This summer I’ll be going on another Jesuit retreat at the Ignatius House, here in Atlanta. My first trip, last fall, was a spectacular experience with insights and discoveries too numerous to name here. I tried writing about it a few times, but rather than letting that stream of consciousness flow unchecked upon the internet, I decided to put all those thoughts into a paper journal. My personal struggles aside, the retreat itself could use a bit of explanation.
The Ignatius House runs silent, reflective retreats on weekends throughout the year. Some of those weekends are themed, where every few hours a priest will give a brief talk about the faith as it relates to both the chosen theme and St. Ignatius’ Spiritual Exercises. The talks last thirty minutes or so, and then everyone is let loose to wander the grounds, both inside and out, in search of peaceful reflection on the topics. Sometimes that peace comes sitting in a fluffy chair in the library, while other times it strikes you suddenly in the middle of a trail leading down to the river. One thing I’m fairly confident about, though, is that it did strike all of us that were there.
Before the retreat kicks off, there is an informal gathering where people introduce themselves and share tidbits of their lives over cookies. It’s a friendly meeting, but you can tell that almost everyone is anxious to get on with the silence and enter their own mini-worlds. When the bell rang that signaled the beginning, there was a palpable weight that lifted and at the same time settled over everything. I remember clearly the reaction of a Methodist woman who was very unsure of the whole enterprise when that tiny ringing began. Her eyes widened and searched around the room, then, seeing everyone’s eyes turning inward, she smiled a broad grin and closed hers.
I’ve described the first day’s silence as a weight, like a foreign presence that sits on top of everything. You are keenly aware of it, careful not to disturb it, and anxious of the hows, whens, and whats of everything around you. The first few hours, my head raced with things I wanted to say, or ask, or mumble. I mentally ordered them, filed away for safe keeping until later when we could speak to each other again. It was daunting, thinking of how much I had to remember for the whole weekend. I even toyed with the idea of writing down all my thoughts and questions for later. And then we had our first lecture.
The topic was very apt, about Jesus’ love for us, and welcoming of us. It was an excellent introduction to the weekend filled with as many questions as it was pleasantries. By the time the old Jesuit had finished his little talk, I had forgotten my questions from earlier. In their place was a warm fuzzy feeling, like I wasn’t really there, in that place, in that chair, in the midst of strangers. I was on the first steps of a long journey and there was no one on the road but myself. I went to sleep early that night, dreamed heavily, and woke late. In the morning, things had changed already.
Besides the nagging questions of faith I was having, and the amazing clarity and speed at which I was addressing them, there were other things floating through my mind; like a meta cognitive awareness of my own learning, and a recognition of the spirituality of the place as a whole, outside of the realm of the people, statues, and paths carved all around. I found a leaf hanging ten feet below a branch from a single thread of a spider’s web. Plucking it free, I placed it into my journal with a smile. So much meaning comes from such little places when the silence is upon you.
That second day, the silence was a part of me. The stranger that had oppressed my speech yesterday had settled into me in the night. When the third day came, and the bell rang again signaling the end of the silence, it was a long breath before anyone bothered to speak up. When the words came out, they were quiet, like they didn’t want to break that tentative thread that held each of us in that place. We could feel ourselves suspended by a thread.
On the drive home, I left the radio turned off. I took long winding roads and several purposeful wrong turns. I was scared that silence would be gone the instant I was back in my old world again.
This summer, I’ll be taking a week-long retreat instead of the short weekend one. Instead of lectures every few hours, this retreat is individually guided, meaning I’ll meet with my spiritual director once a day and spend the rest of the time in silent meditation. My fear this time is not that I wont want to leave, but that I wont be able to.
My discernment is not an endless process. It leads somewhere tangible. Some day or another I’ll take that step, and places like the Ignatius House make me feel that the moment is very close indeed.