When I slid into the pew that Sunday morning, I wasn’t looking for a getaway. I was looking for answers though. I knew that faith wasn’t working as it used to for me. I had met with one of our pastors several times to talk through this, and all it did was lead to deeper questioning. This showing up on Sunday morning was just me, going through the motions. I was moving my mouth to the words, bowing my head when asked, standing and sitting, listening to the inspirations and seemingly perfect faith of others.
On this day, I opened the bulletin to see the order of service and when I scanned down through the announcements, one caught my eye and wrapped it’s words around my heart- immediately. It was an invitation, an offer. It was an offer to anyone from our congregation to join our associate pastor on a guided silent retreat. Yes, I said that. A SILENT RETREAT. Who does that kind of thing? A little weird? How different. How backwards this sounded. But I was intrigued. What would happen on a silent retreat?
What I was hearing was that it wasn’t going to be full of empty words and teachings I just couldn’t listen to one more time. I liked that part. This was unlike anything I had ever done and it seemed scary. But despite that fear, something called to the deepest part of me. That part that was so unsettled. That part that had been wrestling for so long. The part that still longed for God but couldn’t find peace anywhere else. That part that felt exhausted by church and Christianity.
PUT YOURSELF OUT THERE.
And so, I did. I sent the email. Said I’d give it a try. Why not? No talking. I can do this….right?
But, silent. This-this was risky.
And then the email came back. Here are the details of our weekend and here are the names of the four women coming. My eyes ran down the list. I really liked all these people. I had always hoped for a chance to get to know them more and now, well now, we get to go away and not talk together. That didn’t seem fun. What am I doing?
But the information continued to reel me in. The Jesuit center we would be going to sounded so different from any place I had been. Here I was, already an accidental Mennonite and now I’m going to a Catholic retreat center? Growing up we had attended a non-denominational church and I had been a student at a Baptist school from kindergarten until I graduated from high school. It seemed I was always finding myself entering other people’s religious homes. Just this fact had led to so much questioning for me. Things didn’t add up perfectly in my world. Why does one group believe this and another that? Why do evangelicals look down on Catholics and vice versa. My life (and family!) had such a diversity in spiritual influences. I could see the good and bad in it all. My spiritual upbringing was a patchwork quilt. Why not add one more experience to it all?
We made our plans, we packed our bags. What does one bring to a silent retreat? I threw in a lot of books. Books and snacks, my vices to aid me to get through this just in case things just were too, um, quiet. And then that Friday arrived and we traveled together up to the center. As we talked, we found out that none of us had consulted with the other, each just felt led for one reason or another to try this. Though one of us had been there to visit for a day, none of us had tried the contemplative thing before. I felt better now that I was taking the plunge with a crowd. They too were uncertain what they were getting themselves into and now we just knew we were not alone.
We drove up the long, tree lined incline that led to the beautiful building we would be staying at. As we unloaded our bags, we were greeted warmly and then shown to our tiny, individual rooms. Each room held a small bed, a desk with a lamp, a chair and a small armoire. After settling in, we met for dinner and then were invited to a welcome chapel. As we walked into the beautiful, very old, very stained glass, very formal chapel, the quiet began to descend. You could feel the cares of the day begin to fall away. We sat and listened to the music, the prayers, and the invitation to a weekend of silence. This was followed by a meeting of the ladies from our church, in a room tucked back into the depths of the building. We would start by sharing what each of us brought to the weekend, do our best to release those things to God and to the hours ahead and then file off into the dark hallway to our rooms that awaited.
That weekend was the beginning of a new road for me. The place, the people, the prayers that saturated the walls, the majestic trees that stood outside of our windows, the silence that brought new awareness for all of us, the experience that connected us, all of that and more, it changed me. And from this weekend of quiet and prayer a connected group was formed (that same 4) who continued to meet with our pastor for group spiritual direction and return over and over to the retreat center. Several years later, my response to take the risk of a silent retreat continues to bring new spiritual formation and life to my faith. It never gave me answers to my questions, but allowed me to bask in the mystery of God. It allowed that longing a freedom to continue the search for more of God.
That group of women is now three, as we walked through the cancer journey with one of us who was finally set free from her disease riddled body. We have been through so much personal and communal loss, we have often wondered how we would have done it without each other and the place that brought us together. What if none of us had responded to the invitation in the bulletin that day? No matter the “what ifs”, we had listened.
We all heard it.
Sometimes risk just whispers to us. But if we are willing to open our eyes, willing to see what is placed in front of us, the whisper is quiet but clear. It’s an invitation for something more.
So much more.