The question I am most often asked when someone learns of my 30-day silent retreat is “How can you be silent for so long?!” They are amazed, first, that anyone would choose to do it, and second, the actual act of being quiet for that length of time. It is indeed an “outside-the-box experience.” The most challenging piece, however, was not being quiet for that long but staying present to what God was doing in me. Even in silence, it is possible to distract myself from the mirror in which God was inviting me to look.
In these next few posts, I will be sharing about my retreat. It was a 30-Day Silent Retreat in which I was led through the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola. In this initial post, I’ll discuss the logistics of the retreat to lay a groundwork for understanding the context in which the experience took place. The location of my retreat was Eastern Point Retreat Center in Gloucester, Massachusetts (easternpoint.org). It is the eastern-most point of the Atlantic coast and the former summer mansion turned retreat center is right on the coast. The Jesuits bought this property many years ago and built onto the mansion a wing of private rooms for retreatants. The timing of the retreat was January—the cold winter of the northern east coast with temperatures ranging from single digits to the 40s. We had snow many days, even a blizzard for a couple of days that gave us 30 inches of snow with winds up to 70 mph! My Canadian genes emerged as I found it a joy to walk on the beach, trails, and roads each day with the varying conditions.
The entire retreat was 35 days in length. We began with a day and a half of orientation—a social and a day of presentations. Since it was an Ignatian retreat, the presentations not only oriented us to the silence, but introduced us to the life of Ignatius and the Society of Jesus (the Jesuits). The participants had been vetted in our application process and were expected to have a level of comfort with 8-day silent retreats. It is not wise to start with 30 days as a lot can happen emotionally, psychologically, and spiritually during this time in the desert. We also met our spiritual director who would be meeting with us daily throughout the month.
The silence began in earnest on the third day. I met with my director before lunch each day and was assigned four- to five-prayer periods throughout the next twenty-four hours. It took me about a week to find my stride in terms scheduling the prayer periods, the location for each of these prayer times, and finding ways to come up for air. The rhythm of each day was structured with the three meals, meeting with our director, and mass. The prayer times and breaks were scheduled within this structure.
Although in silence, the community was an important piece. The thirty of us were together for meals and ate in silence at tables with one or two others. Mass brought us all together to sing (with our required masks) and share in the Eucharist. Our engagement during this time was limited to the passing of the peace (“peace be with you”) and the response to the priest when he placed the wafer of bread in our hands and to the helper who carried the tiny glasses of wine. Even beyond these brief encounters, the communion between us was sweet. We were all there with a common intent and desire to be with Christ. The connection with and affection we felt for each other was palpable.
My day consisted of prayer in the morning following breakfast, meeting with my director, lunch, spending time outside, praying a couple more times, art amidst the afternoon prayer, dinner, prayer and then a time of reading in my room. This became my standard schedule and I found comfort in the rhythm. There were times when I missed my family. I checked in with my husband via text each night, so maintained contact in that manner.
A departure from this schedule was our two days off during the month. I was skeptical of these when I first learned of them. “Why waste time in talking when I’m here for silence?” Yet, I quickly discovered the wisdom of these breaks. The first was mid-month and the second a week before we completed our time together. I found myself eager to have the first break as the day approached. I spent the day touring and eating seafood with a new friend in some of the surrounding towns. Many of the shops were closed due to the winter season, but we found enough to keep ourselves busy. This break from the intensity of the retreat allowed for returning with increased energy and attention to what God intended for me. On the second day off, our group of friends increased to four and we went further afield to other towns to explore—much sharing and laughter occurred with these kindred spirits.
The retreat wrapped up with two days of de-briefing. Our silence ended at noon on Friday, and we had the afternoon free before beginning our sessions that evening. The next day was spent in small groups sharing at a more intimate level. It was sweet to hear the voices and hearts of those who had journeyed with me during the month. We closed our time together with mass on Sunday morning and headed for home.
There is so much that happened within this short month. One of my main takeaways from this time in silence was an increased level of freedom. Yet, that is just the tip of the iceberg. My next blog will begin unpacking the “weeks” of the retreat and what God was doing in me. I’m eager to share with you!
Grace and peace to you,