I’ve been back for a few days from the silent retreat with my students at Holy Cross Benedictine Monastery in Rostrevor.
As ever, some seemed to embrace the silence more than others. But during the retreat one of the monks sets aside time to speak with us about silence and allow us to ask questions. A key point from this session is always that the silence is not silence for silence sake. Rather:
The atmosphere of silence is meant to provide you with the opportunity to listen – to yourself, or (if you are that way inclined) to God.
For me, this time one of the memorable moments from the experience came before we even arrived at the monastery. Travelling down with several of the students, Michael McRay from Nashville shared that he was somewhat of a veteran of silent retreats, having been on retreat at the Abbey of Gethsemani in Kentucky (the fabled home of Thomas Merton).
Michael said that when driving to the retreat with friends, they would ask each other these questions:
- What are you bringing to read?
- What are you bringing of yourself?
Michael invited all of us to answer these questions if they wanted to, and everyone in the car did. I was intrigued and fascinated by their answers. While it’s not my place to share their answers on this blog, I of course don’t mind sharing my own.
What are you bringing to read?
A book I picked up at the “Prophetic Voices from the Margins” conference in Ballynahinch last month, At Home in Exile: The Journey Towards a New Paradigm by Peter McDowell (published this year by Contemporary Christianity in Belfast).
I had also picked a large book off my shelf (groaning with volumes about the emerging church movement at the moment), but had not looked that closely at which one it was. So I couldn’t share the exact title with the others, but arriving at the monastery I confirmed that it was Michael Moynagh’s Church for Every Context: An Introduction to Theology and Practice (SCM Press, 2012)
Both of these books will be reviewed on this blog in due course.
Given that I had advised the students to use the retreat to create a space to reflect, and as a break from excessive working, I suppose I should have confessed that these two books are for me, of course, related to my work on my forthcoming book (co-authored with Gerardo Marti), The Deconstructed Church.
And I could have confessed that I probably too often blur the lines between my work and my personal interest in all things religious. That includes a desire to learn more about movements like the emerging church that goes beyond that of a detached sociologist of religion.
What are you bringing of yourself?
For some, this is a much more personal question, as it could be interpreted as asking people to share their anxieties or insecurities.
On the drive down I was anxious because some of the students had spent the previous week at an intensive module on Conflict Transformation, taught at Corrymeela by Wilhelm Verwoerd and Alistair Little.
This module demands that people share a lot of their personal stories and engage in deep self-reflection, which can often prove unsettling. Several students had warned me that there was concern about being ‘alone’ with silence on the retreat because they had found aspects of Conflict Transformation especially challenging.
Had I been particularly cruel in asking students to reflect further at this time?
Again, that’s not a question that I can answer publicly on a blog, but I hope to gain further insights if and when people want to share what their experiences on retreat were like.
I didn’t say it at the time, but as I reflected during the drive I also became worried that the very act of going on retreat can put additional expectations on yourself – to ‘get answers’ or to be ‘really open’ to ‘hear’ what messages might be there for you in the silence. And that’s not what ‘listening’ is about, either.
“Wondering if your students will be writing about their experience of silence during or after they return from Holy Cross?”
Students are not required to, but I encourage them to write down their thoughts, if that helps them to process the experience, sharing them only if they really want to.
And in future, I think I will introduce all students to the questions that Michael posed on the drive down. For me, these helped me to think more intentionally about how I would approach my opportunity to ‘listen.’