this is the fourth in a series of blog posts on silence. see also:
- on silence  : fragile poet
- on silence  : in the Presence of Silence
- on silence  : ineffable and inephotographable
i have added a set of photos to flickr which includes the self portraits in the last post but a bundle of other photos as well - in the Presence of Silence.
a few people have asked a bit more about how a silent retreat is structured. i am sure they vary immensely and i think there would be a lot to be said for just booking a remote place and being in silence alone. that is certainly how sara maitland went about it. but the retreat i went on is guided so you are in a place and team used to helping people navigate silence. the place i went to is st beunos in n wales. you can see from this picture that is in a fantastic location. in one direction is the snowdon mountain range and in another the sea. st beunos was featured in the tv programme the big silence if you saw any of that. as you'll see from the web site you can book in to retreats of varying lengths - 3 days, 8 days, 30 days... i was on an 8 day retreat. it's 8 full days. we arrived the night before and left the morning after.
st beunos is an ignatian retreat centre. i'll say something another time about ignatian spirituality which i think is amazing. it is roman catholic run by a community who share an approach to spirituality that is full of wisdom. i don't think for a moment this should put you off if you want to do some silence - it's a great place for silence whether you are christian or not, or indeed whether you are roman catholic or not.
the structure of the retreat is called an individually guided retreat. what this means is that anyone on a retreat meets with one of the team, a spiritual guide, for about a 40 minute conversation each day. this can take whatever direction you like. my guide was wonderful (as i suspect they all are) and it usually began with a conversation about how i was doing, how i was finding the silence, what had been happening, and if i wanted some suggestions for what might be helpful to think about or to pray. i discussed what i was experiencing or noticing, dreams, contemplative prayer, and my fragmented self amongst other things.
then the rest of the time is silent. mealtimes are slightly weird but you get used to it. as everyone else is there in silence it's easy enough as everyone is in the same boat. each evening there was the option of attending mass which i did - i enjoyed hearing the stories of the resurrection appearances (it was the week after easter) which sparked my imagination in prayer. and later each evening was an optional group silence in the chapel for about 30 minutes. it seemed to co-incide with sunset when i was there so i often watched the sunset and then crept in late. the group silence was a bit of a surprise - i found it had a different feel or thickness to it and enjoyed resting in that space with others. i went to that every day.
then the rest of the time you can do as you please. you are encouraged to leave work stuff behind, leave technology behind, and not to take lots to do. i read a couple of books - they were on silence or devotional rather than books to get lost in. i think i listened to 3 music tracks all week and even then that was because they related to what i was thinking about (they were jon hopkins fourth estate - a 30 minute ambient piece, lamb's gorecki which described my experience of union with the Presence of Silence perfectly, and bruce cockburn's mystery whose lyrics were just so fitting). other than that i sat on benches a lot, listened to birdsong, walked the labyrinth every day, went for really long walks most afternoons, prayed (though that was mainly being in the silence rather than a hugely active conversation), used the art room to do a few pastel drawings. and that was it really. that's how it works. what is extraordinary is that making space for silence seems to allow space for stuff to happen that either you don't have time for normally, or are not noticing or giving attention to. i'll say more in another post about some of what happened or surfaced for me when i switched the noise off...