to read or not. I read very little in terms of quantity, but the words I did read really resonated. I also kept a brief diary and tried to observe myself, a bit like a scientific specimen. I noted down how I was feeling at stages through the retreat. I was surprised by how many changes I went through – joy, relaxation, gratitude, fatigue, introversion, listlessness, hunger, sadness, hope, exhilaration and then, increasingly, a lovely refreshing sense of calm. At which point I also stopped keeping the diary.
I spent as much time as possible outside in nature, climbing high onto rocky peaks, huddled on a cold beach or sitting on a cliff watching the sunset. A significant experience I took from it was how wonderfully refreshing and stilling it feels to sense your mind slowly clearing over time, hour by hour becoming calmer, quieter yet at the same time more ‘awake’. The relief from the incessant chatter that goes on most of the time in all our heads was very profound. I noticed I was becoming more alive to my surroundings, the taste of my food, the air, the weather and all manner of tiny details of the moment. And to God.
My mind didn’t wander off in the scattered directions it so often takes when I’m distracted by too much multi-tasking and too much ‘input’. I must have been quiet because I had many close encounters with wildlife too – eye-to-eye with a tiny vole, a young rabbit, nesting peregrines, porpoises, a solitary seal and many, many, Exmoor goats. I may even have talked to some of them, ahem …
There were some small downsides – I never knew that the sounds of 20 people eating together in ‘silence’ could be so loud. On the other hand, coming together and sharing Communion in near-silence each day was very special.
‘Breaking the silence’ felt quite strange, even after just three days, because by then I’d become comfortable with the quiet. We did this in the chapel as a group and everyone was encouraged to tell of just one single thing, big or small, that they had experienced in silence. I was struck by the simplicity of people’s experiences.
Someone said they felt that they had come closer to God by having time really to examine a tiny flower. Someone said that she had discovered something about God’s desire for her to have more fun in her life by playing at blowing bubbles and watching them float in the breeze. An exhausted vicar said he had loved coming away ‘incognito’: all week, no-one around him could ask him what he did. It was lovely to have a final dinner together – with conversation – and an evening Taizé service with so many calm, glowing and refreshed-looking people.
As for me, it was a big surprise to find that I would even have liked a bit longer in silence. I expected it to be a relief finally to be ‘allowed’ to talk again. I thought I’d be babbling like an idiot. In fact, it took me a few days to adjust back to the usual chatter and busyness. But I do feel something lasting too. And I have resolved to make a silent retreat an annual event. Who knows, maybe next time I’ll manage four full days.