Standing the Silence

I was having a deep conversation with a priest who directs retreats, and he shared with me one of the consistent the graces that emerge during 8-day and 30-day Ignatian retreats. With his permission, let me try to collate his torrential wisdom as best I can:

One of the most extraordinary and privileged dimensions of my work is to be privy to God’s surgical work in the soul. Again and again the retreatants will say to me something like this — ‘I never realized how much junk there was in me, how much baggage, how many obstacles to grace and freedom I carried; but what’s even more amazing is that when all this muck is gradually exposed by God’s Light in my hours of silent prayer, I feel no shame, no fear, no guilt; only redeeming, merciful love that washes me clean.’ One retreatant was praying with Mark 10:21 — “Jesus looked at him and loved him” — and said after he had spent time with those words looking at an image of the Sacred Heart, ‘I knew overwhelmingly and beyond the shadow of a doubt that this man that Jesus looked at with such penetrating love was me; and even as he saw everything in me, still he loved me.’

But I have to tell you, Tom, that for most of these young people, allowing that inner garbage to surface in silence is very difficult. Not because they aren’t necessarily courageous enough to face it, or that they even want to hold on to it because it’s what they know — though in a number there’s that at work. But what they find is that they’ve been living constantly immersed in a culture of distraction that’s all about keeping them from really facing reality; facing the truth about themselves, their families, their choices, and, most of all, about God. Especially they distract themselves from painful truths, because facing pain requires that you have the safety net of deep relationships; and they find they often don’t have these. Relationships? — they barely knew their parents in a deep and meaningful way because they’re all so busy; parents are busy, the keep their kids busy, and when they’re finally together they’re in their own insular worlds. Parents are well-intentioned, but they teach their kids inadvertently that they don’t want to just be with them, listen, show real interest; and especially that some of the deepest communication happens when people are just silent with each other. They don’t know how to talk about meaningful things or waste time together or to express the hurts and worries. And because there’s so little silence in their lives, so much distraction, no ability to just be — alone or together. They have a hard time allowing time to merely pass at ‘the speed of life;’ any pause or slow down, or just facing of each other in a place without distraction makes them “bored.” They’re easily bored, and that makes relationships of consequence very difficult, because such relationships — with God or others — requires plenty of enduring the unexciting together, and learning to find joy and meaning and love in the ‘gap’ of just hanging around together. Isn’t so much of prayer that? So, these young people come here to an Ignatian retreat, find the silence without any technology, without any place to run to with busyness and distraction, and it’s very hard; but it’s such a good hard because the Lord, they find, is there waiting for them in the silence, wanting to listen to them long and speak with them intimately; and often they’ll suddenly have this wild epiphany: they’ve never paused long enough before to see what depths and meaning await them in the space of the silence, where the interference is diminished, the artificial props are removed, the hiding game is over.

They find that what they feared about silence and stillness — that it’s empty, that they’re empty, that really no one cares or that the silence will uncork life’s meaninglessness — was a lie. But it’s because Ignatius’ retreat gives them a strategy to turn the silence into a place of meeting, a safe garden where they can face themselves, their past, and any pain in the presence of God. And the greatest discovery is when they see and feel for the first time that God is lovingly gazing on them at all times, awaiting their responsive gaze. They discover that God is awaiting them in this garden always, and that stopping their frenetic busyness to waste time, risking boredom, is the only way to overcome boredom and allow it to be overtaken by God’s infinitely fascinating Presence that can make even the dullest parts of life overflow with significance; like the haunts of the barren desert where He especially enjoys to meet humanity and show Himself a consuming Fire. Even our crosses become altars of meaning; allow us to see evil for what it is, but with hope and love and faith that even the dark, dreadful, deafening silence of the cross is pregnant with God under the form of mercy. But if you haven’t learned divine silence first, you’ll never know this truth for yourself.

And they find another insight there — that loving people requires the ability to waste time, to be silent, to not just seek entertainment and stimulation in relationships, or what I can get out of others. Silence is like a school where they can learn life’s most important truths, especially self-knowledge, how to lose yourself, come out of yourself and your ego-centered world and extend yourself to others — and it’s in learning these that we find God, who is always and only found when we go out of ourselves, disentangle ourselves from all that keeps us self-absorbed, forget ourselves long enough to recognize God; and that God alone can fill the stillness and silence, heal my broken heart, meet my poverty, my weakness and my powerlessness with His infinity. But without the consent of our silence, He’s powerless. Think about that…

I’m thinking. It’s so quiet.

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