I went on a retreat this weekend to the Order of Julian of Norwich in Waukesha, WI. They are an Episcopalian contemplative order of both monks and nuns. Their service to the world is constant prayer, along with occasional hospitality to weekend guests like me. It was a weekend of reading, relaxation, and complete silence. Part of their way of life is to keep entirely quiet, so as to better hear the "tiny voice of God." It was a refreshing couple of days, but also terribly challenging.
Silence is a powerful, but frustrating spiritual practice. Each time I passed a sister I was overwhelmed with the compulsion to overwhelm them: "How are you? How did you become a nun? Do you miss your family? What do they think? How do you know who to pray for?" etc. When I talked to the mother superior of the house about contemplative prayer she gave me insight. She told me about the fluctuations in her prayers, how sometimes she has remarkable experiences and sometimes she just hears the Gilligan's Island theme on a loop. "Sometimes all you can do is sit your bottom in that chair, and that's what you offer to Jesus." Our presence and our desiring, no matter how wretchedly flawed, can be a gift to God.
Silence also makes one more sensitive and aware. When few words are spoken, the small things take on a greater significance. Small gestures, facial expressions, brief encounters--they are somehow more telling.
On Saturday, I followed their schedule completely. This meant beginning the Daily Office with Morning Prayer at 5am. "Coffee is ready at 4," one of the sisters told me with a completely serious face and matter-of-fact tone. Groggy though I was, I loved spending the day like that. I watched the sun rise and set. I saw the different shades and types of light. It's hard to believe how powerful that is. In my busy world there's just light, work, then dark. It was remarkable to see all the different hues the day has to offer.
Participating in the prayer with them was interesting. It was of course lovely, slow, and peaceful. But it was also a bit difficult for the uninitiated. Especially with no musical training, it was tricky to catch on. I felt a bit like Garth and Kat from the snl sketch, who caught in their unpreparedness, have to make up their songs on the spot. One closely watches the other and sings poorly about half a second after the other.
"It's hard to deceive yourself," Mthr told me about the silent, contemplative life. Our world has built too many structures and superstructures. It's become all to easy to deceive ourselves. It has become such that we continue in our same way of life, knowing full well that we are deceiving ourselves. "I know very well, but..." is our modern adage [If we need an example, we may think of the current ecological crisis: everyone knows full well how dire the situation is, but we lack the political will to do anything about it]. Would that we would all take a contemplative turn this Lent, to stop deceiving ourselves and do all the necessary pruning to live a fruitful spiritual life.