Silence, for some, can be deafening. For most of us modern urban folk, we’re so used to the noises of modernity that going away to a place that is silent, sans the normal city noises, can prove to be very uncomfortable. I’ve heard that many find total silence so, well, total that they require white-noise generators and other means of creating some kind of ambient noise so that modern sensibilities or senses can be catered to. Yet, we crave silence. We yearn for a reduction of the noise that we encounter on a daily basis and many try to look for little nooks within the city where silence can be found. Why is this?
Having recently made my annual (silent) retreat, it seems timely to share some insights into what makes silence so special for us. As Jesuits, our annual retreats are non-negotiable and we spend 8 full days in silence, praying and reflecting, breaking the silence only for about half an hour a day when we speak with a spiritual guide who will help process some of our prayer experiences. It’s a privileged time that we spend to rest, review and reflect over what we’ve done or failed to do in a prayerful manner. We normally retreat to a house or centre that’s built for such purposes that are usually sited in slightly remote or quieter places out of the city.
In the silence, we hear more and perhaps that’s what’s so scary for many. We’re faced with just ourselves and God (if we so believe) and the realities of who we are can be mildly shocking for some and terrifying for others. Stripped of the noises and distractions that keep our attention outside of ourselves, we naturally turn inwards and that’s where the inner demons and other scary things come out to play. It’s quite possible that that’s how the temptation of Jesus in the desert turned out as well – the silence of the desert allowed Jesus, who’s also human, to hear what the devil wanted to say. Which is why many retreat directors and those who accompany others on retreat recommend proper preparation prior to a retreat. When staring into the void that is silence, the void can sometime stare back at us and that can be scary.
The other aspect of silence is the solitude that it engenders. Solitude should be distinguished from loneliness in that the former is where one is alone to spend time with oneself, to think, pray or just be. Loneliness on the other hand is where one is alone and feels bereft of company – it is a felt lack of others, feeling cut off and estranged from others. Seeking solitude often means seeking time with oneself and allowing all that is inside to surface. That’s one of the things that I enjoy about retreats – the solitude and the time that can be spent confronting things about myself that I feel need confronting. That it’s done in the context of prayer lessens the fear as we know that God accompanies us on this sometimes perilous journey within.
We hear more and with greater clarity in the silence. The chirp of a bird at dawn can sometimes sound like a trumpet blast. We can make out the nuances of tone and timbre of the various chirps that we hear in the deep silence of a forest. In a similar way, the silence helps us to focus on what’s important in ourselves and to bring those things into proper perspective. Shan’t go too much into my own shifts in perspective but suffice to say that while I’m still a little worried about the prospect of school starting soon, I’m grateful that it’s just worry and not outright fear or dread. I feel much more settled in where I am and am finally beginning to settle into my being here. A haiku (of sorts) written during the retreat to end:
Into great silence
On the journey interior
Sounds of the self