The author Brennan Manning, who leads spiritual retreats several times each year, once told me that not a single person who has followed his regimen for a silent retreat has failed to hear from God. Intrigued and a bit skeptical, I signed up for one of his retreats, this one extending over five days. Every attendee met for an hour each day with Brennan, who would give us assignments in meditation and spiritual work. We also met together for daily worship, during which time only Brennan talked. Beyond this, we were free to spend our time as we wished, with only one requirement: two hours of prayer per day.
I doubt I had devoted more than 30 minutes to prayer at any one session in my life. The first day I wandered to the edge of a meadow and sat down with my back against a tree. I had brought along Brennan's assignment for the day and a notebook in which to record my thoughts. How long will I stay awake? I wondered.
To my great fortune, a herd of 147 elk (I had plenty of time to count them) wandered into the very field where I was sitting. To see one elk is exciting; to watch 147 elk in their natural habitat is enthralling. But I soon learned that to watch 147 elk for two hours is, to put it mildly, boring. They lowered their heads and chewed grass. They raised their heads in unison and looked at a raspy crow. They lowered their heads again and chewed grass. For two hours, nothing else happened. No mountain lions attacked; no bulls charged each other. All the elk bent over and chewed grass.
After a while, the very placidity of the scene began to affect me. The elk had not noticed my presence, and I simply melded into their environment, taking on their rhythms. I no longer thought about the work I had left at home, the deadlines ...1