Assistant editor Dan Hoffman went on a silent retreat to find out.
Posted in , Sep 26, 2016
That got me thinking. What does God’s silence, if that’s the case, mean for those who have a spiritual life? The phrase itself, “God’s silence,” sounds like it implies God’s indifference to human suffering. But is it so?
I had occasion to truly contemplate these questions a few weeks ago, when I went to the Abbey of Gethsemani in Kentucky for a five-day silent retreat with the Trappist monks.
There may not be a better place in the U.S. to experience silence. Aside from the Offices spread throughout the day, and two short retreat talks given by a certain Father Carlos, no words were spoken.
In all that reverent silence, no voice spoke to me that I believed came from a higher power. I’m sure others at the retreat might have felt differently. But I did hear the running inner-monologue of my thoughts, on a deeper level than usual.
Calling this experience a “silent retreat” is misleading, because it was more like an occasion to hear myself—often times more than I wanted to.
Although I can’t speak for anyone else there (after all, we didn’t talk), I have the impression that everyone came up against parts of themselves they were frustrated with, or that caused them suffering, or made them feel guilty.
As for me, it was physical pain that I had to face: hiking around the monastery’s land in the mornings by myself, I aggravated a condition in my back and left leg, and so I was forced to think about what this chronic pain meant to me.
By the third day, hiking towards Frederick Lake, one of the many beautiful spots at the abbey, I’d practically worked myself into a frenzy ruminating about it. When I finally stopped in front of the water, I sat down and began to meditate.
The silence around me amplified the discourse going on in my head. Then I recalled Father Carlos’s talk from the day before, when he told those in attendance that our true identities in the eyes of God had nothing to do with our attachments to our health, our professions, and our material goods.
Believing that these things constitute who we are, Father Carlos said, is what leads to suffering and self-hate when these things fail us. Although this was coming from a Catholic, it was remarkably similar to the teachings I’d encountered in Buddhism.
As always happens when I meditate, my thoughts drifted elsewhere and followed their wandering course. Then it happened—a subtle shift. It was as if I’d stepped outside of myself and was merely an impartial observer, eavesdropping on my own inner-monologue—and I was appalled at how I was treating myself.
The silence had its own voice, a non-judgmental one of compassion and understanding—even though it said nothing.
Now as I look back on that experience by the lake, I wonder if perhaps that was my personal version of hearing a divine voice speak. I can’t exactly say what was said, but for a moment, I saw myself from what many would call “God’s point of view.”
It didn’t take away my pain, but put it in a new perspective. The silence wasn’t indifferent; it was exactly what I needed to hear.
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