5 Day Silent Retreat, My Mind Blowing Experience…
1/29/16 – 2/2/16
I have to admit, I was scared and anxious as ever to do this silent retreat – especially for 5 days. To say this was out of my comfort zone is an understatement. I applied for a grant 2 years ago through the Women’s Giving Circle at our hospice to become trained to teach mindfulness to our professional staff and caregivers. I found out 3 months ago that I was awarded that grant and began to apply for my mindfulness teacher training classes. I applied and quickly got rejected – my mindfulness class that I attended didn’t count as a prerequisite and they also required me to do a 5 day silent retreat! There was a miscommunication with an employee that I had spoken to several months back and I apparently was given wrong information. So, I started scrambling to find a mindfulness training for 8 weeks and in addition to this, a 5 day silent retreat. My yoga teacher sent me a bunch of different silent retreats, but they were a long distance away. I also needed to complete it before March in order to get into the mindfulness program at UCSD.
I stumbled upon St. Rapheala center in Haverford, PA. I called them and they were willing to take me for the 5 days that I needed. The St. Rapheala center welcomes over 5,000 guests of all faiths each year and offered a spiritual director, which I signed up for as I had no idea what to do on a silent retreat. The time grew closer and closer and there was more and more anxiety mounting up with the thought of being silent for 5 days. Anyone who knows me can understand that I love people and love to engage them – I can’t even imagine being silent with a room of people around!
The day before I left, I called St. Rapheala center and spoke to the nun who was going to be my spiritual director. I told her that I was planning on bringing a whole bunch of work with me and asked her if there was internet access. She stopped me before I could complete my sentence and said that this was probably not a good idea. She said I should try to follow God’s agenda and not mine. I paused, thought about it and said OK, knowing that I will still put my work in a suitcase in the car…just in case.
I also thought about lying to the mindfulness program at UCSD – saying they could only take me for 2 days. I couldn’t do it… So, I packed my bags and off I went into this unknown world of silence.
As soon as I entered this place, there was an unbelievable feeling of warmth. There were nuns at the front desk that had a great sense of humor and were laughing and joking with me. That curbed my anxiety for a bit. I was assigned to my room, which was lucky “13!”. I got settled in and then had dinner with about 30 other participants. It wasn’t silent yet – we got to talk, bond with each other, laugh and carry on during the dinner hour. What I found was that many of those who were doing this retreat with me were hurting… some had just gotten over something big, like brain surgery, or just found out they had a serious illness. Some lost their jobs and needed to find where they were going next. One person was an executive that was just burned out, completely fried, and was taking a leave of absence from her job. They were all wounded and in search for something here. It intrigued me.
After dinner, we all met with our spiritual director who set the stage for the upcoming silence for the next 5 days. She told us try to create space for God to move in and do His work and not to follow our own agenda. (I think that statement was directed toward me…!!!)
I went back up to my room and suddenly everything was quiet – you can hear a pin drop throughout the house. There was a calmness I can’t describe. It was 8:30 in the evening and I fell asleep.
The first day I woke up, I opened a book that I threw in my bag from a used book sale I purchased about a year ago that I never read. It’s daily spiritual writings from Father Thomas Keating. January 30th’s writing started with this sentence, “The root of prayer is interior silence”. I couldn’t believe it. Was this a joke? It went on and on about how deep prayer is the laying aside of thoughts and opening the mind and heart to God. I don’t believe in coincidences – I do believe this was a sweet message from God encouraging me to stay the course.
So, the first 48 hours, I slept and I slept and I slept. I woke up for silent meals, for centering prayer, and for walks in the snow – but then back to sleep I went. I truly felt like I was drugged. My spiritual director explained that I was feeling a deep relaxation and gave me encouragement to just rest in God. She was so kind – stating that God wanted you here so you can rest and not take care of anyone else but myself. I experienced the deepest sleep that I ever remember – like back when I was a teenager and just soaked up as much sleep as I possibly can and that felt like it was never enough.
Meals were very awkward. This is the most difficult part of the retreat. I brought a book in to read while eating and was told that’s not allowed. We are to “mindfully” eat. Food tasted really good without any distractions! The problem was that there were others in the dining hall sitting next to me and I can’t engage them. It drives me crazy. Especially the wounded ones – I want to go up to them and hug them and ask them how they are doing. I spoke to my director about this and she told me that God is working through them too. I can’t try to save everyone and that my main focus is healing for myself while I’m here. She told me to let God do His work. And I did.
Yesterday morning mass, the 2nd reading was the first letter of St. Paul to the Corinthians, the love chapter… This was what we prayed when my Father died in his hospice room and also the reading that I read at his funeral. I felt he was with me during that mass – it was comforting to me and I knew he was happy that I was there soaking all this care and silence in. He always told me that I needed to slow down and smell the roses – well, I’m doing it.
Last evening after taking a shower and putting my jammies on, I wanted to go down to the chapel to see what it was like at night. It was totally dark, only a small candle was flickering up at the alter with lots of shadows reflecting up at the vaulted ceiling. It was so peaceful. I sat for a while, and just cleared my head of thoughts and just sat quietly, listening to my own breath. I just sat. I felt the comfort of my warm jammies and smelled the bedtime lotion I just applied. Then all of a sudden, out of nowhere, I felt this surge from my toes up to the crown of my head that I was there saying goodnight to my dear Father. I felt the presence of my Dad and of God there with me at that moment. It was quite intense and then tears started to flow. It totally took me by surprise and scared me a bit, but then I slowly embraced it. I remained there a while and then went back to my room. I found my phone had a light on it as someone had just texted me. (I have not been texting – only to check in with my family once a day). It was from my daughter, Elise. She had just gotten back from church and texted a picture of the missal from Mass – it was the love chapter. She said, Mom – look! It’s Papa’s love chapter reading in church today! I know he was here with me today – what a blessing from God…
I have to say, I have been a nurse for over 30 years, have had a career of doing and going and getting things done. I have traveled to far off regions such as Africa, Haiti, and the Holy waters of Lourdes, and lecturing in different places in the United States – I can’t even begin to explain how just being still in prolonged silence has had as much impact on me as all of those trips. It is in the stillness and the quieting of my mind that I got back in touch with God to feel how much He loves me.
There was such a spirit of God there, it’s unexplainable. I felt as if I was in a cocoon. I felt cared for, nurtured and peaceful. I felt open and willing to receive God’s love. A softening happened that I can’t describe – I just know that it’s happened.
My challenge is to leave here and still try to find the place, time and the silence to go inward every day. To give God that space, without any effort, without trying, to sink into this Presence and let go of everything else. To rest in God. That’s my ultimate lesson that I’ve come out of this silent retreat with.
To rest in God and to just be…