I signed up for a silent retreat several weeks before I finished my master’s degree, at a time when I was really stretching hard to get to the finish line. I was mentally tired and looking forward to quiet and rest and time alone. I didn’t think I was all that concerned about it, however, until a few days before when I started getting a little skittish and jiggy heading into all that silence. I’ve done a few silent retreats before – one at a place down in Cohasset and the other during a weekend at home while my two younger sons were at their dad’s. The Cohasset gig was also by the ocean, and I went into it with no plan, but did a lot of walking, mindful eating, napping, meditating, making some art, praying, and enjoying the ocean and sunrises. I came out of it with a couple of decent poems and the ability to really hear the clarity of my own voice for the first time in my life, and a closer walk with God. Same result with the silent retreat at home – eating, walking, praying, writing, etc. but no ocean, just lots of getting comfortable with me and hanging out with God.
This time, something was pulling at me, some question I was not sure I wanted the answer to. I didn’t consciously know what it was but some part of me knew. I thought the question was this: What if I got my degree in the wrong thing and this weekend will bring me up close and personal to that truth? But that was only the ON TOP question, and some part of me knew that, too. I have already asked and answered that question anyway, a question I knew I would ask no matter what degree I got. That skittish feeling was strong enough, though, that I almost reached out to a friend for a chat over some grub, someone I admire very much who’s also confronted himself head on and tackled the voices in his head. But I emailed for advice instead, and he helpfully reminded me to drop the stories and just be in the moment, which is nearly always the right answer no matter what the occasion. I think I might owe him a burger for that.
Surprisingly, my epiphany of sorts came before I even left the house. I was pulling back the shower curtain about to step onto the rug when I got the real question and it was this: “But….what if God is displeased with me?” I thought it was my inner seven year old asking this question inside my head because the quality of her voice was so…insecure. But seven year olds don’t use words like ‘displeased,’ right? Uptight grownups do. Turns out, it was my inner schoolmarm, the one who is always cautioning me not to do anything out of line, or call attention to myself, or I don’t know, fart in public or laugh too loud, which I often do – the laughing, not the farting - or actually be out-loud excited about something and show it, or head off the main path in any way. Needless to say, she’s a pain in the ass. I bet you have one, too.
At any rate, she is a pretty tough taskmaster, because she thinks that life is all about being safe and getting it right, and being a good girl - whatever the hell that is - and thus cautions me often. I know she is wrong on so many levels, and I have defied and ignored her advice many times (admittedly, sometimes when I maybe should have listened), but I know that for me, a life well lived is exactly the opposite of safe and right, that a life well lived is lived out loud in the light, and bravely and with lots and lots of mistakes and off-the-beaten-path journeys.
So when I heard the question in my head as I was getting out of the shower, it was like someone hit me in the solar plexus – what if God is displeased with me? This brought tears to my eyes (I confess it doesn’t take much these days). And so I cried, hard. Because that is always my question, you know, which is kind of the only question I really care about and kind of a crazy question, too, because God is not a person. God is a kind of energy, or maybe God is just an idea, but in any case, God is not separate from me and cannot, in fact, by its very nature be displeased with me. But the question made me cry anyway just for a moment, standing naked in the bathroom, until I pulled myself together and reminded myself what a bullshit kind of question that is, because of course God is pleased with me. Part of me wants to write the list of all the ways God is likely to be pleased with me, or should be pleased with me because look at this! And this! And that! But it’s a completely unnecessary list, because in the end I’m totally awesome and all is fundamentally well. I don’t have to prove anything, not to you or myself and certainly not to God.
And so the schoolmarm can take her cautionary little tales and bury them deep in a very dark place. I really don’t want to listen to her anymore (except when I really need to). As for the inner seven-year-old…well, that’s another story.
This retreat, as it turns out, I was full to the brim with a general sense of contentment and ease now that the hard question was asked and answered. There was no loneliness or longing or skittishness or wish to be elsewhere during my time alone, save for a few moments by the ocean when the wish for a partner broke through all the contentment and the tears came. Mostly, I was totally grateful for the life I have, which allows me to take this kind of time away from it, and there was no wondering if I was OK or had done well, or had a good year, and no lingering questions about my degree. I was just totally hanging out with God in the moment, walking, meditating, writing, making a little art, eating mindfully, and exploring any path in the general vicinity I could find. Some of them were pretty awesome.
However, I spent the weekend with about 40 Catholics who did not, it seems, sign up for the same silent retreat I did. They were lovely people – I have yet to meet a practicing Catholic I don’t like – but many of them used their cell phones or ipads, or whispered to each other in the hallway, and person after person would say ‘excuse me’ or ‘thank you’ right out loud, in a whispery sort of way as we passed in the narrow hallways or held the door for each other. I was often shocked by my own internal reaction, which was to silently scream at them to please shut the fuck up already, don’t you know what silence is?! I confess this is not a very nice part of myself, but this mean, judgmental thought would come unbidden before I could stop it, even as I smiled at them with my mouth closed. I eventually learned to keep my head and gaze down, but it was an effort, because I look everybody in the eye these days, I hold my head high and I smile at people. This old posture – head down, gaze averted - felt foreign and old and heavy but deeply necessary, so I did it.
Clearly I had expectations of what my weekend was supposed to look like, at least in terms of communication with other people. It took me a full day to realize that these folks had a totally different agenda than I did. Every few hours, it seemed, those crazy Catholics, as I fondly began to call them, would have another liturgy or a mass or some ceremony to celebrate a saint and gather ‘round the hearth, which was in a room right in the middle of the many joined buildings. More than once, I would lose track of their next gathering time, head to the other side of the building, usually just before a meal, and be confronted by the barrier of their group gathered in that middle room, talking and praying and sharing stories. “Next time,” I promised myself, “I’m going where the Buddhists are, or maybe the Quakers. They know how to be silent. Or maybe I’ll just take myself to the middle of the woods somewhere and pitch a tent.”
On the last night, I’m ashamed to admit, I walked right through the middle of mass, which was not in a formal chapel or I could never have done it. Or maybe I should say, I tiptoed around the outside of the group, trying to be invisible because I didn’t want to go around this time - it was dark and rainy outside, I wasn’t dressed to be outdoors, I was carrying a dirty plate, it was after the start of dinner time, I was hungry and wasn’t this supposed to be a silent retreat, for God’s sake?!? I cringed for an hour after that tiptoe episode, and almost got up to make a public apology the next day at lunch – a group affair not at all silent with the clanking of dishes and silverware and those surreptitious and sporadic whispers to the chef and his helper, and sometimes to each other - because I felt so uncomfortable about nearly disrupting their religious ritual. I imagined my poor grandmother turning in her grave (she was a devout Catholic) and I am deeply respectful of other people’s religious rituals (from all religions). But I realized nobody really noticed me, and I hadn’t hurt them in any way as I tiptoed by. I mean, communion went on as usual, and as a person who takes communion fairly regularly, and fairly seriously, I know that people are internally focused during that time and don’t notice much around them anyway so I…well, I… I…uh…just…kept…silent….and just kept eating my lunch.
Now don’t get me wrong. Under different circumstances, i.e. if I had signed up for the same retreat they had, I would have participated in those crazy Catholics’ ceremonies and sermons and chats without a problem. I was raised Catholic and have no quarrel with the faith. I’m a Jesus fan myself, and also a bit of a Sufi and a Buddhist, and enjoy a good Hindu kirtan now and then. I mean, at their core, most religions have the same basic message – love God, be kind to other people, and don’t be an asshole. It’s only on the outside that religions look different, but dig deep enough and that’s the basic message, so I feel no need to pick one and claim it as my own. So my point is not that Catholics are crazy – they’re not – it’s just that MY work was to be present for what was, which was not at all what I expected. And that, I think, is what life really is all about - being present for and fierce with reality, no matter what the cost…and staying silent when necessary.
* Reverberation is the persistence of sound in a particular space after the original sound is produced. A reverberation, or reverb, is created when a sound is produced in an enclosed space causing a large number of echoes to build up and then slowly decay as the sound is absorbed by the walls and air.