What is Silence?
What is silence for?
silence [ˈsaɪləns] n 1. the state or quality of being silent 2. the absence of sound or noise; stillness 3. refusal or failure to speak, communicate, etc. 4. a period of time without noise 5. oblivion or obscurity (source)
Perhaps the better question is ‘why silence?’ Loyola Hall offers silent retreats, asks visitors to respect the silence of others, serves most meals in silence. Why? Once they get a taste for silence, most people who stay here fall in love with it, yet many others never enter our gates at all because of the fear of silence. The BBC series set in retreat house The Big Silence shows both the importance of silence and how it can be a bugbear.
So what is silence for at Loyola Hall? It is so our visitors can hear–can hear their own lives whispering to them and, in that sound, hear the voice of God.
It’s as if we were each pools of slightly murky water: it doesn’t take much to stir up the sediment and keep visibility down. But if you let the pool settle, become still, all the gunk drifts down to the bottom and the water becomes crystal clear. And in that clarity, through that clarity, new visions open up: maybe prosaic glimpses (‘I really need more sleep!’); maybe profound insights (‘God sees everything about me with delight!’; maybe new possibilities (‘what about a different direction in life?’).
What is silence in practice?
What does silence mean in practice? First of all it is an atmosphere we protect for those who come here on retreat–groups who come for courses or meetings of other sorts are only asked to respect the silence of those who are praying. For those on retreat silence obviously means not talking unnecessarily and not distracting others by trying to chat with them but it has other implications too. It means letting yourself become more silent inside, pacing yourself, and slowing down. We play some innocuous music at mealtimes so you don’t get too distracted by eating without conversation. It means turning your mobile phone off so that it doesn’t ring and disturb people. We strongly suggest you avoid the radio, TV, newspapers, email etc. We also ask you leave aside the pile of books you’ve brought along–at least for the first few days (after which we are fairly confident you won’t want them).
None of these practices is meant to be hard and most of them are negotiable with your personal retreat guide. The aim is to let the background ‘noise’ fade to the point where other things can be noticed–like the bark on a tree, the way you feel about life, or the look in God’s ‘eyes’. Without the background silence you can be intrigued by something you encounter praying with a gospel story but forget it right afterwards. Or you can feel delighted (or sad, or moved, or challenged) by a memory that comes to you only to have it swamped by what someone says to you over the dinner table. The silence helps you stay with the gospel insight and hold the memory long enough to savour them, long enough for God to be found through them.
What takes the place of chatting, phoning, reading, and emailing? Well some time will be given over to praying and some in meeting with your retreat director. The rest might be spent walking, sitting in the garden, dabbling in the art room, listening to relaxing music, dozing, slowing down, doing some exercise, taking a sauna, or doing a jigsaw puzzle. The idea is to find a rhythm that allows you to be attentive, relaxed, and aware.
Silence is not an end in itself
So, silence isn’t the be-all and end-all of retreat–in fact if it comes to be the focus of things it can be itself an obstacle–indeed we believe silence isn’t desirable for its own sake. Some spiritualities do place an emphasis on silence as way of life but that has never been the Ignatian way. St. Ignatius, the patron of Loyola Hall, believed that God could be found in all things–in fact wherever we find ourselves, as much in work or raising kids as in a monastery.
An old saying about the founders of religious orders says ‘Bernard loved the valleys, and Benedict loved the hills, Francis the towns, Ignatius the great cities.’ Ignatian spirituality is at home in the heart of everyday life, finding God there and finding God’s call us to each of us there.
That’s what Loyola Hall’s silence is for–so that time apart can make it easier to find God in the noise and hullabaloo and ordinariness of life–and that is the ultimate measure of the worth of silence.