Recently, I went on a ten-day silent retreat. When I say “silent” I mean exactly that—silence during the day, silence during meals, silence in the halls, silence when walking outside. No conferences were held in which to ask questions or give comments. We were requested not to read anything, the only exception being Scripture. If the going got tough—if, because of the silence, we became bombarded with negative thoughts or memories—we were allowed to speak only to one of the two people leading the retreat. Finally, on the final day of the retreat, we spoke at dinner—but only at dinner. Because being in silence all that time makes one a bit spaced out, and since most of us had to drive long distances home, breaking the silence at the end was a no-brainer. We needed to re-acclimate ourselves to the “real world.”
I’m an old pro at silent retreats, so I expected to encounter nothing new. I’ve been attending retreats like this for thirty years. My experience in the past, however, has always been that these retreats were punctuated by conference times where lots of speaking was allowed. This last retreat’s absolute silence was a first, even for me.
I quickly learned that silence has a voice of its own. It is alive and it communicates, not just internally, with one’s own soul, but also with others. The only proof I can offer for this insight is that when the retreat was over, I felt as if I had known the other people there all my life, despite the fact that we had barely spoken to each other; that I had always secretly harbored a love for them, despite my never having met them before. It was an uncanny experience.
I confess I did break one rule during the retreat: I picked up a book by Elizabeth of the Trinity, a saint within the Catholic tradition. I had not read more than ten pages when these words leaped out at me—“Let yourself be loved.” I knew she meant that we need to allow ourselves to be loved by God, and she reiterated these words throughout the book. She understood that most of the time we feel unlovable and unworthy. We become frightened and think that in order to be lovable and to be seen as worthy to ourselves, others, and God, we must do, do, do. Inherent in this attitude is the perception of a God who is continuously judging us, choosing those who are worthy and those who are not.
Elizabeth wants us to transcend all of these silly, if not tragic, projections we place on God, and to see reality as it is, not as the phantasmagoria we’ve created where we attribute our illusory ideas to God. She wants us to see God as the One who yearns for our love, who wants nothing more than our permission to be loved in return.
If we believe this, then what do we do with it? How must we act? How do we just be? Why do we have such trouble with this thought—which is the exactly the same truth the sages, saints, mystics, and holy ones have been urging us to see over eons of time? Where do we begin? After years of seeing reality our way, and centuries of church teaching about a judgmental and remote God, we need to switch gears. But how do we switch gears that are entrenched and rusted?
I believe that each of us must find her own answers. Perhaps it begins by being open to those who surround us, allowing them to love us in ways they can, not only in the ways we wish to be loved. Or perhaps it begins by being open to the beauty of a flower, a bird, a baby’s smile, or the night sky, and perceiving in these things God’s love for us. Or even perhaps by being open to perceiving nothing, feeling rejected, while holding a broken heart. Elizabeth asks only that we open ourselves to seeing God’s love in all of life: the pain and the ugly as well as the good and the beautiful. And then see what happens.
One thing I believe: Any longing to see God in a new way is because God first longed to be seen in this way. Abu Yazid Bastami, a Sufi of the thirteenth century, expressed this truth long ago:
I concerned myself to remember God, to know Him, to love Him, to seek Him. When I had come to the end I saw that He had remembered me before I had remembered Him; that His knowledge of me preceded my knowledge of Him, His love towards me had existed before my love of Him, and He had sought me before I had sought Him.
It’s been three weeks since the retreat. Since then I’ve attempted to continue to befriend silence and solitude, for they are the friends who help me to be open and allow myself to be loved. But they do so much more. They help me to delve deeply within myself and meet, perhaps for the first time, parts of myself I have never known. They allow me to see others in new ways. They sometimes even help me perceive life’s patterns, showing me that on the deepest level we are all connected.
I recommend silence. It may last as little as five minutes. It doesn’t matter. Conscious silence harbors its own rewards—the greatest of which is the knowledge that we are loved.
Marietta Bahri Della Penna is the author of Song of a Christian Sufi: A Spiritual Memoir.