Silent Retreat: Deepening Intimacy
Silent retreat is a serious commitment and practice common to spiritual seekers throughout history. Conversations about the spiritual journey are studded with transformational experiences that have occurred on quiet days, weekends, or even quiet months.
When my children were young, it was only possible for me to attend day retreats. But I remember being drawn to a rhythm of silence and longing for longer retreats. I was moved by the story of St. Anthony’s desert experience in which silence became a quality of his heart into which others could be invited. I believe the Psalmist’s prayer, “To you alone is my soul in silence,” is the heartbeat of hope.
Recently, someone asked about God’s initiatives in my life and I realized there is a map of retreat experiences in my soul, mostly from nearby Dayspring Retreat Center. On these retreats, I often packed my own struggles, questions or hopes for discernment. Other times, God completely surprised me. Always, there was a sacred sense of mutual expectancy and intimacy born from need.
On one autumn retreat some years ago, praying by the Dayspring creek, I noticed a familiar, now dying tree. I’d had important moments with this tree as we both went through various stages of living and dying. Some of its bark is in my prayer space at home, a reminder of the struggle and promise of letting go. This time, the tree was nearly gone. There was no more bark and what remained of the trunk was breaking down. I saw a long, shiny black line and was startled to see it was moving. A train of insects was plowing through the decaying tree, eating into the heartwood. It gripped my heart with personal significance. In horror, I asked, “Is this in me?” The answer came swift and clear, “No, this is my church.”
A new fire leapt in my bones and has never diminished—my call to church reformation. New sight was given, along with the intimacy of that seeing. In a flash of Love, I was saturated with compelling gifts of strength, vision, and intimacy. I was on holy ground, wonderful and terrifying. All I could do was absorb the experience. Though my life was forever changed, I could not see how it would unfold. There was no point in trying. If it had been shown I would not have believed it.
Step by step, over time, divine initiatives kept coming, all stoking the fire of my call. Go to Shalem. Go to the Church of the Saviour. Explore spiritual direction. Lead retreats. Stay close to Shalem. Teach at the Servant Leadership School. Start a new church. Join the Dayspring Retreat Mission Group. Work for Shalem. Become the Director of Shalem’s group leaders program. Reshape it as the Transforming Community: Leading Contemplative Prayer Groups and Retreats Program.
In the clarity of retrospect, I can see a flowing pattern that makes sense. What has become most clear, though, is the fortifying mercy intrinsic to the fire in my bones. That gift was given long ago by the dying tree at the Dayspring creek. Only God’s merciful love could break through my inadequacies and fears, transforming them into willingness to move into each next new thing.
In my experience, silent retreats and contemplative retreat leadership have been essential for deepening intimacy with God. And after 25 years of leading silent retreats, I have witnessed the multitude of ways they are profoundly transformative for others. “Come to a place apart,” Jesus urged. “Come and see where I live.” There, a new way of being grows which is continually refreshed by intimacy with the Beloved.
John of the Cross said that silence is God’s first language. In silence, God wondrously creates a unique, authentic spiritual community of retreatants. The gentle guidance and prayer of a contemplative leader supports and encourages greater opening to the Spirit’s invitations. Deep listening becomes alertness to the Voice that calls us home to God’s great heart and to the beauty and goodness of our true selves. Then, in the eternal flame of silence, the Empowering One fires our calls to action for healing our broken world.