“Nowhere can man find a quieter or more untroubled retreat than in his own soul.” Marcus Aurelius
Where do you go when life gets to be too much? When your days overflow with tasks and decisions? When resentments simmer and bubble while violins sing woeful laments? Where do you go?
Life ebbs and flows. As tasks overcrowd my hours, the elasticity of a day stretches only so far before it snaps back. Some days everything goes according to my plan and I confidently step out on the ledge of arrogance thinking, “I’ve got it licked now! I can manage my life, plan for its contingencies, take the ups and downs in stride.“ Then I come face to face with a failing alternator, the soon-to-be-missed critical deadline and a rain storm that moves the lawn party inside. Where do I go to claim my calm?
It is not only when things take an unexpected turn, it’s also when the electronic world encroaches on my inner harmony. The instantaneous barrage of information keeps me up-to-date on the joys and sorrows of the world, but it is also disquieting. I long ago gave up television newscasts where soundbites vibrate with violence and calamities cause fear and dread. It was a bad way to enter meal time or bed time. As I read the newspaper with breakfast I decide what misery and angst to let in. It is not that I want to hide from difficulties, but I want to control how and when they enter.
The internet draws us outward. We connect with childhood friends, Nepalese mourners in the aftermath of a devastating earthquake and celebrities who twitter on and on. I don’t want to isolate myself but I do want a break from the bombardment. It is time to retreat.
Retreating is different from escaping. Sometimes I do need to escape. August heat and humidity drives me out to an air-conditioned theater or a few days on the North Shore. The penetrating cold of January sends me south. When I escape I flee, fly the coop. A retreat is stepping back in a more considered way. I retreat carefully from precarious situations. I step away to a place where I can take another look. I escape from a threat to my well-being.
When life is too much, I retreat into silence, letting go of unnecessary distractions. I turn the machinery off–my phone, email, Facebook, Twitter. I withdraw from the frantic energy of being on-line. Sometimes it is just for an hour or two. At other times I take a whole day or weekend. I hardly ever attend a meeting, a presentation, a performance without the reminder to silence my electronics. In so doing, I am called to a place of rare uninterrupted attention.
I periodically fast from my car radio and let my thoughts ramble. It is like taking a Sunday drive for my mind. I turn the radio off in the house, too. When I grew up the radio was always on. Clock radios allowed us to fall asleep to voices and get up to voices. Announcers on WCCO were like the people next door. Good Neighbors they called themselves. When I returned home for a visit, my mother would turn the radio down, but rarely off. Somewhere along the way I grew tired of the constant din. I longed for enough quiet to listen to nature’s seasonal sounds–singing cardinals, chirping crickets, rustling leaves–as well as my own thoughts.
I wonder how much silence will erode before we notice its absence, like Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, only in reverse. Would we notice a “silent spring” with our ears filled with earplugs and our eyes roaming screens for ever more images, headlines or Facebook news?
Silence creates a spaciousness. Curiosity finds a home in a quiet space. If you doubt the truth of that, think back to when you cared for a small child and suddenly became aware of the silence that crept in. You think, “Oh my gosh, where is she?” Putting on your nail polish, rummaging through the garbage, running water into an overflowing bathroom sink. Silence makes room for curiosity. I think it is why so many ideas are hatched in the shower or walking the dog or in the early hours before everyone else is up. This is why I go on a silent retreat.
Walking into a week-long silent retreat is like walking into an English castle with its tiny turrets, dark dungeons and vast corridors with doors that open into private parlors, dusty libraries and secret passageways. Where do I begin and who’s got the map?
Before I get to the castle, I have to cross over a moat filled with alligators of denial, care-taking, stubbornness and belief in my indispensability. The drawbridge falls open, I walk in. Now what?
What do I do in silence? I listen. Listen is an anagram of Silent, same letters in a different arrangement. The ability to listen is within the space of silent.
I listen and I sort. I spent a week at a a Mission in Guatemala recently. Among my work assignments was sorting coffee beans by hand, pulling out the unripe beans, the dried ones, those not fit. Part of being on retreat is sorting. I listen and I sort.
I listen to my same sad stories–of how I was bad, a failure, treated unfairly. Those go into the pile of old and dry and no longer useful. I listen to the stories of my own heroics–how smart I was, how excellent, how under-appreciated. Those get sorted into the pumped up and overinflated pile, no longer useful. I listen to the excuses and realize they no longer fit who I am. Finally I get to the real core. Here I find nuggets of truth–memories of people who walked with me, comforted me, encouraged me; sorrows still to be mourned; my gifts, in their true size. I gather them and hold them lightly. This is who I am–in my imperfection, my vulnerability, my humanity. Now I am free to collect the gems of gratitude scattered everywhere.
Each retreat has its own personality, no two are alike. By stepping away, pulling back and getting a clearer vision of not only what’s been, but also what is, I get a hint of what might be.
When I retreat into silence I reconnect with my own soul, returning more whole, more calmed, more myself.
Mary Lou Logsdon provides spiritual direction and leads retreats in the Twin Cities. She is part of the Education Formation Team at Sacred Ground. and has a MA in Theology and a certificate in spiritual direction from St Catherine University. Write logsdon.marylou@ gmail.com or call 651/583-1802.