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A Space for Silence & Prayer

Article by Judy Walsh-Mellett – September 2019 eNews

As a child walking in the woods,
I was not compelled
to ponderous thinking
or righting the world’s wrongs.

I simply walked
and paused breathless
if a deer or a rabbit
passed by.

Or gazed in awe
if I chanced to see
a Lady Slipper’s rare glory,
or delighted in the flush
on a blackbird’s wing.

I felt no need to plumb
the mysteries of life.

Or did I?

I wrote this poem some years ago while on silent retreat surrounded by forest. It occurred to me, after taking silent retreats in this wooded location for many years, that one of the reasons I felt so comfortable in that place was that it felt like the “home” of my childhood. It was easier for me to sink back into God’s presence surrounded by fields, trees, and wild water. God spoke to me here in a language I could easily understand.

Yet I have lived most of my adult life in the city. At times I feel that I arrived at silent retreat in the woods gasping for breath. It was not that I never prayed at home and in my daily life, but entering forest land while on retreat seemed to create a different depth for prayer so I sought it out whenever I could align the parts of my life to allow it.

As my children grew a bit older and my schedule opened, I determined that I could make monthly trips to this favorite retreat site—a quiet day here, a weekend retreat there, an occasional Ember Day. I took out my calendar and planned an opportunity each month for the coming year. This would be an excellent spiritual practice! The date of the first planned mini-retreat came and we woke to a blizzard; all of my kids would be home from school. It felt like a cosmic joke. The next month the night before my scheduled “day away,” one son developed a fever. More celestial laughter. The third date came and yet another situation beyond my control prevented me from going away for the retreat day. Some heavenly hilarity. There was something here for me to learn; some understanding that needed to seep more deeply into my heart.

I felt that God was inviting me to know and experience that I could rest in God’s presence as much at home in the city as I could away in the woods. This was an invitation to not wait for “retreat” to go deeper into prayer. Prayer could happen here and now wherever and however that was.

Later I had the opportunity to take children and their parents on retreats at another mountain retreat. I discovered that while these times away were restorative and life-giving for many, they weren’t for all. Some people were frightened of this strange land and the various creatures it contained. The distance to travel for these retreats was difficult for many and impossible for others. At the end of one retreat I was surprised to overhear one mother say to her daughter who would soon graduate from our school, “Well, at least this is the last time you will have to come here!”

Yet there are elements that retreats away in the woods often contain that can be assistive to prayer and presence for God: space, silence, beauty, simplicity, time apart and away from the daily demands of life and time for rest, reflection, prayer.

I wondered about urban spaces that provided these same elements. My “final paper” for the Transforming Community: Leading Contemplative Prayer Groups & Retreats Program in 2015 included interviews with three women who served in “urban retreat houses.” It was a gift to talk and spend time with these women. They each seemed unhurried, reflective, grounded, and open to God’s presence. They all offered a welcoming presence to whomever came through their doors seeking prayer and silence.

At that time I began to discern if and how to offer hospitality and space for silence and prayer in our own home and garden in the city; to offer the kind of spacious presence that I encountered in these other urban retreats. In 2015 I began to “put out feelers” and to informally host some small groups including the contemplative practices group that I convened as part of my course work with Shalem. An unexpected family situation caused me to put the dream of an urban retreat in our home on hold. Yet the hope was never far from my heart and this year has come to birth in the form of Still Place: An Urban Retreat.

Still Place is prepared for individuals and small groups of up to 10 people for daytime accommodation. In addition to space for silence, prayer and reflection, I offer guided retreats or contemplative prayer practices as requested. If desired, I cook for guests using as much produce from our garden as possible.

I am grateful for the “perfect timing” of this work and find this scripture passage shimmering with meaning:
     Write down the vision clearly upon the tablets, so that one can read it readily.
     For the vision still has its time, presses on to fulfillment, and will not disappoint;
     If it delays, wait for it, it will surely come, it will not be late.  (Habakkuk 2:2-3)

Several years ago a friend shared some counsel that his spiritual director had offered him: “Pay attention to what comes.” He, like I am, is an activist, a doer, not so much a “waiter.” This suggestion to “pay attention to what comes” has stayed with me and I wish to continue to put it into practice as Still Place unfolds. This new beginning is also a time for waiting and watching and listening. May I pay attention to who and what comes in the stillness.

For more details about Still Place: An Urban Retreat: https://stillplacemd.com/

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Scott Landis

What a delightful article to wake up to this morning. I am currently facing the big “what next?” In my life and your patience and accompanying words are inspiration to me. In he midst of waiting and wondering my impatient heart has unfortunately held full sway. Spiritual practices have weakened to the point of non-existence. The excitement of sabbatical and travel have supplanted silence and contemplation. I am grateful for your reminder to wait and the Habakkuk passage is perfect – now written upon my heart. Thank you and bless you in your work at urban retreat.