Saturday 27th January 2018 evening, just returned from Community of St Anselm Retreat 2: Ignatius Spiritual Exercises.
(If you read this and I start talking about phrases or ideas that you are unfamiliar with, please forgive me and do ask – I’m very happy to try and explain more).
The second of my three week long retreats with the St Anselm Community is over (the first we did in November), this time just with my fellow non-residents. It was the Ignatius Spiritual Exercises week, more commonly known as the infamous silent retreat. St Ignatius was a Spanish priest with a military background and founded a religious order called ‘the Society of Jesus’ (Jesuits). He wrote these spiritual exercises in the sixteenth century over many years of leading people on retreats and writing down what he did. We’d grilled the St Anselm community residents a bit after they came back from their retreat in December to try and get an idea of what exactly it entailed. Whatever their experience had been, they had all survived which was reassuring.
Our main question was, ‘So how silent is silent?’ Well, it turns out, pretty silent.
We arrived back at Sclerder Abbey – where our first retreat had been – on the Saturday early evening after a long train and car journey (definitely not silent). Once everyone had arrived via various modes of transport we gathered for our first evening together. We were blessed to have a few of the residents come and join the staff team to help cook and organise activities for the week, as well as be joined by some community members from previous years as either helpers or doing the retreat, so it was good to catch up with people over dinner whilst we could still talk! At the end of the first meeting the silence started, and it was ‘broken’ at dinner on the Friday evening with a feast.
During this time, we actually spoke/sung for an average of maybe two hours a day; we all said the liturgy (scripted text to follow) and sung songs during morning prayer and lunchtime Eucharist (holy communion), everyone had half an hour every evening with a spiritual companion to discuss what they’d been thinking about during the day, and we often had a more informal worship time for an hour in the evening where we sang a lot – outside of this (and a song to begin and end meals) we were literally silent; we didn’t speak. The idea with the silence is to limit distractions for each other so if it’s less distracting to whisper ‘pass the salt please’ rather than trying to mime what you want for five minutes then that is allowed, but general chit chat is a no go.
The silence wasn’t just not talking, but was encouraged to be not communicating with other people at all, including on social media; again this was to help us make the most of the week and not be distracted. It was a funny one as my last retreat had become ‘offline’ unexpectedly – my phone data ran out the day I arrived and with no WiFi I decided I didn’t want to pay for any more as I knew it renewed the day we were leaving, so I just went cold turkey and didn’t use the internet. To be honest, it was a welcome break for a while and although I did miss it, a week didn’t bother me too much. So back to this week, it was somehow a bit more of a deal as it was planned – family and friends knew I wouldn’t be contactable at all, and waited with baited breath to see if I returned alive. And as you can tell by reading this, I did. Again, being offline for a week wasn’t too traumatic – it was Dad’s birthday whilst I was away and I (just) remembered to wish him happy birthday before going to radio silence, and my friends knew I’d be missing the birth of their baby but would catch up on the news as soon as I could. I had my phone on airplane mode so I could still use my alarm and take photos, which were rather limited views as I kept my phone in my room. The stranger thing was not carrying my phone around on me the whole time. The automatic reach for it lessened through the week and there is a freedom in not having it fixed to you. On the Tuesday evening we watched ‘The Kid’ (2000) starring Bruce Willis. Firstly, it’s a miracle that I stayed awake for a whole film which started at 8.30pm. Secondly, it’s a comedy and we laughed a lot (yes, we had permission to laugh 😉 ). There’s a throw away line in it that isn’t really to do with the overall story line but really caught me; Willis’ character is on the phone to his PA as he walks through the door to his office reception where she is working, and she says, ‘take your phone off, you’re with a human now’. What a challenge for us…
So what did we do all week, just sit around in silence? No, not exactly. Well, I mean yes we did do a lot of sitting/praying/thinking in silence but we did a lot of other things too; the days were very structured. On Tuesday morning there was chanting in our bedroom corridor…there wasn’t rebellion in the ranks, we were being given the full monastic experience by being woken up by a CD of singing nuns. This apparently also happened on Monday morning but I didn’t hear it and slept through till breakfast had almost finished as my alarm hadn’t gone off either. I made sure after that to correctly set my alarm clock! We were kept to schedule with five minute warnings via the means of a loud hand bell, dutifully rung throughout the entire building so everyone inside and out could not miss it. We grew fond of that bell.
As I said earlier, we ate our meals together – in silence, obviously – and I have to say this was probably one of the things that concerned me most. Mealtimes are social occasions, for conversation, so the thought of just staring at each other/the table and listening to everyone munch their dinner sounded terrible. But that had been thought of, phew! When I say we ate in silence, what I mean is, we didn’t talk. We either had music playing in the background or one of the staff would read from a book. We worked through (skipping bits along the way) an autobiographical book by a Christian retelling stories of his ministry. Despite my poor relationship with books, I actually really enjoyed listening to it and looked forward to the next installment – it was something different to concentrate on. The whole situation (reading a book during a silent meal, that is) was often cause for amusement with odd words or phrases catching someone out and setting off giggles which rippled round the room.
We had three services a day in the chapel ranging from full liturgy to informal times of singing. I have to say, I do love wearing our white alb – it’s a physical sense of belonging (it also keeps me warm in a chilly chapel). We had morning and afternoon meetings where we had some teaching on a particular topic and were then given Bible passages and questions to look at during our four times of personal prayer each day. We could go off and find a space on our own and pray – these were the exercises written by St Ignatius that we would be working through all week. Our daily half an hour with our spiritual companion (someone who can help you work through your thoughts and pose questions that may help you move forward) was a lifeline for an external processor like me. I made the most of every minute I had to talk, and sometimes managed a bit extra without realising. We also had housekeeping to do such as cleaning and practical activities in the afternoon to help us channel energy in to something manual and give our brains a chance to think about something different. My first days efforts included cleaning mouldy walls in a loft room to prepare them for painting which is very satisfying with instant results! Another day involved gardening – now I’m not a gardener at all, so apologies to the Sisters If I pulled up or wrecked any precious plants, but I’m pretty sure the ivy and dead leaves covering the flower bed were for removing, so they are now in the compost. And labelling the laundry store appeased my love of organisation. All these activities were much appreciated by us as much as the three permanent Sisters who live at the Abbey and have many jobs to keep on top of.
Things I learnt about being on a silent retreat:
– Everything slows down: you can walk slower (this took me a while), eat slower (I’m already very good at this), it’s at your pace – and with this, you lose track of what day it is very quickly (by the time we had been there a few hours I’d already forgotten).
– I never thought I’d say this, but silence has been good for me – although I’m easily distracted by noisy pipes or a helicopter outside, you aren’t influenced by what other people are saying/thinking about as you don’t have the opportunity for those conversations (like we did on the last retreat). It’s just you and God for the week; you do however still feel like you’re going through the week together, which is comforting.
– It is apparently socially acceptable (preferred, even?) not to smile at people in the corridors, which I struggled with – it felt rude, and I just wanted to say hello every so often.
– I hum a lot and found myself doing this wandering round and then looking to check if anyone was about when I realised. I also apparently didn’t sing as quietly in my room as I thought I did – sorry Hannah!
– Eating in silence is weird.
– Everything becomes amusing and you have to laugh sometimes (salt instead of sugar in the chocolate sauce, the curtain falling off when being opened, a half lit room being plunged into darkness instead of turning the other lights on).
– You don’t go hungry: self service breakfast and two hot two course meals a day makes for a full stomach – huge thanks to those who cooked who did a sterling job 🙂
– If you want to see a great example of teamwork, be a fly on the wall for a mealtime (including washing up!) at a silent retreat – by day three everything was done like clockwork.
Having said all of that, I know it doesn’t really tell you exactly what we did; the details of the exercises and the writings of my journal aren’t for sharing I’m afraid. As with the blog about the last retreat, I won’t share the inner thoughts of my brain, but I hope I’ve given you a sense of the kind of daily routine we were in. It sounds intense, and it was. We could have a book with us, and I only opened it in our last hour of silence! That won’t be a surprise to most of you considering the past years efforts – whilst most of my friends were whittling down which book to choose from a pile, I was trying to find one, any one, to take with me. I took Mother Theresa’s writings as I figured she was a nun so might be interesting, and it was humbling to read at the end of the week some of her own thoughts and struggles she went through. I also took a brooch making kit as a creative outlet which was a good choice. A lot of time on your own when you’re an extrovert can send you a bit mad without something to do in the rare half an hour spare.
This silent retreat was like going through open heart surgery…and what’s more, being awake on the operating table. That sounds a very dramatic comparison to make, but spiritually speaking, when we spend an intensive week praying then things change in you and sometimes that can be painful, sometimes difficult, sometimes restoring, sometimes life giving – all of which are part of the process in open heart surgery. Except we can’t just switch off and go to sleep for the week, we have to go through it awake the whole time, feeling every movement, cut and stitch the surgeon makes but also experiencing the life giving effect of it straight away.
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To keep me entertained, the night before we went away I came up with a little game. I packed a load of odd socks with different designs on with the aim of choosing one at the end of each day to represent how I felt. I told this to the girls I travelled with, and they said I should wear it the following day and they could try and work out how I was feeling – the problem here was two fold: firstly, they would have to decide which sock from the pair I’d be wearing that I had chosen, and secondly, I realised after the silence started that I would be wearing slippers all the time so they wouldn’t see my socks at all – sorry girls, that failed! However, I did it anyway, and took a photo of the sock I chose each day. I’m not going to explain them but instead you can have a go at making up a sock story about my week…the best story wins a prize*!
*prize yet to be decided – it depends how good the story is!