Friday, March 19, 2010

The Sound of Silence

Geoff spent the past couple of days at a place called St. Benedict's.  This is a retreat and conference centre just north of the city that's run by a small group of nuns.  It may sound odd that he went there, given that we're not Catholic, but it's open to the public (subject to availability) and I've been encouraging Geoff to do this before he starts his new job; I think he's needed some time to himself.

I spent a weekend at St. Benedict's about ten months ago, and I loved it.  Geoff's going there this week brought back memories of my own forty-eight hours away.

I opted for the silent retreat option.  The Centre's top floor is one that is devoted to utter silence.  There are about six bedrooms on that floor, each with a private bathroom.  The rooms are a little like small hotel rooms: nothing fancy; fairly dated.  If anything, spartan: Bed, desk, chair, lamp. Sorry, the pic below is a little dark, but it gives you an idea:

There is a cafeteria of sorts downstairs where the nuns and other guests eat; at set times of the day, you can choose to get and eat your food there, or you can pick up your food and eat it in a nearby silent dining room, or up in your room.  I got my meals there a few times.  The other times, I chose to use a small, amply-stocked kitchen on the silent floor to make myself simple fare like poached eggs and toast, or to grab a piece of fruit to eat in my room.

Though the bedrooms on the silent floor were apparently fully occupied while I was there, I did not see a single person up there during the entire forty-eight hours.  Other than a few clean coffee cups that accumulated beside the sink in the kitchen, there was no sign of another soul up there. The kitchen was stocked with various foods and even fresh plates of cookies, but I have no idea how anyone did that because I never saw or heard anyone in there...and my room was directly across from the lounge/kitchen area.  During my second night there, I remember thinking, as I lay awake in the pitch black dead of night, that if I were to die at that moment, no one would notice for days...because I'd seen no one, heard no one, on that floor, for two days.

It was, indeed, noiseless - and, for the first several hours of my time there, a little freaky!  When I first arrived, I was given a brief tour of the lower floors (including the location of the heavy door that separated the centre from the nuns' private quarters) and was then given the key to my room.  I went upstairs to unpack my few things, and took my time setting things up the way I wanted.  I puttered here and there, set up my computer and my books, arranged and rearranged things, wandered up and down the quiet hallway outside my room, poked my head into the library.  The hallway was dimly lit, lending to the atmosphere of peacefulness:

Finally, feeling like I was oriented and settled in, I sat down on my bed, wondering what I should do next.  I looked at the time and realized, with some shock and dismay, that I'd passed only twenty minutes since first entering my room!  I panicked briefly, wondering how on earth I was going to occupy myself for a full forty-eight hours.  I remember thinking that I had actually spent each second of the past twenty minutes thinking about that second's activity because there was nothing else to do!

I needn't have worried.  Despite the awkwardness of that first little bit, I settled in fairly quickly.  In fact, it didn't take long for me to begin to savour the silence and sense of peace that cocooned me.  I'd brought along music on my ipod, but never used it.  Once, during my first night, I started to hum a little tune, but in the utter absence of sound, those notes might as well have been the decibel of shouting.  It felt good to hear my thought as I thought them.  I found my voice in the silence.

The grounds at St. Benedict's are absolutely lovely.   The Centre is set on the banks of the rushing Red River on acres of peaceful, dandelion-strewn fields.  I went for silent walks, and sat outside for hours with notebook and pen in hand, on chairs placed perfectly, for contemplation purposes, at the side of the river.  

In the many hours that I spent in my room, I read, lay on the bed thinking and reflecting, and did a lot of writing.  I'd brought along my old, non-Apple notebook computer, and filled about seventy pages with my writing while I sipped hot chocolate.  I loved it - it was food for the soul.  I wrote during the day, and  I wrote during the night, for hours on end. I wrote until my back started to hurt from sitting in the uncomfortable chair;  then I went for walks on the grounds to stretch my body back out. Then I wrote some more.

I thought and wrote about life, priorities, fears, hopes, ambitions, God, marriage, parenting, family, health. And I wrote a couple of non-fiction articles that I may someday try to have published somewhere.  I came away from my time there feeling somehow a bit more certain of myself, a bit more grounded.  In my efforts, over the past few years, to understand myself better, this time helped.  Because I had nothing to do other than think.  Absolutely no responsibilities.  Nothing.  Nada.  How often does one get to experience that in life??

I left St. Benedict's enriched, and slightly changed.  I think that both of these benefits persist even today...despite the many ups and downs of day-to-day life that have transpired in the past ten months.  All in all, it was pretty much a perfect, albeit different, kind of getaway weekend for me, and I hoped and prayed, during Geoff's retreat, that he would experience a similar sense of well-being as a result of being there.  I look forward to hearing about his experiences.  It's the kind of thing that I wish he and I could both do, individually, about once every year or two.  Though you come back home to the same world you left a couple of days earlier, somehow having just that bit of time in silence helps to clarify life a little.  I wish everyone could do this once in a while.

Note:  Geoff also had a good couple of days at St. Benedict's.  His ended up being, perhaps, not as silent as mine - he called a couple of times on the phone, and seemed less hung up with the whole silence thing than I was.  One great thing for hims was that he got a LOT of sleep - this is the perfect place for that, let me tell you!  On Wednesday evening, he fell asleep at 6:00, woke up briefly during the night, and then slept through to about 9:00!  He must really have needed it.  He came home refreshed, and convinced that we both need to do this again.  I have no problem agreeing to that...maybe I'll get to go again some time in the next few months!


  1. My sister-in-law just went on a silent retreat a few months ago and when she told me about it, I really had to consider what it would be like for me to be alone and in silence and it scared me to even think about it. But when I just read your description, I changed my mind. I think it would be weird at first but it would be nice to be able to complete my thoughts and to write and have time with God. I'll be interested to hear what Geoff thought of it.

  2. Ohhhhh, this sounds so good. I sometimes suspect that we surround ourselves with chatter, music, internet, etc, just so we don't have to listen to our own thoughts. I think it would be SO healthy to have a silent retreat. Thanks for sharing!

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  4. sounds absolutely lovely! I know that when i have taken even an hour to go sit by myself somewhere, alone, i am amazed at how it can fill me up...