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Silent retreat – great in theory, difficult in practice

Silent retreat – great in theory, difficult in practice

While silent retreats are gaining popularity in our busy, noisy culture, many people have a lot of trouble adjusting to the quiet. And what does it mean to be on retreat when we can stay connected to the outside world through cellphones and iPads? The Washington Post reports:

What do we complain about more these days than the tyranny of constant stimulation? Our attempts to tune out the outside world — the occasional radio-less drive to work, the concerted decision to leave the phone at home for a few hours — are often ineffectual. It has come to this: True solitude is such a rarity in our modern lives that we have to buy it — or … rent it for $70 a night.

But it turns out solitude isn’t that simple. Although participation in silent retreats is on the rise, many of those preparing to spend time at the hermitage [run by the brothers of the Franciscan Monastery of the Holy Land in Northeast Washington] said they were so unaccustomed to unstructured time alone that they made to-do lists — then feared they were doing “solitude” wrong and scrapped them. They agonized over what to bring and wear and eat, as if they were traveling to an exotic land.

Michelle Harris-Love, a neuroscience researcher, wife and mother who lives near the monastery, was happy to pay $140 for two nights at the hermitage. But as the days drew closer, a stressful question surfaced. “I thought: ‘How am I going to fill my time?’ ”

This is a serious question.

The Catholic University architecture students who designed the [hermitage’s] RV-size space worked to envision the needs and rhythms of tenants who were unplugged. They were asked to turn off all their own devices and spend an hour alone and silent. Of the 12, only three were able to do it.

“Everyone tried, but it started to seem like a waste of time” to them, said William Jelen, the professor who oversaw the project.

“It’s not easy to find silence.”

The biggest U.S. retreat centers, including the Insight Meditation Society in central Massachusetts and Spirit Rock in Northern California, anticipate the roadblocks to achieving an inner focus and discourage — in some cases, forbid — participants from bringing books or journals, even for weeks-long silent retreats. Retreat staffers say such rules are necessary to help participants focus on their interior lives, because many people would rather do just about anything else.

See full story here. Anyone have tips to share on how to get the most out of a silent retreat, or stories from your own experience?


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Clint Davis

Thank you, Peter. I wonder what we’d all be like if we got all the holy sound and light shows we ever wanted from God? Religion and spiritual practice would turn into a marketable, consumerist commodity. Oh, kinda like praise and worship music…(c), or mega church “worship experiences”. Poor substitutes for unbidden, grace-given religious experiences.

Maybe one problem with our culture these days is that people have mistaken, and then preferred, pre-packaged, marketable substitute experiences for the real thing, in love, religion, relationships and togetherness. Is that a form of idolatry? Maybe.

Peter Pearson

Years ago, on a silent retreat at a guest house of a monastery, I suddenly realized that, instead of forcing an ecstatic religious experience, it might be enough to make a cup of tea and look out the window at the snow. That was one of the most powerful insights I ever got and it still feeds me today. The key is to relax and just BE.

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I make my yearly silent retreat at a Trappist abbey. I make it a point to NOT make a schedule aside from following the monastic liturgical hours. I’ve found the best retreats are “unplugged” and without a “schedule.” And, sometimes, it’s just impossible to find peace even in silence, and I just have to accept it.

Cullin R. Schooley

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