Before I came to live in Arica, Chile, spending a week in silence sounded ridiculous. I love constant motion; I enjoy bumping into people and I gather strength from personal interaction. The idea of voluntarily submerging myself into my thoughts for six days, allowing for a minimum of human contact, appeared to be a terrible one.
But after I completed a second retreat during Holy Week as a required component of my JVI placement, I have never been more comfortable alone. I firmly believe that silence gives someone exactly what he needs, and particularly during the retreat I gained two major guiding principles: acceptance and awareness.
Doubt and acceptance
Perhaps the most significant challenge of voluntarily removing oneself from a comfortable existence is the tendency to doubt. Once someone recognizes the magnitude of her commitment, she begins to focus inward and examine her motives. Often, people who have a tremendous desire to help others are attempting to atone for their own perceived shortcomings or mistakes.
Initially, volunteers think only of the adventure and excitement of their placement. The novelty fades, and doubt becomes a tremendous force. Personally, I realize that I did not come to Chile for purely altruistic motives—as the months roll by, my selfishness has become increasingly apparent. Rather than continue to probe my darkest fears, the silence invited me towards acceptance of my bumps and bruises, my mistakes and disappointments. Acceptance of myself as an ass , quoting Anthony de Mello, S.J., provides tremendous freedom.
Awareness and the multi-tasker
Awareness, perhaps, is a greater difficulty for me. Coming from a culture where multi-tasking is highly valued, focusing exclusively on such mundane details as the sounds of nature or the food in front of my face seems wasteful and ignorant of the wonders of modern life. However, I found a tremendous gift in awareness—focusing on the present allows the past and the future to resolve themselves. I spent several moments in each day in reverie, simply letting my thoughts wander freely as I listened to the symphony of creation.
The moments of the retreat were quite fleeting—I have already returned to the routine. However, through these gifts my interactions are richer, my conversations fuller, the colors of the sky more vivid. I struggle to imagine what I could accomplish if I only maintained these gifts of silence through the chaos of my life.