Rob Eastwood Dewing explains how an individually guided retreat can allow space for us to hear God more clearly
This article was published in the January to April 2024 edition of Rapport magazine.
If you walk along the level path into the woods from the toll box at Lee Abbey Devon, you get to the small pond that feeds the hydroelectric generator. It is lovely to stand and watch, and to listen to the water flowing in and out of the pond. When we were on Community my youngest daughter loved to go there with Simon and Lauren Farrer’s dog, Bess, who would always take a joyful flying leap into the water, which never failed to make us smile. The flow of water through the pond, along with the addition of an occasional retriever, would keep the water in motion, stirred up and cloudy with leaves and sediment. However, if the inflow of water ceased for a while and life-loving dogs were restrained, then the water in the pond would settle and become clear.
The same is true of our lives. We live in a busy, noisy world full of distractions – many of them good. The advent of mobile phones and the internet means that any idle moment can be occupied with scanning of messages, friends’ social media posts or distracting short videos. The flow of information and images into our lives is unceasing. White noise – be it aural or visual – is normal. In fact, it is possible to find on YouTube or Spotify ‘ambient city noise’ for those urban dwellers who are so used to the sounds of the city that they can’t sleep in places that are too quiet.
Time to take stock
A retreat can provide the opportunity to step away from this noise and busyness. But sometimes a retreat can just replace one sort of noise with another. Finding a silent retreat, at Lee Abbey or elsewhere, can serve the same purpose as cutting off the flow of water into the pool. It can allow the sediment to settle, the water to clear; so we can step back and have a proper look at our lives, to see what God has been doing and where he has been doing it, and to hear him speak.
Different types of silence The novelist Sara Maitland found, in midlife, a growing longing for silence and solitude. She moved house, seeking out increasingly isolated locations, including the Isle of Skye, and Galloway. Intrigued by this desire she found in herself, she reflected on it, looking at the place that silence has had historically in both religious and secular life. Her memoir, A Book of Silence, provides some thought-provoking insight into this. She observes that, for her at least, silence is not an absence, a void or a lack of anything, but an entity of its own. She also identifies different types of silence; most significantly recognising that enforced silence (for example solitary confinement) is generally deeply harmful, while a silence that is chosen creates a permeability through which God can enter and bring transformation.
The blessing of choosing silence and stillness
The Mosaic law identified something similar in the command to keep the Sabbath. For some of us from the Protestant tradition this is probably not our favourite commandment. It is not that we think it particularly difficult to do but rather it seems pointless, a waste of time, when we could be using that time to be productive. Certainly, the worst excesses of sabbatarianism when children (and probably adults too) struggled with the prospect of a joyless and empty Sunday stretching before them may not have helped the Sabbath cause. But here Maitland’s point is useful: there is a world of difference between silence and solitude that is chosen and that which is enforced. The law was not given to Israel by God as a punishment, but as a gift. This is the way that his people should live so that they might experience his blessing. Perhaps we are designed as beings who function best when we build rest and reflection, silence, stillness and solitude into our lives. We are made to be as well as to do. As Walter Brueggemann has said, ‘Sabbath is the announcement of confidence in God, who is confident enough to rest.’
The sound of silence
We find this permeating scripture. We see it when Elijah was given the gift of rest and nourishment in the shade of a solitary broom tree and then encountering God in the sound of sheer silence on Mount Horeb (1 Kings 19). We see it when Jesus was driven by the Spirit into the wilderness after his baptism, where he then stayed for forty days (Mark 1:12–13); also in his practice of finding solitary places to pray (e.g. Matthew 14:23). We see it when Mary of Bethany sat at Jesus’s feet when he came to visit, despite her sister’s appeals to help with preparing supper (Luke 10:38–42).
Walking with hands and eyes open
In recent years many people have found that the busyness and intensity of modern life has been affecting their mental health and well-being. The pace of life and the unceasing flow of images and information have proved crippling. Some of us have found respite in mindfulness; the practice of stopping, paying attention and noticing what is going on around us and inside us. Amongst Christians there has been significant criticism of this from those who identify its roots within Buddhism. I was intrigued recently to find reference to mindfulness in Esther de Waal’s lovely book on the Benedictine tradition, Living with Contradiction: An Introduction to Benedictine Spirituality. This was published in 1989, long before the current interest in mindfulness. ‘Mindfulness,’ wrote de Waal, ‘is what the monastic life teaches us. It is such a very simple thing to walk through life with my hands open, my eyes open, listening. I live in all my five senses to God breaking in again and again on my daily life. If Incarnation means anything at all it means this, that God is reaching me through the material things in the world of his creating.’ There is an invitation there to us all, to learn to walk through life with hands and eyes open and to learn to listen. Perhaps the roots of mindfulness are in Christianity as much as Buddhism.
Stepping back from the pressures of daily life
The practices of silence, solitude, stillness and Sabbath rest can be built into daily life, but it is hard to do that. A retreat – ideally a silent or individually guided retreat where we have a guide to help us navigate through the days of the retreat – provides a wonderful opportunity to do this. This is not primarily about a lack of noise, but rather a lack of the distraction that ordinary life brings. We deliberately step back from the routines and pressures of daily life and take a few days to have our hands open, our eyes open, and to listen. It may be that God is not saying anything to us that he isn’t saying all the time, but perhaps we are able to hear in a way that we cannot in ‘normal’ time.
Hearing God speak
A few years ago, I was spiritual guide to a lovely woman in her late seventies who came on an individually guided retreat in Devon for the first time. When we met at the beginning of her retreat, she admitted that she found it difficult to believe that God really loved her. She spent the next three days in silence, meeting me each day to reflect on what was happening and what God might be saying to her. The significant input did not come from me; I just gave her the odd nudge and suggestion of where in scripture she might focus her attention.
On Friday morning at the end of the retreat I stood at the door to say goodbye to the guests. This woman came up to me, gave me a big hug and through tears said to me, ‘I know that God loves me.’ It was a special moment, and testimony to the truth that when we step away from the noise and busyness of life, we are better able to hear God speaking.
Silence can frighten us, but if we seek it out and are open to the possibilities, that silence may become a space into which the voice of God can speak.
Rob Eastwood Dewing
Rob Eastwood Dewing is a church leader and spiritual director. He was Pastoral Director in the Lee Abbey Community in Devon from 2011–2016 and is currently Team Rector of Portishead and Co-Area Dean of Portishead Deanery.