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The Silent Retreat

Unplugging for this ancient practice

I have a hard time "unplugging." My morning starts with a sleepy-eyed click on email, and most nights I turn in only after checking Facebook. Yet recently it seems God is calling me to spend time plugged in to him - only him.

Elizabeth Gilbert, author of Eat, Pray, Love, throws down this challenge: "In our crazy world, silence and stillness are two of the true remaining luxuries. You have to work hard to create those sacred pockets of stillness for yourself." The impetus for her yearlong journey of self-discovery was a divorce and ensuing depression: "More than anything, I needed peace. And modern life, for all its conveniences and all its opportunities, doesn't offer that. We almost have too many options."

Last summer some friends and I read Ruth Haley Barton's Sacred Rhythms, which echoed Gilbert's findings. Barton invited us to "unplug" using the ancient spiritual practice of solitude. As a self-imposed assignment, we attended a silent weekend at Montserrat Jesuit Retreat House—a bold feat for three women addicted to technology. The retreat center has a "no electronics allowed" policy.

I arrived feeling skeptical with visions of dreary hours spent with monks wearing scratchy robes. Yet I needed to hear from God about a ministry opportunity, so I reasoned, "Surely this - an entire three-day fast from electronics! - will demonstrate my earnestness, and He will acquiesce to my plans." I never got my "yes." That was, as you can imagine, not the point.

Father Boudreaux, who directed our retreat, encouraged journaling throughout the weekend. Here are some slightly scrubbed-up excerpts from my three-day musings. I share them to give you a glimpse of how solitude with God rather than a "yes" to ministry direction was my soul's true need.

Day One: After the evening session: I cannot sleep. The silence is deafening. What do you want from me, Lord? I thought I was supposed to give up that ministry and move on, but all the doors are shut. Did you want me to step out with no idea where to go? Is that the faith? Or am I just going nowhere?

Day Two: Lord, I am lost, and it happened so quickly. I have bought into what Barton describes as "poisoned by the hypnotic belief that good things come only through unceasing determination and tireless effort."

Afternoon: I am down by the lake; I can hear the waves ripple and feel the sun's warmth on my face. Abba, thank you for bringing me back - it makes me sick how fast I default to "do" mode. I know that life is not about the next extreme ministry experience, it is about loving well in my neighborhood, with my family, at my job. Forgive my greener-grass ridiculousness.

Day Three: Sitting on the dock before breakfast, waves, warmth, seagulls, and quiet. It is perfect. I can feel the newly picked wildflowers pressed between the pages of my journal. Abba, when I am back in the world of too many options, please let their deep violet color shout to me of this sweet time of solitude with you.

In Sacred Rhythms, Barton writes, "It is not easy to create this kind of space for attention to the deeper dynamics of the soul in God's presence." My friend Melody told me, "With all that was going on at work, I was afraid I wouldn't get to go. It even seemed that Satan was putting obstacles [in front of me] as I drove to the retreat - I have never experience such traffic in my life! Yet, the more I felt deterred, the more resolute I became in attending."

Our friend Rosemary added, "As the date approached, I really didn't want to go. Something that I wanted to do came up that same weekend, so I was torn. Yet I wanted to fulfill my commitment. Then I even had a little fender bender on the way. Apart from the fact that I would be able to hear (hopefully) God's voice a little clearer, I could also rest and be alone with my thoughts. I have realized that if I would practice solitude regularly, I could manage the hectic-ness in my world better."

Once we arrived, we found it took some time to transition. Melody said, "I was physically tired and wanted to sleep. As a Type-A do-er, I fought with myself over the first 24 hours, trying to ?maximize' my experience versus just resting. Unfortunately, this led to a feeling of restlessness. When I finally allowed myself to rest, I found I was more open to enjoying my surroundings and actually felt more connected to God."

My friends and I can't wait to go back. So join us next year, as we plan to Twitter about our experience during the weekend away. You know I'm just kidding, right?

April17, 2009 at 5:09 PM

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