Silence is a gift. It creates space where you can meet God. Silence heals.
I was not aware of these profound truths 20 years ago when my husband and I went for our first weekend marriage retreat at Mount St. Francis Retreat Centre in Cochrane, Alberta. What we didn’t know was that it was a silent retreat. After supper on the Friday evening, when the beginning of a two day silence was announced, we were perplexed and shocked. What nonsense to force us to just “be” with our own thoughts! Why didn’t anybody warn us?!
I had been running away from silence for years, trying to escape from my own shadow, my fears, and the truth about who I was. Life was busy. My prayers were more like a series of emails to God, with a long list of petitions. It had never occurred to me that God wanted to be in relationship with me. Being in relationship means to be present for each other and listen to each other. How can you be present and how can you listen when you are on the run?
After the first night of the retreat I woke up early, wondering how I was going to survive this weekend in silence. To be honest, I wanted to go home and end this experiment.
Meanwhile, I went to the hall and looked through the spacious window. Instantly, I was amazed by the beauty of the sunrise, with pink and purple clouds resting on the Rocky Mountains. I was the only person in the hall. The surroundings were perfectly quiet, and in this silent space I suddenly realized that I was not alone. I didn’t hear anything, yet I heard His gentle whisper…a gentle invitation.
Unexpectedly, I remembered a similar silent encounter in the distant past. A childhood memory revisited me – a vivid picture of a six year old girl sitting alone on the top of a hill, watching her beloved Polish Tatra Mountains from a distance. It is nearing sunset. The view of the mountains is stunning. The surroundings are perfectly still. Even the birds keep quiet, and the tall magenta Fireweed blossoms surround her in speechless beauty. The little girl finds herself permeated by a wave of passionate Love. She is recognized, treasured, and totally accepted by this loving Being.
The gong abruptly announced breakfast time at the Retreat Centre, bringing me back to reality. The couples gathered in the dining room, and we ate together in silence. With no interruptions by words, the silence spoke instead. It spoke directly through the physical presence of all of us, united in longing for God.
Twenty years have passed, and silent retreats have become significant and regular events in my life. Spending time at Mt. St. Francis is like having my batteries recharged. When I am in the presence of God in silence, He speaks to me in mysterious ways. Franciscan teacher and author Richard Rohr, in one of his daily reflections, tells us to “listen to the stillness, the language of God.” In silence I find God, and He finds me – my “hidden self in Christ”. He reveals to me who I truly am. His unconditional acceptance of me fills my heart with gratitude and love. Another of my favourite authors, Thomas Merton, wrote in New Seeds of Contemplation, “If I find Him I will find myself, and if I find myself I will find Him.”
God heals my soul on the deepest levels when I remain silent in His presence. Thomas Keating, one of the foremost teachers of contemplative prayer, calls God “our Divine Therapist” in his book Invitation to Love. He says, “What really happens when one enters the cloud of unknowing, resting in God beyond thoughts, words, and feelings, is a profound healing of the emotional wounds of a lifetime.”
Obviously, a retreat centre is not the only place where we can be still before God. The mountains, the forest, the park, the cemetery, your own room, or even a hospital bed can be this place. The question is: “Have you set aside time for silent prayer?” Fr. Bob Mitchell, OFM, is a member of the Mount St. Francis Retreat Team. He speaks to us about this in one of his poems from his book Reflective Moments: Pause to Meditate.
God invites us to enter
Into His perfect silence,
That we may know
His love and peace.
Listen to God in silence, and He will respond.
For more information about Mt. St. Francis Retreat Centre, visit www.mountstfrancis.ca