I was born an extrovert. When I was 2, my mom put me in the front seat of the grocery cart at ShopRite, and as an older woman bent down to pick up eggs, I kissed her on the head. My mom, shocked, exclaimed, “Tinamarie! You can’t just kiss strangers!” When I was 16, my friend’s parents constantly questioned my sobriety due to expressive moves on the dancefloor. So, when the Benedictine Sisters of Erie invited me on a five-day silent retreat during my summer internship with them, it went about as well as you might imagine.
Here’s the silent retreat rundown: There’s a theme (ours was Thomas Merton’s writings on silence and solitude) and a speaker who provides morning and afternoon reflections. Our wonderful speaker was Bonnie, a Thomas Merton scholar. We could talk for a half-hour during dinner, but other than that, we existed in total silence. Here’s a play-by-play:
Mood: cautious optimism, no reason for alarm
As I was getting ready, I looked at myself in the mirror and thought, “I can totally handle a silent retreat. It will be good for me. No reason for alarm, I can do it. I’ll be a real monastic!” As I walked down the hallway toward the chapel for morning prayer, I saw Sister Jean and cheerily said, “Good Morn-” before covering my mouth. “Perfect.” I thought to myself, “I haven’t been awake for 15 minutes, and I’ve already messed up!”
Day one’s silence was uncomfortable but entertaining. I tried to avoid people at all costs because it brought out nervous laughter. Plus, silence in a room filled with people was straight-up strange.
Mood: a little more relaxed
I saw Sister Jean on my way to morning prayer again and did not say a word. Win! I did nod though. Later, I read a book outside on Thomas Merton to keep with our theme. “This isn’t so bad.” I said to myself, “We pray, we eat, we pray, we sit – it’s all good. It’s even relaxing. How about I go talk to God outside? Yes, sunshine!”
Mood: anxious and frustrated
I opened my eyes and immediately wanted the silence to be over. I tried to talk myself down, “Okay Tinamarie, you’re fine. Go sit and silently pray, and stop being ungrateful for time with God.” But frustration and anxiety were bubbling up inside.
The thing is, silence makes me nervous. I have a hard time being alone because my thoughts have a way of running rampant and manifesting in a spiraling vortex to Doomsdale. Sounds dramatic? Yes. But anxiety is a powerful force. I hoped Bonnie’s morning reflection would soothe my nerves, but the soul-searching questions were increasing my uneasiness.
After grabbing a sandwich for lunch, I put my tray down in the dining room. I looked around. Fifty people. One room. Silence. “Okay. We’re all sitting in the dining room silently eating … this is uncomfortable. I can’t do this. I’m an external processor. I’m a 98% extrovert on the Myers Briggs scale, and I’m NOT meant for this! I can’t be expected to plunge into the deepest parts of my soul and stay quiet about it. This is too much.” And with that, I left the dining room.
During the afternoon reflection, Bonnie asks, “Who owns your silence?”
“Who owns my silence? Well, I guess my worries.”
Then, it hit me – I don’t hate silence because I’m uncomfortable being silent. I hate external silence because it forces me to listen to internal noise. In other words, when I’m quiet, my anxieties, fears, and insecurities are amplified.
We’re in the middle of “Desert Day,” a 48-hour period of no talking — including dinner. During morning reflection, Bonnie discussed Thomas Merton’s views on solitude. She said solitude is where we find our deep self, and our deep self is the only gift worthy of love. Meaning we owe it to God, others, and ourselves to be the authentic people God created us to be. She discussed how we are never less alone than when we are alone because we are with God. When we are silent, we open ourselves up to recognizing God’s presence. Have you ever prayed a truly honest prayer? After this reflection session, I did:
God, I am over this. I’m sitting here trying to hear you in this silence, but I can’t do it. I don’t want you to ask for more than I can give. I’m scared of you. You asked me to go to grad school and that was beyond challenging. To give the eulogy at my cousin’s funeral and that pained me in my soul. You asked me to minister even though I’m self-conscious I’m not the right person for it. I know everything always turns out for the best because you are a God who loves me, but God, can’t you see it’s a painful process?
Mood: spiritually exhausted, incredibly anxious
I woke up exhausted. I hadn’t talked to another living being in more than 24 hours, and I was growing weak.
Bonnie talked about making yourself present to the present God. She said everything has been given to us in Christ, we just have to experience what we already possess by slowing down: “That is our comfort — God is in everything.” For the first time, I actually fully believed those words.
After the session, I went to the Blessed Sacrament and actually sat silently in the presence of the God who loves me. I closed my eyes and imagined, as Cyprian Consiglio (a monk and priest) wrote, “the cave of my heart.” I grabbed a torch, took a deep breath, and entered.
There were cave paintings on the walls – sins, hurts, worries – and each time I desired to run back to the noise, I opened my eyes and looked at the tabernacle and the stained-glass windows with light pouring through them. This is what the deepest piece of my heart looks like, a stained-glass room filled with God’s light.
When the retreat was over, we had closing prayer and went to dinner. I could not shut up.
I learned a lot in five days. First, silence is not something to fear. God lives among our silence in a special way because it allows us to hear God more clearly. Second, silence is not scary. The feelings that can arise may be scary, but silence itself isn’t. In fact, silence can reveal to us truths about ourselves that we need to embrace or work on. Finally, if you’ve never been on a silent retreat before, start with an overnight and build up.