Before the start of this semester, I indulged myself in my longest round of the quiet game to date: Manresa, a 5-day silent retreat offered by BC Campus Ministry and structured around the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius. Manresa is named after the town where Ignatius spent a period of time entering deeper into his spiritual life and developing the exercises, a cornerstone of Ignatian spirituality. Going into the retreat, I was looking forward to learning more about a new spiritual practice, doing some self-reflection, and mentally preparing myself for the coming semester—but I was a little apprehensive about the concept of five days spent in silence. Having just finished the retreat, here are some of my thoughts.
The silence made me surprisingly more attentive to my physical presence. I found myself walking slower to get from place to place (a revolutionary concept for those who know me). In doing so, I noticed the way the floorboards creaked as I walked down the hallway—how in taking a step, I tend to shift my weight to the outside edge of my foot, which can sometimes make me lose my balance. My spiritual director encouraged me to not do anything during meals, to just focus on eating, and it was such a surprising experience to pay particular attention to the soft crunch of a roll or the chewy, savory taste of a steak tip (the food was delicious). It completely changed the experience of eating. In the space of silence, I found myself re-experiencing and re-inhabiting routine actions in the immediate moment, an opportunity I had previously taken for granted.
But what is silence, really? Anyone can just decide not to speak for a given period of time, but on retreat I rediscovered silence as stillness, as tuning in to the voice of God. Manresa isn’t a rigorously strict time without any talking at all. There are opportunities to use your voice in writing, singing at Mass, or in the 30-45 minute daily check-ins with a spiritual director—those things became an important outlet for me. As I was journaling, I noticed that the times when I used my voice were specifically linked to my relationship with God, and as I reflected on that, it really emphasized for me how God is at the source, and is the source of every aspect of my being. The train of thought that normally runs a mile a minute in my head was muted as I caught glimpses of the constant hum of God throughout my day. Stillness offered a return to my spiritual roots, realigning my day around God.
My cousins from India sometimes have unique ways of saying certain English phrases, and in lieu of, “Be quiet,” they sometimes say, “Keep silence.” I find that this latter phrase really gets to the heart of the silent retreat experience. Quiet seems to be a simple absence of speech or sound, a temporary state. On the other hand, silence—as stillness—is an active refraining from speech that can be held internally, both in times of external quiet and noise. Truly “keeping silence” allows the individual to examine and behold themselves in the most essential way. Real stillness allows one to consider what do I put forth into the world? What characteristics or beliefs fundamentally define me? And, where is God in all of these workings?
In true stillness, one notices the mark of the divine because God is always “a still, small voice” (1 Kgs. 19:12).
Photo courtesy of Boston College Campus Ministry via Facebook