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Guesthouse Pond at Abbey of Gethsemani

Monday, September 17

“Checked into my room at 11:30 – about to go to the dining room on the ground floor.  Silence is observed in the dining rooms, hallways, stairwells, porches, gardens, etc.  Silence is serious here!  I am anxious to experience it, along with solitude, over the next four days.  Very grateful for this opportunity.  I’m serious about drawing closer to God, developing a more real and consistent devotional life, and leading my family as a more dedicated, more selfless disciple of Jesus Christ.”

Those were the initial thoughts that I jotted down as I was getting settled into my room in the retreat house on Monday morning.  I had been anticipating this retreat for four months, and I was very excited about spending the week in a context of silence.  But, to be perfectly honest, I wasn’t exactly sure how silence “worked” in practical terms.  I had never done this before.  I’ve spent most of life talking, a lot.  It’s pretty much an occupational hazard for me; it’s what I do.  I’m expected to have something to say, always, and to do so with “relentless regularity,” as Robert Oglesby once described the week-to-week demands of ministry.

Was this going to be complete silence?  Mostly silence?  Strongly suggested silence or seriously enforced silence?  I got my answer as I carried my bag from the parking lot down the sidewalk toward the guest house, church, and monastic quarters at the Abbey.  There was a sign posted on both sides of the walkway that read, “Church Entrance – Silence Beyond This Point.”  Well, that was helpful!  Questions answered!

Actually, I did speak in quite pleasant conversation with the first person I encountered, one of the resident monks who was sitting behind the desk in the lobby of the retreat house.  He welcomed me, found my name on the reservation list, gave me my room key, handed me a brochure with useful information, and wished me a wonderful and blessed retreat.  It was the last conversation that I would have until Friday afternoon, with the exception of my conversations with God.

“Silence is spoken here.”  Those words adorn small plaques on every table in the main dining room of the retreat house.  It is a gentle reminder of the lingua franca at the Abbey.  It took me until early Tuesday afternoon to reach the point where I was not having to consciously restrain myself from speaking to people as I passed them in hallways, on the stairs, and on the garden paths.  After that, it seemed quite natural, comfortable, and most suited to the surroundings.  Silence didn’t necessitate rudeness or ignoring others; quite the contrary.  I began to be impressed with how much kindness and courtesy could be communicated without speaking a word: a pleasant smile, a hesitation that allowed someone else to pass through a doorway ahead of you, handing someone a coffee mug while waiting in the service line, etc.

Mealtime took on a significantly different dynamic in a context of silence.  It negated an entire category of common speech, i.e, “table talk” or dinner conversation,  that is so integral to our usual fellowship with family and friends.  Guests in the retreat house at the Abbey quietly made their way through the cafeteria-style, self-service line in the kitchen, then found a seat in the main dining room where a taped lecture or readings from Thomas Merton would often be playing softly on the speaker system.  Another dining room (sans tapes) was available for those who wanted a completely quiet atmosphere.  And a third, smaller dining room was provided at the end of a long hallway for those who wanted to share in conversation while they ate.  I never saw anyone utilize that room all week.

Eating in silence allowed me to thoughtfully consider God’s gracious provisions for our physical needs and His faithfulness in giving us our daily bread.  Rather than merely tweeting a brief prayer of thanks (140 characters or less) before my meal, I could pray throughout.  During one evening meal, I decided that I would thank the Father for something different between each and every bite of food.  I succeeded in expressing gratitude for an extremely long list of blessings in my life.

Silence served as a bond and a unifying force among the 30 or so retreatants at the Abbey that week.  Silence fostered anonymity and functioned as a great equalizer, negating the multitude of things that tend to define us, label us, and divide us.  Small talk and “mixers” in other social settings give us the opportunity to “suss out” other people (as Aussies would say), providing us with the data that we need to figure out what to do with them, where to pigeonhole them, how to stereotype them, and assess (almost instantaneously) whether or not they are worthy of our investment of time and interest.

Did the person sitting next to me in the dining room graduate from high school or have a Ph.D.?  Were they a minimum wage earner or a CEO with a six or seven-figure salary?  Single, married, divorced, widowed?  Republican or Democrat?  Catholic or Protestant?  National League or American League?  SEC or Big 12?  No one knew.  No one needed to know.  Everyone was there on the same terms, their own!

This “relational silence” among the retreatants also caused me (actually it convicted me and shamed me!) to realize how easily we make “snap assessments” of others, not just based on what they say, but even by the mere sound of their voice.  Their accent alone signals us whether to assume that they are a snob or to question their intelligence.  Are they articulate?  Do they have a speech impediment?  Is their voice gravelly or shrill?  I repented, asked God for forgiveness, and resolved to stop being so shallow, so superficial, and so judgmental of others based on such non-substantive criteria.

More on the subject of silence and stillness will follow.

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October 2012