Good Zeal

Reconsidering Silence

Silent reflections on the monastery lakeAfter hours fighting Monday traffic on the interstate, I arrived at the monastery grounds. I contemplated the old post and rail fence-lined lane thick with sycamores, dogwoods, magnolias, and blooming azaleas of pink, red, orange, and purple. The road narrowed and as I slowed down, I spotted the brown brick dome of the main complex and Jesus welcoming guests with outstretched arms. I saw the low directional sign, “Retreat Center,” and parked.

Although I had never been to a monastery or attended a retreat, I was burned out and I decided that I needed quiet, spiritual renewal, and human contact. Caring for a parent with dementia is full of blessings and challenges. It is exhausting, especially when other family members are geographically distanced. I was lonely, as my husband was working almost five-hundred miles away and my son was in the Jesuit seminary in Louisiana Cajun country. I especially looked forward to four days of exploring the monastery grounds, getting to know other retreatants, and laughing again.

Dragging my suitcase along the gravel, I was greeted by Sister Ava as she swept the front porch and then one of the staff provided my lanyard nametag and schedule and then showed me to my room. I walked in, hung my raincoat on the hook, and collapsed face-down on the bed, and thanked God that I found a place of respite and peace. I awoke just in time for the wine and cheese. It went downhill from there.

Before Supper at 6:30, we sipped boxed Merlot and nibbled on brie wedges and skewered fresh fruit, then moved to our seats for the Welcome and Orientation. Our leader, Brother Arnold, explained the theme for the four-day retreat and reminded us of the rules of silence. What? Did he say silence? I had enrolled in a silent retreat without knowing it! In my rush to get the early bird enrollment discount, I failed to read the fine print. Longing for human contact, conversation, and new friends, my plan backfired. We were required to observe silence after Supper Thursday evening until lunch at noon on Sunday.

Initially, I was consumed with thoughts of how to leave. It was too late to drive back to my mother’s home in Nashville. Then, the rain came. Not just rain, but threatening downpours with lightning and dangerous winds. In my room, I tried to make some calls, although we were encouraged not to. No service! I was trapped. Internally grumbling and irritable, I decided to leave the following morning. Due to heavy rains and flooding, I stayed. At the retreat, I learned that St. Scholastica prayed for inclement weather to lengthen the visit of her brother, St. Benedict, and I sensed that God wanted to keep me at the retreat.

On Thursday afternoon, as the retreat ended, the rain stopped, followed by bluebird skies, low humidity, and fluffy cumulus clouds. During the four days, I squandered my time sulking because I wanted to talk. However, I was introduced to lection divina, Lauds, Morning Prayer, and Vespers, relishing the angelic singing, routine, and rhythm, although I did not fully understand it. I only knew that I felt something special. On the long drive home, I realized that I felt calm, and my head was clear. I looked forward to seeing mother and resume caring for her.

Fast forward twenty years later. Although my first retreat was a self-imposed disaster, I continued attending retreats, making sure to skip all the silent ones. My faith grew and matured, and I became a Benedictine Oblate. I still managed to avoid silent retreats. In 2024, I was again burned out, feeling lost, and struggling to rediscover my place in the world as a recent widow. I needed a Benedictine retreat but the only ones I found were silent and decided I could endure it as my commitment to “obedience.” As an oblate, attending retreats regularly is encouraged, along with our other commitments of living according to the Rule of St. Benedict, praying the Divine Office, studying the Rule, observing lectio divina, and embracing humility, stability, conversion, and obedience. In the weeks and days leading up to the retreat, a sense of impending doom enveloped me and I regretted my decision. Ultimately, I decided to go.

As I dropped off my Chihuahua for boarding and pulled out of the parking lot, my phone rang. It was my son, Fr. Sam, who rarely has time to call me from the jungles of rural Southern Belize. I told him I was heading out to a Lenten retreat, and I was dreading silence. “Look at it this way, Mom. It’s just you and Jesus.”

That suggestion changed everything. The trepidation disappeared when I realized that I had four whole days alone with Jesus. Instead of squandering my time as I did twenty years ago at the last silent retreat, I embraced it and relished it, savoring every minute conversing with Jesus. Walking the beautiful grounds, hearing birds chirping, listening to absolutely nothing was delightful. With Jesus’ help, I cleared and quieted my mind. I turned a corner in my grieving journey. To say it was magnificent is an understatement. This time, I was open to spiritual growth, gaining positive insights and renewal. I thanked God for his perfect timing, arranging for Fr. Sam to phone me unexpectedly. As the retreatants chatted over lunch before departure, I realized that Grandmother Whitedeer was right: Silence is the voice of God.

By Jan Vinita White, Oblate OSB

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