The first week of January, I spent six days at a retreat center outside Tucson. In the three weeks since I’ve been home, I’ve been reflecting on the experience.
Here is a description (from their website) of The Desert House of Prayer: “We are rooted in contemplative Catholic traditions, but we welcome people of all faiths and denominations. Those seeking silence in order to encounter and respond to the Divine are at home here. People of all faiths have found Desert House of Prayer a place conducive to rest, reflection, and opening to God. Authors, artists, caregivers, counselors, teachers, and those in transition have found us a haven for reorientation and renewal.”
When one is on the premises, one maintains silence except for the dinner hours Saturday-Thursday (Fridays are always silent all day) and except for participation in worship (which is optional.)
I have been on private retreats before, so I am comfortable with silence. But I have never been a part of a community that keeps silence. I discovered that silence can be companionable rather than awkward. Those of us using the communal kitchen for breakfast and lunch moved around one another almost as if choreographed. Most people sat at the large table and ate quietly. Some of us would bring reading material. One woman always sat where she could look out the window and watch the birds at the feeders.
After the dinner prayer, we were invited to be in conversation around the round dinner tables in the commons room. I’m a naturally curious person, so I was anxious to learn more about the people I’d been observing around the retreat center; I don’t think I was alone in my curiosity. There were normal questions: “Where are you from?” “Have you been here before?” “How long are you staying?” Yet it seemed to me that the conversations were richer than is usually the case when strangers meet; people would go to a deeper level more quickly. It was as if we knew that we only had 45-50 minutes to talk; we didn’t want to waste time on the weather.
The retreat center has wifi, but I had decided to try to spend less time on my phone during my retreat, and I did. In fact, I have maintained that practice since coming home. I had been in the habit of playing a couple of games on my phone – and, you know how it is – you think you’re just going to check your Words with Friends but then you decide to hop on to Facebook or Instagram, and there’s 30 minutes gone. I’d found myself doing that more and more. I relished the spaciousness of time I experienced while on retreat and wanted to see if I could maintain some of that peace when I returned to the busy-ness of “real life.” So far, I have. I don’t write this to be judgmental about other people’s habits; we all have to navigate the distractions of technology in our own way.
One of the books I read while on retreat was Jenny Odell’s How To Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy. She writes this: “In a world where our value is determined by our productivity, many of us find our every last minute captured, optimized, or appropriated as a financial resource by the technologies we use daily…and yet a certain nervous feeling, of being overstimulated and unable to sustain a train of thought, lingers.”
It’s cliche, but true: silence clears out the clutter and helps you listen to yourself, to your own heart/mind/soul. Silence helps you pay attention to what God has been trying to say to you. I found the hours of silence deeply restorative. I found it therapeutic to walk in the fresh air, noticing the desert landscape and the mountain ranges which embrace Tucson.
I have friends who diet and detox after the holidays, recognizing that many of us over-indulge. “Dry January” (no alcohol for a month) is a rapidly-growing trend. Fewer people talk about detoxing from social media, from noise, from all that bombards us and distracts us mentally, emotionally and spiritually.
On one of my first walks in the desert wash, something caught my eye; it gleamed a bit in the sunlight. I stopped to notice. It was a piece of an old amber-colored bottle (my first thought, as someone who lives by Lake Erie, was to call it “beach glass”:)). The word that was staring me in the face was “REFILL.” (Sorry it doesn’t come across as clearly in the photo!)
Retreat/renew/restore/refill…and then return. Returning to relationships, work, the pace of life is an art in itself. I am trying to remember the lessons of my six days in the desert silence. I am trying to be more present, more observant, and more patient with myself and others.
The writer Rachel Naomi Remen writes this about silence: “Perhaps the most important thing we bring to another person is the silence in us, not the sort of silence that is filled with unspoken criticism or hard withdrawal. The sort of silence that is a place of refuge, of rest, of acceptance of someone as they are. We are all hungry for this other silence.”