Remembrances of a 5-day silent retreat, April 10-15, 2014, St. Ignatius Retreat Center
Except for a daily session of 30 minutes with my spiritual advisor, I spent the days in silence. About 20 others were likewise engaged. My advisory time was from 8:30-9:00 am. I attended daily Mass at 11:30 am. (Mass was not required.) Otherwise I spent my time in meditation and prayer.
Each day I talked about what I did, what I thought, what I felt with my advisor, a Jesuit priest. At the preliminary meeting, when four others and I met with him, he said to put away all that we had brought to read except a Bible. I had brought much to consider: my praying the scriptural rosary guide, Imitation of Christ, an inspirational letter, Triduum material from my church. I packed all away. I kept out my yellow pad and pen and Bible.
Each day I was given a short scriptural passage, usually two or three verses from Psalms or the New Testament to contemplate, meditate on, pray on, write about. I was free to explore the beautiful setting, twenty-two acres of hiking and walking trails, with beautiful landscaping, overlooks, river walks, ridge walks, waterfall, with many resting places, gazebos, benches, chairs. There were gardens with benches and chairs, a hammock, a fountain. Spring was at full, with azaleas, dogwood trees, wisteria in bloom.
My advisor listened carefully. He made supporting comments, once or twice gave a gentle admonition, and made suggestions for continued consideration or practice. He suggested that I try a form of prayer developed by St. Ignatius. He emphasized that if anything he suggested worked for me, that was good. If it didn’t work, disregard it.
Life was good there. I had a small single bedroom and a small private bathroom. The bedroom had a large window that overlooked a garden and woods on the hill beyond. There was complete silence day and night. There were no telephones, no computers, no televisions, no stereo systems, no radios, no conversations. There were no distractions. We had three excellent meals each day, prepared with organic and fresh ingredients. Salad bar was always available. Some entrees and side dishes I remember: meatloaf stuffed with Italian cold cuts and cheeses, shrimp Creole with grits, potato salad with tarragon, kale salad, French style green beans with pepper and shallots, beef brisket, roast pork, roasted chicken. At any time day or night we could help ourselves to coffee, fresh juice, infused water, fresh fruit, energy bars, crackers. All rooms at the retreat center had walls of glass or large windows opening to beautiful scenery.
I spent most time outdoors. I wrote. The first and second days I wrote six pages each day. The third day I wrote one page. The fourth day I wrote half a page. The fifth day I wrote three lines. The first two days I thought and described things. The third day I imagined and was playful. The fourth day I was just present, just there in nature. The fifth day I was prayerful, grateful.
Some experiences and observations:
(1) At a chair facing two dogwood trees and woods beyond. The simple and comfortable wooden chair faces directly a white dogwood tree. It has one pine cone lodged in one branch. Next to it is a pink dogwood tree with a pink azalea at the base. I sat there about an hour each day, just looking. On the third day, two Eastern bluebirds perched on the white dogwood tree and soon a cardinal, brilliant red, perched on a branch next to them. The three stay a good while, an excellent visitation
(2) At the waterfall. Water falls down slate rocks. There are pools between segments of the fall. I watched sunlight filtered by new green leaves. The water sparkled, white against gray. One day, watching from the bridge across the falls, I imagined myself a particle of water as it tumbled, rested, tumbled, rested, flowed into a stream that led into the river and down the river into the sea. It was a fun sensation to imagine moving that way. One day, as I sat in a gazebo overlooking the fall, I noticed a single branch of purple wisteria contrasting with the various greens of the woods, a symbol of a lone and different thing making more beautiful an already beautiful landscape.
(3) On a stone walkway. I encounter a chipmunk. He stops in his crossing. I stop. I wonder who will move first. We stay still for several moments. I decide to make a step and he decides to scurry. I think I won the standoff, but I have a feeling that he things he did. My advisor, who uses that walkway, said he had never encountered the chipmunk. I told him if he were lucky, he would. And be sure to stop and play the standoff game. At the last session with him, he had not seen the chipmunk. Maybe the advisor is in a hurry.
(4) At the river. It flows rapidly. There is no bank and the beaches are slick with mud. I sit on a bench and watch for a long time. Light green foliage is reflected on the shore opposite. I dismiss any thought of the past or future. The sky is light blue to gray with a light overlay of white clouds. I watch dark-colored duck-sized water fowl passing by in several minute intervals. One flies just above the water, one flies higher above the water, and the third rides down the water. On another day, when the sky is bright blue and clouds are flying, I watch the flight of great blue herons and enjoy their calls. Sunday morning before Mass, I see a bearded man with white baseball cap and white clothing in a bright yellow inflatable boat fly casting. A calm brown dog looked ahead from the prow. One day the river invited me to jump in, to ride on its back, but I refused the invitation. Run with me! it said. And I did, careful not to trip on limbs or slide in mud. The river won, but I tried until I was breathless. Then I laughed a good and hearty laugh. The walk down and up to the retreat center is steep. I looked for a stick to bring home, but for three days found none suitable on any of the paths I hiked.
(5) In a secluded garden area framed by some type of cedar trees with woods draped with wisteria beyond. There are azaleas, two chairs, and a metal wing. At dusk I sit in the swing and enjoy the smells of spring and the sounds of frogs and night insects. I see lightning bugs there, and I watch the moon rise. One night, stepping from the swing, my foot touches something. It is what I was looking for, a stick. For a couple of days I sensed that the cedars had something more for me, a thought perhaps or an inspiration, but what they wanted was to give me the stick. One late afternoon I sat in the chair, and though I had not planned to so, I looked up at big clouds and made cloud pictures. I saw a strange pig and a strange horse and then closed my eyes to meditate for a few minutes. When I opened my eyes from the meditation, I saw thin scalloped clouds overlapping, forming a perfect shore line, and for several minutes I beheld a celestial ocean and beach.
There were silent prayers and Mass. Silent prayers with the St. Ignatius way brought insights, intimacy, and ideas I had not anticipated. Palm Sunday Mass was beautiful. The passion story was read by three readers. After silence there followed the most powerful homily I have ever heard (by my spiritual advisor) with the opening comments, “What do you say after a story like that? What can one say in response?” There followed a most powerful and profound statement about the qualities of human and divine love. It was amazing in the best and most powerful sense of the word.
I enjoyed watching my spiritual progress in Nature, from observing and recording and thinking, to playing and imagining, to simply being present, to being prayerful and silently praising. My spiritual advisor asked me to consider that the next time I do a retreat to plan an eight day silent retreat. He thinks I would eventually do well with a thirty-day guided silent retreat. We’ll see.
A project of about twenty years is completed. I have self-published my novel Will. Description from cover: “Teen years become even more of a challenge for Will Whiteside when he falls victim to an evil about which he feels he can tell no one. Guarding the secret, he becomes depressed and suicidal. His healing is a story of love enacted by ordinary people in his life. Set in eastern North Carolina in the years 1961-1966, a time of great social change, the novel is a story of the joys and sorrows of adolescent years and a celebration of the love that can overcome evil. Included is a set of questions which can be used for reflection or as a guide for book group discussions.”
Best place to buy: outskirtspress.com. Go to bookstore. For search, use the ISBN Number 978-1-4787-2466-7. If you buy from another source, when you get the book, check on the copyright page under the copyright to see that you have v4.0 r1.1. There is a version printed with a different number. That version is good for an exercise in proofreading and copy editing. Insist on v4.0 r1.1.
Thank you for reading. I hope you will have a good week.