Sunday, July 17, 2011

Noisy silence

"I come home from the soaring
in which I lost myself.
I was song, and the refrain which is God
is still roaring in my ears.

Now I am still
and plain:
no more words."

Rainer Marie Rilke The Book of a Monastic Life I, 50

After four full days of wading deeper and deeper into the practice of silence, I arrived at this retreat already clearly on retreat and my director gently suggested that I might forgo the talking dinner, and "carry on" -- which I did.

Until, that is, four days into my retreat proper and after eight days of virtually complete silence. I got up (long past the official breakfast) took my tea and prayer to the edge of the eastern cloister garden, where the only noise was of the small fountain and the birds who frequent its cool waters. I went to Mass and after a lunch of fruit and yogurt headed to prayer again. I came down the stairs, rounded the corner toward the chapel to nearly run into an grey-haired sister, who stopped me and inquired, "Are you afraid of bats?"

Taken aback by this seeming non sequitur, I was momentarily speechless, finally spitting out a respectfully quiet "Yes, Sister."

"Well, there's is a bat in the Holy Spirit chapel." Oh. My.

Bats on the floor in the middle of the day are not a good thing. It was the fourth of July, so staff were in short supply. The rector, however, was in his office. Recruited to the bat banishing project, I was issued a mop and we went off to do battle.

Bat duly dispatched and disposed of, I decided that a walk might be in order. Let's just say I needed to settle a bit more before sitting down to pray. Walking out to the far fields, I leaned against the fence to watch a vintage combine cutting straw. On it's next pass, it comes to a lurching halt and out pops the farmer to say hello. Silence??

Back to the house, by now hot, drenched in sweat and interiorly, at least, still disquieted. I was dreaming of a cold shower, a bag of ice for the knee that felt as if someone had stuffed a dish sponge inside, something very cold to drink and the quiet of the garden. Heading down the first floor hall, I run into (nearly literally) Urban Spiritual Director, here to start his own retreat that evening. Twice he wonders, are you keeping silence? Well, not that you would notice today.

Cooled off and once again settled (and quiet), I cautiously ventured forth in prayer again. Whew. No flying furry mammals, no farmers, no friends. I’m back...yes!

Or not. I walked that evening, down the hedgerow path. Halfway down, I startled an owl, who came plummeting through the tree above me. I screamed (like a girl, as my brothers would say).

Noisy silence.


  1. Cathleen11:47 PM

    I'm feeling a bit guilty that I added to your "noisy silence", but it was SUCH a delight!!

    I had a similar experience one summer. A field mouse was on the top step of the pool, and scared the dickens out of an elderly sister who was getting in. Several folks were huddled around it, trying to figure out what to do. Since I live in the country, I simply picked it up by its tail and tossed it over the applause from everyone at the pool...:-)

  2. Cathleen,

    Ego te absolvo! Our conversation was all grace and twined delightfully into my retreat!! And who knew that Wernersville was such a crossroads?

    And I love the story of the field mouse... it must have been as relieved as those in the pool to have been rescued!

  3. Wow, I admire you for engaging with a silent retreat. I am a Jew and far too verbose to be able to handle that! :) We cling to our liturgy for dear life and I find the silence in the words.

    It seems symbolic somehow, that in the midst of the silence you had to vocalize your fears. It reminds me of Moses or Elijah, somehow. If we cannot vocalize our fears in the face of the Divine, then how can we engage in an authentic relationship with the Divine?

    This Good Life

  4. Lynda9:10 PM

    I'm so happy to be able to share my bat experience with someone. Many years ago I was married to a minister and as newlyweds we were sent to a country church with a very old manse. One evening I heard what I thought were birds in the downspout so we took the pipe apart and out flew what seemed like hundreds of bats. Being a city girl, I was horrified!
    That wasn't the worst part of the story. The next door neighbour was a woman about the age that I am now and the next day she told me about finding a bat in her bedroom that night that we opened the downspout. I said nothing but now that I am Catholic, I realize that would be considered a sin of omission and I should have "fessed up"!

  5. TGL -- now you've given me something to reflect on! When you decide to walk out with God, being startled might be a serious risk, and giving voice to our fears not an unreasonable response!

    Lynda -- the Jesuit rector told me his bat story, too, where he woke at a new posting to find a bat on his head, then found four more under his pillow. He spent the rest of the night sleeping (or not) on the desk.

  6. I am not sure if there is a correct way to be silent, but one can't avoid times we are called into conversation.