“I’ve begun to realize that you can listen to silence and learn from it. It has a quality and a dimension all its own.” Chaim Potok, The Chosen
I retreated to Tucson in January for my annual days of silence. It was luxurious to leave Minnesota in the depths of winter. The low desert sun warmed my stay. I had another engagement in Arizona, leading me to wander the web to see what might be available for retreat. There were several. I chose the Desert House of Prayer, which borders Saguaro National Park, providing access to acres of open land and miles of trails for exploration. Most importantly, it gave me several days of silence.
How quiet is a silent retreat? Not that quiet as it turns out! There is much to listen to.
The first morning I awaken in a dark room with no familiar cues as to what time it might be. I listen. Little by little I hear cars traveling down the highway that passes the retreat house. As their frequency increases I assume morning is near. The clock confirms it. I ready myself for 6:30 a.m. meditation.
Once in the chapel, I settle in and close my eyes. I hear a gentle rustling as fellow retreatants remove jackets and shoes. A large brass bowl is tapped by a wooden mallet and the chapel reverberates with its deep lingering gong. Particularly the first days, my mind gathers all the tidbits of tasks and reminders lurking in its recesses. One by one I let go of the intruding thoughts until my mind quiets to the rhythm of my breath. Twenty minutes later the closing gong jolts me back to the chapel. By now dawn’s light has broken through the darkness.
I stay for morning prayer. We recite today’s psalms aloud using a slow, steady cadence in an antiphonal back and forth, passing voice from one side of the chapel to the other. At the close of prayer we leave in silence. I walk the short distance to breakfast, gravel crunching under my feet. I turn my head at the whirr of a hummingbird hovering midair six inches from my face. I realize I am between her and the feeder. She ignores me as I move out of her path.
About a dozen of us are at various stages of our morning meal, sharing a long table in the kitchen. I hear sounds I rarely notice at home — the click of the toaster lever as the bread descends and minutes later pops back up. The ping of my spoon against the cereal bowl, the gurgle of fresh coffee dripping into the carafe. We sit without speaking.
Not yet ready for full silence, I walk to the library in search of voices of wisdom. I find well stocked shelves with familiar authors and new writers to explore. I carry a hefty stack of spiritual books to my simple, cement-floored room. Clearly I have not yet left my productive self behind. I wander through a few of the books as the cool morning gives way to a pleasant warmth.
Lunch is similar to breakfast as we once more gather around the long kitchen table in silence with a simple meal. Instrumental music plays in the background. Eyes are mostly averted, looking just beyond the face. Occasionally we make eye contact and smile before returning to the distant gaze.
After lunch I venture on a longer walk into the desert. A Gilla woodpecker screeches overhead, moving to the top of a Saguaro Cactus. Tap, tap, tap. I catch a glimpse of a stealth coyote, quiet as a retreatant. Cacti grow hither and thither, appearing in maze-like patterns, implying trails that are not there. I focus on where I have been in order to return.
Tucson is home to Air Force, Army and Marine bases. Sleek military jets roar in the distance. Hovering helicopters hang and hum in the open blue sky. This retreat center is but a small island of tranquility in an otherwise active, noisy world.
Not all the sounds of silence are external. Memories come to visit. Unresolved issues surface for deeper examination. My usual escape route through busyness and activity doesn’t work here. Pieces of my history emerge from what I thought were dormant roots, now watered by spacious stillness. I replay old conversations. Dreams interrupt dark nights. Here, too, trails lead back to where I have been.
I return to the chapel for late afternoon’s double meditation, two 20-minute sits connected by a 10-minute walking meditation circling the perimeter of the chapel. The second sit is quieter. I am surprised by how soon the gong sounds.
Each retreat house has its own rules around silence. At The Desert House of Prayer the evening meal is accompanied by conversation. We gather at round tables of six. I meet people who live as close as an hour away, and as far as Vermont and British Columbia. Some come for a few days, others for months. We share stories of our ramblings here and elsewhere.
Back in my room and silence, I open my journal to converse with the many spirits who visited during the day. Who are these spirit visitors? Among the most persistent is my intrusive inner critic. She loves to fill the silences with her own repetitive commentary. I banish her — again and again.
There is the recently deceased one who came in a dream to say good-bye. I thank him. There is a visit from my inner child who feels shamed by a long ago interaction. We chat about it. I offer self compassion and a willing ear. The ghost of mistakes made long ago knocks at my door but I decide it is time to claim my space and refuse him entry. Tonight’s listening session is ended.
My Higher Power is present for all of this, quietly awaiting my attention. Eventually I get there. I gather in a litany of my blessings, like a long chain of prayer beads, giving thanks for each one. I acknowledge my missteps and consider my amends. I ask for help for myself, and all those for whom I have promised to pray.
I fall asleep in the rich and deep, dark silence of the night, grateful for this sacred time away.
Mary Lou Logsdon provides spiritual direction and leads retreats in the Twin Cities. She can be reached at email@example.com.