It was exactly 22 years ago, when my middle child was an infant, that I mustered the courage to try what I’d been too nervous to — lest friends and family think me crazy. That is, to spend an entire day in silence, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., at a Catholic retreat center not far from my home.
I even lied to my mother, who babysat, telling her I was off researching a magazine story. Instead, I was sneaking into the back row of the dark-wood paneled retreat room to quickly assess my fellow attendees, and decide: should I stay?
No one was speaking in tongues. This was reassuring.
Then the retreat leader, a prim-looking middle-aged woman wearing tiny pearl stud earrings and a light touch of lipstick, explained how she spent every weekend, Friday night to Sunday afternoon, in complete silence. Silent cooking, silent cleaning up, silent gardening out back. Sometimes a friend or two or three joined her. Nobody talked. She explained all this oddness very slowly, calmly, softly. I was partly attracted. She did radiate contentment, even peace. And partly horrified. “Come on. Friday to Sunday in silence? Who am I kidding here?” I’m thinking to myself. “How nutty is that?”
Twenty-two years later, I’ve turned into a nut myself, I guess, since I am a seeker of silence now at every turn. Not all weekend every weekend — not yet anyway. But some time of silence every day in my home. I seem to need it. And some planned-for silent retreat where I can be silent with others for as many days as I can get away. (You may think you’d rather chat up your fellow retreatants at these events; I’ve felt much more connected by merely smiling and sharing the stillness, not ruining it with mindless small talk about kids, jobs, retreat house food, etc.). I also like reading about silence seekers.
“Is there enough Silence for the Word to be heard?” asked T.S. Eliot in his massive “Ash Wednesday” poem. I just read that quote in the January 2015 newsletter of my new silence find, the aptly named “Friends of Silence” website. It is packed with quotes from dozens and dozens of writers on silence: Henri Nouwen, Thomas Merton, Mother Teresa, Hildegard of Bingen, plus Yeats and Wordsworth and Shakespeare, who wrote, “silence is the perfectest herald of joy.”
It has links to more writings and quotes about everything from contemplation and compassion to forgiveness, faith, grace, mystery, wisdom, work, and death. There’s a blog by Lindsay McLaughlin, who helps run the website now out of West Virginia. There, “Friends of Silence” also runs retreats at the perfectly named Still Point Mountain Retreat house, a wooden cabin by a wilderness preserve overlooking the Shenandoah River and valley.
“Friends of Silence” began in the mid-1980s when Nan Merrill, a mother of five, was running a contemplative prayer group for those suffering through violence in inner-city Detroit. Merrill was a retreat leader, a prison minister, and keeper of copious religious notebooks.
“She drew from every book that came her way and jotted down in notebooks phrases or paragraphs that struck her,” says Lindsay McLaughlin of “Friends.” “After a while she got the idea of compiling these notes into a small newsletter that she sent out free to members of her group. She wanted to encourage them in their prayer life.”
The monthly “Friends of Silence” newsletter began with about 40 members. It has since grown, mainly by word of mouth, to between 6,000 and 7,000 subscribers worldwide, says McLaughlin. And it is still growing.
Merrill, who died in 2010, also wrote numerous books. Among them is “Psalms for Praying,” a lyrical and contemplative reworking of the psalms that’s become popular both in retreats and in private prayer.
For the silently inclined, Merrill’s “Friends of Silence” assures you that you are not alone seeking time apart. It also reminds you that there’s a point to all this quiet. One hopes, eventually, for a greater sense of love, joy, peace, patience, gratitude. “Friends” also disabuses those who worry about orthodoxy or the notion that silence-seeking is either new or in any way new age-y.
“Be silent and know that I am God.” That’s of course from the practically antediluvian Psalm 46.
And this bit of wisdom from the Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard (1813 to 1855) is surely even more relevant in our plugged-in, hooked-up culture than it was nearly two centuries ago: “The present state of the world and all of life is diseased. If I were a doctor and were asked for my advice, I should reply: Create silence! Bring men to silence. The Word of God cannot be heard in the noisy world of today.”