As I sat in my office one morning, I felt so emotionally overwhelmed I thought I was going to literally explode. That’s when it happened. I looked on the Internet for the nearest silent retreat location and called the number with every intention on checking in that same day if they would allow me. It was a Dominican Retreat House run by Dominican nuns nestled in the middle of a suburban neighborhood in Northern Virginia. I checked in the next morning for two days not knowing what to expect on a silent retreat. As anticipated, there were no communications with the outside world—no cell phone, no television, no music, and no talking.
It was great. All of that stuff had proven to be a distraction from dealing with my desperate need for direct access to the Spirit of God abiding within me. I did not need any television or music to create a diversion from my thoughts about my life, nor did I need a conversation with anyone (friend, stranger or foe) to cloud out my ability to know what God was saying to me about my life. No loving opinions, no friendly advice, or for that matter no sympathetic understanding was at this point capable of adding any value to my state of existence. My only source of relief—God—required my undivided attention. Upon arrival one of the nuns greeted me at the front office and gave me the meal schedule and a quick tour of the grounds to roam at my leisure during my stay before showing me to my room.
The rooms were pretty much what I expected, the bare minimum. It was a small room with just enough space to fit a twin bed, a nightstand, a desk with a chair and a reading chair in the corner. Each room had a small, dorm-like wood cabinet closet, a small window and a sink with a mirror above it. The community bathroom and showers were down the hall. Shortly after I settled into my room one of the nuns knocked on my door to make sure I did not miss lunch in the dining hall. The dining hall was small and all of the food was prepared and served by the nuns. This was my first opportunity to meet the other retreatants on my hall.
The meals were in silence as well. We spoke through body language—a smile, a nod or even a slight bow to acknowledge each other’s presence. The retreat site was tucked away in a wooded area not far from the city and it amazed me how secluded it felt. The grounds were beautiful. Instead of windows, the entire wall in the dining hall was glass overlooking the wooded path behind the facility. In the place of polite chit chat about nothing in particular over meals, we all respected each other’s pursuit of personal silence.
It’s amazing, but eating a meal in a room full of people without having one conversation made me realize how much ‘empty chatter’ (even amongst strangers) is used to fill the noiseless space to fight off boredom or discomfort. Oftentimes, striking up a conversation makes us feel less vulnerable and gives us a sense of taking control of this feeling that seems to be controlling us at the moment. After the meal, I ventured around the building for a while—lingering in the small library of donated religious books. I was emotionally exhausted, so I slept most of the afternoon and woke up around 9:00 or 10:00 pm. At first, I read my Bible and some other reading material I brought with me. I really didn’t know what to do with myself. I roamed around the building again for a while and finally came back to my room.
I must have cried for hours that night. I couldn’t stop. I reflected on all the things that were going on in my life and was very saddened by my inability to just move on from so many hurtful things. It had been so easy for me to just detach from things before. I remember wondering, “How do you know if you have actually gone crazy?” I mean, people lose their minds all the time. How could I be sure that my emotional torment was not the beginning stages of a lapse in sanity? I cried and I prayed all through the night.
At one point I noticed a statue of a Saint sitting on the desk. I walked over from the bed and picked it up to read the inscription. It was a female, so I assumed it was Mary. It wasn’t. It was a statue of St. Dymphna holding a sword and a lamp with some evil looking figure in chains I assumed to be the devil at her feet. I had never heard of her before. There was a small card in the desk drawer that gave a very short description. I also noticed while roaming the halls that night that each room was named after a Saint. My room was named after “the patroness of those suffering from nervous and mental afflictions.” So, of course, I wondered if there was some significance to my ending up in the room named after St. Dymphna. I concluded that everything means something.
That night must have been a deep cleansing, because the next day I was able to get more clarity on my life through prayer and study. I took a walk in the woods and it felt like I was in the midst of a beautiful rainforest. There were creeks throughout the path and the damp trees acted as a sheer canopy overhead to the bright sunny day. It was nature at its best to usher in the beauty of God’s glory. The remainder of the stay, I focused on digesting my newfound awareness of the present moment. Finally understanding that repressing the pains and disappointments of the past (giving them license to torment my soul), and stressing about and planning for the future left me living a life with absolutely no awareness of the joys and peace waiting patiently to greet me in my present.
(Part 1) Part 2