One Friday afternoon last year, I was taking my office building's elevator down to the lobby, TravelPro suitcase in hand. In the elevator with me were three of my co-workers, one of whom asked, "Where are you off to this weekend?"
"To a monastery, for a silent retreat," I said enthusiastically.
"I could never do that!" my young colleague exclaimed. "I couldn't keep quiet for five minutes!" The others giggled and agreed.
Had I responded to that same question on the steps of the Episcopal church I attend, I think the reaction would have been looks of yearning and nods of understanding. People who have been there and done that are usually eager to do it again.
Of course, there are exceptions to that rule. My very first foray into silence came somewhat unwillingly when I was 12. The eighth-grade girls of St. Joseph's Catholic School in Norwich, CT, were packed off to the Immaculata Retreat House a couple of towns over. For reasons only God knows, all of the girls were given rooms in the basement of the main building, while I somehow ended up in a single room in a wing where female oblates-lay women who associate themselves with a Christian community to enrich their spiritual lives--sometimes stayed. While my young compatriots chowed down on contraband chocolate and yakked the night away, I, out of boredom, read the Bible that was left in the room.
I don't know if it was the enforced silence, the spiritual reading, or the act of confession we all made the next day in the small retreat house chapel, but I left that weekend feeling as fresh as a newborn baby-my Catholic version of being "born again." Of course, I didn't share my newfound state with my friends for fear of being "uncool." But forty years later, I can still recall that sense of being cleansed, of getting a fresh start, spiritually speaking.
It wasn't until many, many years later that I began purposefully "retreating." I began when I was practicing Buddhist Vipassana meditation and continued once I found my spiritual home in the Episcopal Church. My spiritual discipline is Centering Prayer, a contemplative practice defined, described, and developed by three Trappist monks in the 1970s.
But I've been quite ecumenical in my retreat choices, going on retreats of varying lengths-from one to ten days--in different religious traditions including Christian, Buddhist, and Muslim.
The latter was with the late Pir Vilayat Inayat Khan, then-leader of the Sufi Order of the West. What I remember about that retreat is that Pir Vilayat was leading us through a guided imagery exercise, describing a spiritual encounter with various spiritual teachers and prophets of history. I remember thinking how detailed was his description, when like a thunderbolt it hit me: He was describing a place he was, in that moment, occupying.
At a 10-day Centering Prayer retreat at St. Benedict's Monastery in Snowmass, Colorado, we practiced Grand Silence where you do not speak except for participating in the Catholic Mass, and you also refrain from eye contact. Though it sounds extreme, it's actually a relief to forego social niceties-the chit chat, the smiles--in favor of focusing on your interior self. It's equally astonishing to realize after three or four days that you're no longer paying attention to cues from the external world, but that you have truly turned inward.
Although retreats are not psychotherapy, you do learn a lot about yourself. When you let God take over, the most surprising things can happen. Like the time I was on a 10-day retreat at Insight Meditation Center in Barre, Massachusetts. I arrived on a Friday night to find that this very early spring evening was freezing. The first night, I shivered under thin wool blankets. The next day I had to ask for a space heater, which was graciously provided.
However, one morning a couple of days later, I went in to take a shower. I stood buck naked in front of the shower sticking my hand in periodically to test the water, but the hot water never materialized. After about 10 minutes (you can become pretty patient on a retreat), I turned off the spigots and tried the next stall. Again 5 or 10 minutes went by and no hot water. I tried a third shower with the same results. How can this be? I thought. And suddenly I was enraged. I re-dressed, grabbed my towel and cosmetic bag, stomped out of the bathroom, down the hall, across the lunchroom, and went up to the second floor to find a bathroom with a shower where the hot water flowed freely.
What became very clear to me that day as I "sat" in meditation was that not only did the retreat house have a plumbing problem, but I had a problem, a pocket of anger that exploded when I felt I was not being taken care of. You can retreat from the world, I realized, but not from yourself.
A more positive adventure came during a self-imposed silent retreat at the New Camadoli Hermitage at Big Sur where I literally recovered the Hail Mary from my Catholic childhood. I had been practicing Insight Meditation for a number of years and only attended Mass on the holidays and rarely if ever prayed Christian prayers-not since college. On this particular day, I was walking on the monastery grounds and saw a sign for Stations of the Cross. Curious, I veered off the dirt road and plunged into a thicket. Everything was so overgrown that I never found the stations, but I did find, just off this almost impassable path, a grotto created by a canopy of trees and bushes, with a statue of Mary prominently displayed in the center. There was a bench opposite, and I found myself sitting down and starting a conversation with Her. "Well, okay," I said. "Here I am. Let's see if I can pray your prayer." I then proceeded to line edit the "Hail Mary."
Hail Mary.. Yes, I could, in good conscience, say that.
Full of grace. Yes, I could say that.
The Lord is with you. I could say that too.
On it went, phrase by phrase. By the time I got to: "Now and at the hour of our death, Amen," I felt that I had re-established tentative contact, not only with the Virgin Mary, but with my Catholic roots.
The irony is that the more you "retreat," the more you connect not only to the past, but to the present and to the world around you. Things look more clear, sounds are more distinct, smells stronger and more pungent. Taste is enhanced. Foods create minor explosions of flavor in your mouth. Life opens up and deepens-as do you.
Of course, that openness and depth tends to fade once you're back home. But the felt sense and memory of the peace, slower pace, expanded awareness, and your opened heart remains, calling you back.
And if, like my young colleague, you think you can't be quiet for more than five minutes, think of the retreat as an extended conversation with God. Silence being, as St. John of the Cross once said, God's first language.