The Lessons of Silence

I come to the Abbey for silence, and I am overdue for a big slice of the stuff. I’ll be here four precious nights, and I know they will race by. But the beauty of the Abbey is that nothing seems to race, not in the moment. Each moment has its own small life. This moment to pour that cup of coffee. This moment to notice the wind in that tree. This moment to listen to a cow call across the pasture and be answered. This moment to close one’s eyes and silently say thank you.

At first silent mealtimes seem a bit strained. How often do we sit looking across a table at someone and say not a word? We don’t know a thing about them, and there is that internal push to bridge the gap. I want to ask: Why are you here?

I remember the first time I came to the Abbey. I thought about the other people quite a bit, noticing the changes in their dress, their mood, speculating as to their past or future. I realized it was the writer in me, creating back story, and wanting to see a narrative arc, the one that would impel them forth from the place.

But I also realized it was the pastor in me, and the subtext of my thoughts was simply this: I need to help them. For the first time I realized how very ridiculous, and indeed, obnoxious this perspective was. This person, a stranger, does not need me. I can trust their care to the Lord. That person is here for a reason, and I need not speculate about what it might be, or where they might go from here. It is really okay for me to do nothing more than attend to my own journey. In fact, I am here to attend to my own journey, which I cannot properly do if I am attending to theirs.

A realization like this is one of the gifts of silence. Can I rest in my own journey and not fuss about anyone else’s? Not even for the supposedly noble purpose of trying to make their journey more pleasant, more comfortable, or somehow more meaningful. I realize with a jolt how wedded I am to the notion of myself as a teacher, as the person who can guide others into a deeper spiritual life. Silence helps me let go of that. Silence reminds me that I am a student before I am a teacher. Silence reminds me that I am a child of God before I am the pastor of other children of God.

The cattle are lowing. Excuse me now, I must go attend.


2 responses to “The Lessons of Silence”

  1. Ralph Martin Avatar
    Ralph Martin

    What a great post.

    I think that I was at Holy Cross the same week that you were (judging from the date you wrote this, and subtract two weeks).

    Very interesting thoughts. I had a hard time at meals as well. I am a talker. I like to talk to people and learn things about them. I did get to talk to several of the retreatants “on the road” while walking various places.

    I wondered a lot about the other people too.

    I enjoyed my retreat immensely, and am hoping to get to go next year.

  2. Theodore Roorda Avatar
    Theodore Roorda

    Dear Ruth, I discovered, back at High School age, while I worked during the summers mowing lawns for several of the prominent families in Lowell and Ada, Michigan, navigating over their often large properties, shut off from all distractions by the “noise” of the lawnmower, that I had my “greatest” thoughts. It was then also, through a very good English teacher at Grand Rapids Christian High, that I came upon a thought from R.W.Emerson which both empowered my self esteem as well as giving me a tempered perspective of my own sentient place in the scheme of things. The quote is from “Self Reliance”: “In every work of genius we recognize our own rejected thoughts; they come back to us with a certain alienated majesty”. This “silent” time was very productive for my intellectual development. Secondly, I perceive that you are a person both intensely curious about the mysteries of life which your own thoughts suggest (and find the “crap” of life interfering with), and at the same time seeking a deeper confirmation of those thoughts by discovering what the “shape” of thoughts are in other people. You are very bold and trusting (and admirable) in the way you put yourself out there in your blogs.
    I shall most likely not see you at the Presbytery Mtg. on the 17th.
    Peace and Love, Ted.

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