How does one prepare for silence? Should one practice for a few hours in the weeks leading up to a retreat? Or is it best to go cold turkey? Will there be withdrawal symptoms? An ensuing case of logorrhea?
I'm an old hand at silence, I tell myself. I beat the sun almost every morning so I can bask in the silence of the pre-dawn hours. Yet I long for this retreat . . . I want to get away from the proximity of technology, from living under the flightpath of a suburban airport, from neighbors mowing the lawn before the school bus shows up, from a voice so sweet and persistent that even writing about wanting to get away from it makes me feel guilty, I want to get away from guilt, from fear, from words.
It feels odd to pack a bag for a retreat. I think that if I just show up, it would be enough. But
I still pack a change of clothes, walking shoes, a shawl and a notebook . . . (So much for wanting to get away from words!)
It's an easy drive to the abbey. Just a couple of hours from Denver, yet a universe away. The nuns gave precise directions because the sign for the abbey seems to mysteriously appear and disappear from the main road. But it's there. Left at the dirt road . . . A sign warns of "gentle cows" on the road. A llama looks up; no cows around.
The abbey is a masterpiece of restraint and simplicity. It is one with the landscape, its walls, the color of dust. The retreat house is almost a mile up the road. There are lots of hiking trails we're told, and lots of rattlesnakes too. I'll be sticking to the dirt road.
At the entrance of the retreat house there's a table with brochures about "Living with Wildlife" and order forms for "Abbey Beef". There's a bowl with bottles of sunscreen, mosquito repellent and badges that read "Keeping silence". All the rooms have names. I choose "Throne of Wisdom" because the linens are yellow and it has two windows. There's a small bed, a desk with a Bible, a closet, and a mirror. I look out the window and see two nuns on an ATV headed for the fields, their white veils flying high, surrendering to nature. It's perfect.
I don't even need to wear the "Keeping silence" badge. There are only three of us here. We know we're not talking. But still, dinnertime is awkward. We sit at a small table where our meal is served. We pass the food to each other, the water, the bread. But we look at the food. To look at each other in silence would've been too weird. I can't stand it and leave early. Silence is much easier when you're alone.
The next morning, at 7am, I get ready for lauds. And so do they. We walk in silence down the dirt road and it feels good. Our feet, such strangers to silence, hush the mind... In the chapel, the prayers are chanted, back and forth, left and right. Sometimes the sisters stand up and bow deeply from the waist, straighten up and sit back down. The rhythm seems to spill into their day. And day into night. It's all so simple, so reassuring. I treasure my time here. Every second of it.
In the end, no rattlesnakes crossed my path. Neither did I see a bear or a coyote, although they're known to roam in the vicinity. There were no great visions or realizations, no epiphanies or apparitions. Yet, I left with a peaceful feeling.
How odd. Looking for silence, I found a rhythm.