I recently came back from a six day silent retreat. It was the most profound six days I have spent in many years.

When I told people I was going on a silent retreat, I received a variety of responses. They were mostly positive, though one was unsure. 

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PICTURE: Matthew Henry/Unsplash (posed by model)

 

"I find it quite astonishing that many Christians are so surprised when they hear of people taking silent retreats. All of the great leaders of the Bible, including Jesus, spent serious time in reflection. Jesus would spend whole nights in prayer. He obviously realised the good it did Him."

The response that surprised me the most was when someone said I must be really strong to be able to spend six days in silence and reflection. My response back was to say that I’m partly doing it because I’m not strong and that it’s something I need to do for my own well-being.

From the days of the early church fathers, Christians have been taking time out in silence to reflect and develop their relationship with God. Reflection like this is seen more in the Catholic wing of the church. People like Ignatius and Francis of Assisi spent much time in reflection and silence.

I find it quite astonishing that many Christians are so surprised when they hear of people taking silent retreats. All of the great leaders of the Bible, including Jesus, spent serious time in reflection. Jesus would spend whole nights in prayer. He obviously realised the good it did Him.

So why did I do it? What was my motivation for wanting to spend six days in silence and reflection? A number of factors contributed to my decision. 

I have been seeing a spiritual director for some years now and have found the process invaluable. I have also come to appreciate the contemplative traditions of the church a lot more as I have aged. I grew up in the Roman Catholic church, with its rituals and set ways of worshipping. I left that church when I was 16 because I found it boring and no longer believed some of the doctrines they espoused.

More than 30 years later, as I have been actively involved in the pursuit of justice as an outworking of my faith, I have come to see the importance of contemplation as a necessary balance to an ‘activist’ type of faith. People like Richard Rohr, who founded the Center for Action and Contemplation in the US, have had an enormous impact on me. Rohr is a Franciscan priest and has spent his life teaching about the importance of contemplation for Christians who are active in pursuing justice.

The church I am currently involved in has a wonderful balance of justice-seeking and contemplation. We follow a liturgy each week and spend time in silence in a chapel at the end of each service. These times touch me in a way I could never have appreciated when I was 16.

In our 24/7 culture - where we find it so difficult to be still; where we feel guilty if we are not doing anything - taking six days out to spend in silence is a subversive act. The Protestant church, for one, could learn a thing or two about the importance of such stillness. So many churches, particularly the larger ones, try too hard to be relevant to the prevailing culture by being too much about entertainment and not enough about the still, small voice of God. We could all do well to consider the story of Elijah’s time in the cave in I Kings 19 to see where God is most likely to be found. It’s not so much in fanfare as in the sounds of silence that we are more likely to come face to face with the unencumbered love of God. 

Another response I had when I told people about my retreat was that many of us are fearful of sitting with ourselves for too long. We’re scared of what it will bring up. It reminds me of Henry David Thoreau’s truism, that most of us live lives of quiet desperation. An inside look can be confronting. But it is not about navel-gazing. The purpose of the retreat I went on was about getting more in touch with the love of God.

That, in fact, was the greatest challenge of the whole six days for me. Part of the retreat included an hour each day with my spiritual director (the only time I talked each day). The purpose of this time was to let him know what was happening for me and how God might be speaking into my life.

Towards the end of the week, as I told my spiritual director what had been coming up for me each day, he asked me how much time I had spent talking with God about those things. I suddenly felt a twinge of how King David would have felt when the prophet Nathan nailed him about his adultery with Bathsheba. I had to confess that I hadn’t spent much time at all talking to God about my revelations during the week. I had been thinking about them a lot but hadn’t spent concentrated time in prayer about them.

"Seeing Jesus again as a personal friend who is always with me was the epiphany I needed. I had come into the week expecting to gain some discernment about what the future direction of my life might be in the next six months or so. I ended the week with something far more valuable. As each day passed, I was struck more with the importance of ‘being’ rather than ‘doing’. My greatest desire in life has always been to be more Christlike. Now that was being revealed to me in a more conscious way than it had for many years."

My spiritual director - who knows a lot about my background, especially that I read and write a lot about theology - then reminded me that we can know a lot about God without actually knowing God as a friend. Ouch! While I do pray a lot throughout each day and have long had a personal relationship with God, I hadn’t spent as much time that week talking with God as you would with a friend. That included just being with God without even talking. 

As always, my spiritual director confronted me in a way that was gentle and non-judgmental. He then suggested I take a walk for an hour or so and imagine Jesus walking with me. I could talk with Him or just walk with Him in silence. The important thing was that I imagine Him being with me. I did, and it changed my whole week.

Seeing Jesus again as a personal friend who is always with me was the epiphany I needed. I had come into the week expecting to gain some discernment about what the future direction of my life might be in the next six months or so. I ended the week with something far more valuable. As each day passed, I was struck more with the importance of ‘being’ rather than ‘doing’. My greatest desire in life has always been to be more Christlike. Now that was being revealed to me in a more conscious way than it had for many years.

When people have asked me recently how the retreat was, I have told them it was profound. How can encounters with God be described as anything less? I learned in a deeper way the importance of being shaped as a person. And it wasn’t an intellectual learning; it was learned from the Wonderful Counselor Himself.

I remember the late John Smith once challenging a congregation about the call of Micah 6:8. Many of us are very strong on doing justice and loving mercy, but not so strong about walking humbly with God. For all of my adult life I have had a passion for justice, but that is only there because of the greater desire to be Christlike. My silent retreat clarified this for me in a new way. For that I am hugely grateful.