Last Friday afternoon I was tearing around the house like a bat out of hell, tossing things in a suitcase helter-skelter and keeping one eye on the clock. I had an appointment with God in western Tennessee. In a moment of weakness, I’d signed up for a guided silent retreat at a convent somewhere on the way to Memphis. All I knew is that it was two and a half hours from Franklin and it didn’t take second grade math to figure out that I was leaving too late to arrive on time. Sigh! Not the best way to begin my weekend of retreat from manic modernity to silent listening.
Welcome to my world. Too much to do – good things, most of them – and simply not enough time to get them done. Was I nuts to waste two perfectly good days doingnothing? It made no sense (or maybe all the sense in the world) to intentionally carve out forty-eight hours – three days really – of a precious weekend to go away and just be still. That is, to shut up and listen to God.
Such an undertaking meant traveling to Stanton, Tennessee (pop. 615), to a retreat center run by two Passionist nuns dispatched to the Memphis Diocese about ten years ago from their Connecticut community. Somebody rich had donated land with the vision to build a place where individuals could come and do retreat. And so Our Lady Queen of Peace Retreat Center was born.
I came, not knowing what to expect. I came, expecting concrete floors and austere rooms and maybe nuns in old-timey habits. I came with two friends from church and all three of us were second-guessing this crazy thing we’d signed up for. Catt is a gifted songwriter and was already 11 days into a doctor-ordered vocal rest for a very worrisome vocal chord issue. She showed up with a 9×12 white board and alot of animated hand gestures. I sincerely doubted the transition to silence would be nearly as traumatic for her as it would be for Abby and me.
Sweet Abby is a kindred spirit from my Wednesday study class. She is young enough to be my daughter and I am grateful to call her friend. We have a lot in common; she grew up as a pastor’s kid and I was the daughter of missionaries. Both of us learned similar doctrines and traditions from our Baptist parents, many of which do not work for us anymore. It was non-stop chatter all the way to Stanton, partly to use up as many words as we could before the silent part of the weekend began, but mostly because there was so much to talk about. We listened to demos of Catt and Abby’s music and I cried because the lyrics were so beautiful. And I think Catt got wrist cramp from talking so much.
Two and a half hours later we turned into a long driveway flanked by gates graced with a cross and suggestions of water welded into the iron. Abby and I stared at each other, eyes wide in mock fear. Catt grabbed the whiteboard and furiously scribbled, It’s not too late to turn back!!!
Yes, Virginia, it is possible for 20 women to spend 48 hours together in relatively small space with hardly anything to do besides pray, walk, eat and sleep – all without uttering one single word to each other. My companions in this fast from conversation were 19 other women from all walks of life, ages 22–70. Mostly from Nashville, they left husbands, kids, jobs, and family. There were two sisters, a couple of business owners, songwriters, students and a couple of moms with four boys who were holding their breath that the house would still be standing when they got back home. All of us were on our own unique journeys, in varying stages of a relationship with God (or not) and all desperate to leave with something profound.
So what was it like, devoting 48 hours to shut up and listen for Jesus to speak – forsaking all forms of media (No email! No cell phone! No weather reports of an impending Winter Weather Storm Warning!) and without so much as a God bless you when someone sneezed their brains out in the middle of dinner? Well, it was pretty freaking amazing. And it wasn’t scary, it wasn’t as hard as I thought it would be, it was unbelievably relaxing and I can’t wait to go back and do it again, soon. The biggest thing that struck me was, when I intentionally carved time out of my overflowing life to retreat, how clear it became that we must retreat if we are ever to truly move forward.
I did pretty good with the media fast. Well, there was one small slip up, just after we entered into silence but I don’t think it really counted since I technically wasn’t unpacked yet. My iPhone was turned on because it they said it was okay to listen to music. But darned if I didn’t see the little Facebook alert icon when I glanced down at the screen. Hmmm… maybe I would allow myself one last look at the status updates. Scrolling down, I noticed a new blog post by a friend and the title looked intriguing (and oh… so spiritually inspiring) so I clicked on the link. Just one more quick peek, it won’t hurt anything and then I’ll turn off the phone, I promise…
Ironically, God even showed up in that dance with self-delusion. See, my friend is a worship pastor and so the weekly blog is a tee-up for Sunday’s service. It always includes the call to worship Scripture, and that’s what got my attention: Lamentations 3: 22-26. So why is that worth a mention, I’m sure you’re wondering. Well, we had just been invited into silence with a special Scripture and were supposed to meditate on it for the next 18 hours. And it was, you guessed it, Lamentation 3:22-26. Probably just totally random but really… Lamentations? I decided to take it as a sign that I should log out of Facebook and open up the Good Book.
In the two days that followed, I experienced no visions or signs or an overwhelming sense of a Presence in the room with me. Several received those graces but my time was mostly filled with a tentative balance of tranquility, attempts to stay engaged in prayer and a bothersome need to resist distracting thoughts fighting for space in my head. However! There were some things that triumphed over the noise, they were deep and profound, and I believe that it truly was Jesus speaking to me out of His love and nearness.
Was it worth it? Absolutely. I had come with several disturbing questions about my faith and had informed God that I was expecting – and clearly needed – some tangible answers. I’m happy to report that my prayer was answered. I was also reminded that my wish to be a deeper person of faith did not require singing Just as I Am, going forward, throwing a stick in the fire or reading the Bible more faithfully. In fact, all I needed to do was to invite Jesus into my space and then listen, wait and watch for Him to show up, sometimes in big ways but mostly in small, everyday stuff like Abby’s smile or the prickly things that I found on my Saturday afternoon walk.
Last weekend, I spent 48 hours in complete silence, far from the distractions of my digitally-dictated days. In that quiet I tried hard to listen to God. Sometimes I did that poorly. Other times I listened well and then I heard Jesus speak to me.
And He called me The Beloved.
About silent retreats: During a directed retreat each retreatant meets daily with a spiritual director to reflect on God’s presence and movement in their life as revealed through prayer, relationships and life experiences. The director listens to and encourages retreatants to give voice to their experience in prayer and to come to a deeper understanding of where God is leading them. Retreatants spend the rest of their day in solitary meditation and other activities such as journaling, resting, walking and reading, all of which are designed to deepen their awareness of God and their relationship with God. This silent retreat was held at Our Lady Queen of Peace Retreat Center in Stanton, Tennessee about halfway between Memphis and Jackson. It was guided by Renee Farkas and Gail Worsham Pitt, both of whom offer spiritual direction to clients in Nashville. They routinely facilitate silent retreats, together or individually, and you can learn more online at http://dovehouseministries.com.