every year i go on a retreat - this year i am not going on anything organised or landing with a monastic community - i am simply heading into the woodland with a tent, hammock and some supplies. the phone and email will be off. i'll be cooking off a fire and off grid for a while... i have blogged before about silence and retreat. i have come to value this practice for my own wellbeing, my own sense of reconnecting with life, leaning into the love that holds the universe together aka god, remembering who i am and what's important, and i simply find that turning the noise off is regenerative. forgive the parallel but it is like making a clearing in a woodland - it lets the light in and new life comes. curiously enough last year in silence i had the idea of getting a woodland - i don't know if that would have come to me without space for nothing. but it feels great a year on to be going on retreat into the woodland that emerged out of last year's silence! for those of you into the enneagram for people like me stopping doing stuff is also an important practice.
i actually started the practice of retreat in an annual way because we were recommending it to all our pioneer students at cms. and i thought i can't do that if i don't actually do it every year myself! when i first did retreats i did a few with other people which i also really enjoyed and think in some ways it's an easier way into the practice. if that's where you are at there is a fantastic retreat been organised at the end of april if you are an outdoors type of person. it's a mountain retreat led by paul who is part of mountain pilgrims which is an innovative fresh expression of church in cumbria. there are a maximum number of twelve places so if you are interested in that i recommend booking quickly. see below for the flyer and the link to book is here. sadly i can't go on that one myself though it looks great.
on retreat last week i read silence in the age of noise by erling kagge - i have added ten photos with accompanying quotes here. i loved some of his ideas and quotes such as the luxury of unavailabilty. in today's world of always on and always available it's good sometimes to switch off and say i am taking the luxury of being unavailable.
if you follow the blog you'll know i have reflected on silence before (this post links to a series i posted) and even done a photography exhibition on the theme. but i was delighted to see space to breathe have produced a resource on entering silence that is available on proost. it's available free during lent and then you'll have to pay after that. so if you want a bit of guidance exploring silence then look no further - and i am making this worship trick 71 in series 4.
just back from a week on the isle of mull. it's now a habit of mine to take a retreat of some sort each year which is one of the best decisions i made a few years back. i always switch off from phone, internet, and any media and take some time to think, walk, be, pray, read, write, and take photos. the last few years i have been to a community wise in the ways of the soul to join in their life of silence and prayer. this year i decided to just head to scotland, risk the weather and camp. unsurprisingly it was cold - i had about 6 layers on most evenings. but it was glorious to be away and in the beauty of the scottish landscape and islands. i actually took my first retreat in this sequence on a scottish island so it was good to be back. i picked up a traveller who wanted to hitch a lift so i wasn't totally solo but headed off alone most days and then had company for evenings and meals round the fire.
it was lovely this week to get a few days retreat/silence/space for prayer. i found st clare's portiuncula on the web through the retreats web site. it is hosted by a fransiscan sisters community. the space itself has five rooms (hermitages) with a gorgeous view over the valley. the building is about 10 years old, beautifully designed with a lovely fountain in the centre that symbolises the overflowing of god's love for the world, and a chapel. it also has a peace garden with a gorgeous labyrinth in the chartres design. one morning when i walked this labyrinth it was so frosty that after each step the coldness of the stone left a frosty footprint as you can see in the photo. each day i met with one of the nuns to chat about how i was doing which was also helpful. i mostly tried to be silent and walk and pray and think but i did read chesterton's biography of st francis while i was there which was a good companion. it was a great way to head into lent...
the presence of silence went well at greenbelt - it was actually my first ever solo photography exhibition in a rather cute shed. thanks to everyone who popped in to see it - the venue was full all the time - though it was a pretty smalll venue!
i have written a reflection for christine sine as part of her lent series over at godspace on giving space for soulwork. here's an extract...
We are all fractured and wounded, more perhaps than we know or like to admit and it is far easier to keep the front stage shiny and bright rather than risk have a look back stage and God forbid make ourselves vulnerable by allowing others to come and have a look back stage. But this journey towards the brokenness of our inner selves is essential if we are to become more fully who we are, which is our life’s work. We talk about this with students as ‘soulwork’. Lent it seems to me is a season that is a gift to us to do some of this journey, this paying attention and soulwork. see here for full article
this is the sixth 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 | on silence  - individually guided retreats | on silence  - soulwork
these are a few quotes i stumbled across on silence on my retreat
The voice of God is best heard in silence (Anthony De Mello)
If you love truth be a lover of silence... More than all things love silence: It brings you a fruit that tongue cannot describe (Isaac of Ninevah)
Filling every part of this infinity of infinity there is a silence, a silence which is not an absence of sound but which is the object of a positive sensation, more positive than that of sound. Noises if there are any only reach me after crossing the silence. (Simone Weil)
I have shown you the power of silence, how thoroughly it heals and how fully pleasing it is to God (Desert Father Amononas)
Sometimes you have to disconnect to connect (James Martin)
this is a prayer that i breathed in and out for the first two days i think to help me slow down. i have loved this prayer for years and posted it as a worship trick way back in the first series. on the first evening of the retreat the two lines 'say nothing, ask nothing' summed up my intention for the retreat. i wasn't there for activity or even lots of words in prayer but simply to be in the Presence of Silence.
Before your God
Let your God look upon you
That is all
She loves you with an enormous love
She only wants to look upon you with her love
this may seem a slightly stranger one but the recent single from the villagers 'nothing arrived' first struck me when i was preparing a grace service exploring the ideas of john of the cross. he suggests that we need to let go of our desires for ambition, pleasure, knowledge, possessions and religious experience. and in doing so paradoxically find peace and union with god. i'm sure it's not quite what the villagers had in mind but it's been knocking around my head ever since and came to me several times on retreat.
I waited for Something, and Something died
So I waited for Nothing, and Nothing arrived
It's our dearest ally, it's our closest friend
It's our darkest blackout, it's our final end
My dear sweet Nothing, let's start a new
From here all in is just me and you
I waited for Something and Something died
So I waited for Nothing, and Nothing arrived
Well I guess it's over, I guess it's begun
It's a losers' table, but we've already won
It's a funny battle, it's a constant game
I guess I was busy when Nothing came
I guess I was busy (when Nothing arrived)
bruce cockburn's song 'mystery' has some lovely lines that in the beauty of the environment i sang to myself in the silence. these are a few
You can't tell me there is no mystery
It's everywhere I turn...
Infinity always gives me vertigo
And fills me up with grace...
And don't tell me there is no mystery
It overflows my cup...
This feast of beauty can intoxicate
Just like the finest wine
and in a moment of feeling at one with the world, with god, with myself, experiencing being looked upon by the love that loves us, of union or connectedness 'gorecki' by lamb (which i last heard i think at nic's funeral or at least it will forever be associated with that in my mind) was just extraordinarily appropriate, ecstatic even as i sat on a bench in the woods
If I should die this very moment
I wouldn't fear
For I've never known completeness
Like being here
Wrapped in the warmth of you
Loving every breath of you
Still my heart this moment
Or it might burst
Could we stay right here
Until the end of time until the earth stops turning
Wanna love you until the seas run dry
I've found the one I've waited for
All this time I've loved you
And never known your face
All this time I've missed you
And searched this human race
Here is true peace
Here my heart knows calm
Safe in your soul
Bathed in your sighs
Wanna stay right here
Until the end of time
'til the earth stops turning
Gonna love you until the seas run dry
I've found the one I've waited for
The one I've waited for
All I've known
All I've done
All I've felt was leading to this
All I've known
All I've done
All I've felt was leading to this
Wanna stay right here
'til the end of time 'till the earth stops turning
I'm gonna love you till the seas run dry
I've found the one I've waited for
The one I've waited for
ian adams runs morning bell - it's a simple e-mail and usually one sentence to reflect on prayerfully each day, a call to prayer. it gets sent via e-mail, twitter, facebook - take your pick. i realise i think i have never made it a worship trick so will add it to the series...
starting today is a series on silence with images and thoughts from me...
this is the fourth in a series of blog posts on silence. see also:
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...
this is the third in a series of blog posts on silence. see also:
sorry about the ridiculous title of the blog post. but one of the things people say about the Presence of Silence is that it is hard to talk about. the big word for that is ineffable. here's what the dictionary says about it
with synonyms such as unspeakable - inexpressible - unutterable - nameless.
sara maitland points out that if you can describe what happened and what it felt like then you have not had an authentic mystical experience! so this series of blog posts is probably utterly pointless - feel free to move on. but i do intend to try and describe a bit more my experience of silence in this series of blog posts.
i was in two minds when i went whether taking a camera would be encouraged. but my rationale for taking it as an aid rather than a distraction is that i think it helps me see, to pay attention, to look at things, to notice. and since thomas merton was into photography and awareness i figured that was a pretty good excuse! i blogged a few quotes about that here - a day of silence: photography and contemplation when i had been on a day's silence before. i tried that day to photograph the silence i experienced but i remember one member of the ealing photography group saying that they just seemed to be of a nice garden so clearly i didn't do too well. which brings me to the point or question of this post - if silence is unspeakable it is most likely unrepresentable in image and in photography - it's inephotographable. i realise that is not a catchy word so if anyone out there who is into etymology can come up with something better that would be cool. when i was googling around this sort of theme lots of the sites use the term capture for a photograph in this way - capturing the night sky or whatever. the more i think about it the more horrible a term that is - how can you possibly capture it? you might notice it or represent it or open up its gift but not capture - it's free.
all this by way of saying that one of the things i tried that is a great reminder for me personally of the time in silence was to take photographs of me in places where i encountered the Presence of Silence. but without the stories i doubt they open up silence to anyone else? i already posted the photograph of my coat which is actually my favourite because of what it came to represent, and me sat on a bench in the forest listening to birdsong. the photograph at the top of the post is me on a 3 hour walk in amazing countryside, snow and forests, but en route i crossed the A55 and it struck me that the stillness of my shadow on the bridge contrasted with the noise of the traffic below (that was probably the noisiest moment of my retreat) was a moment saying something about silence and turning the noise off, or finding inner silence when there is outer silence.
this one above is me in a forest with snow on the ground - i went for lots of really long walks. what i love about that photo is that it reminds me of how at home in the world i felt in the silence - connected with myself, god, creation, the trees - an experience of oneness or something and here i seem to blend into the landscape. apologies if i am sounding a bit hippy like!
this one is me in the rock chapel. it's a lovely little chapel that you can get the key to and wander across the fields to be in on your own. the idea is that if the key is gone no one else will disturb you. there is one bench and a range of coloured windows which represent different moods - i am literally bathed in the colours from those windows as you can see here. i went there about three times and had quite significant encounters with the Presence of Silence in that space - i called that photo 'held' because i felt held in the silence somehow.
i walked a labyrinth everyday. i absolutely love labyrinths - walking, slowing down, letting go, resting, breathing, being, praying, thinking, not thinking and so on. sometimes it took me an hour.
i went out at night several times. i suspect there is no one on the planet who has not looked at the stars and felt a sense of awe in the Presence of Silence. in n wales they are a lot clearer than in london that's for sure. i didn't have a tripod so rested the camera and this shot is an exposure of around 475 seconds. it's a bit blurry because the wind was blowing so the camera probably wasn't still. but to me this is an amazing gift that the lens sees of the earth actually spinning on its axis - the naked eye can't detect it but the movement in the star trails shows the gentle turning of the earth in space held in silence. what an extraordinary thing. i wish i had persevered and got a better photo but i was also trying to be in the silence and not get obsessed with photographing it.
there are a few others in this set here. see what you think. how would you photograph silence or is it an utterly pointless exercise?
on the silent retreat i lived outside. it didn't rain in n wales for 10 days! but it was cold. so this coat was wrapped around me almost permanently often with hood up. (since i have got back i have found i want to be outside more - in fact the first day i had to get out! i decided that outside is my chapel.) i came to experience silence as something to be enfolded in or by and the coat became more and more a sign of that sense of being wrapped. so in a strange way i think that while this photograph may not be magical in and of itself it is my favourite from the retreat. i had in my mind the phrase 'a cloak to mind your life' which is from a john o donahue blessing...
before i went on silent retreat most people who i mentioned it to said something like 'i could never do that' or that it sounds scary. i realised that all these comments had combined in me to think that i would experience it as difficult. maybe it's because it is unknown, or maybe it is because it's so different to our lives (at least in london), or maybe it is because we think of silence as absence. i found the opposite to be the case. i loved silence. in a way what is there not to love? i had set messages on phone and computer to say i wouldn't be responding, i had left all tasks behind, in fact i had no agenda whatsoever even for prayer, i was in a beautiful place, it was safe with people experienced at navigating silence. i found it like breathing or drinking in - and i was incredibly thirsty after three years pretty much non stop with the start up of pioneer training. of course it took a couple of days to stop twitching (as my guide put it). but it was pleasureable, had an ease about it.
one of the companions in my week was sara maitland's a book of silence. in it she explores silence in a much more radical way and in much more solitude and length of time than i was. it's a fantastic book and i found i identified with many of her experiences albeit in a smaller way. she too did not experience much darkness or difficulty. but one of the things that set her on her quest was wanting to address this thing in peoples minds of silence as absence. she says she found it to be the opposite and in her research others who have navigated silence have found the same. here are a couple of things she says
As time passes i increasingly realise there is an interior dimension to silence, a sort of stillness of heart and mind which is not a void, but a rich space.
I did not see lack or absence but a positive presence. Silence may be outside or beyond the limits of description or narrative language but that does not necessarily mean that silence is lacking anything. Perhaps it is a real separate actual thing... not a lack of language but other than, different from language; not an absence of sound but the presence of something which is not sound.
i came to call this sense the Presence of Silence. i think it relates rather well to terrence mallick's the love that loves us! it's hard to describe (which i'll probably come back to in another blog post - ineffable) but i sensed this Presence of Silence many times - walking in the hills and snow, sat quietly listening to birdsong on a bench, in the chapel in prayer, walking the labyrinth, and she came to me in dreams which i proably don't normally notice. to give one example each evening was an optional (everything was optional) group silence. at this you simply sat with others in the chapel in silence. the first time i went to that i was late because i had watched the sun go down outside over snowdon (tough eh?!) but here's what i wrote in my journal
After supper I watched the sun go down - such a beautiful day. So I was late for quiet prayer with the group in the chapel. That silence surprised me - it was weighty, the air was thick and when people left it thinned...
a thickness, a cloak, a blanket, an almost tangible something in the air - a cloak to mind your life? from now on i know this as the Presence of Silence.
the irony of this is that my experience of god, of life, of faith in the last few years i would say has been characterised by what i have come to call unknowing. by that i don't mean that i don't know things but i know a lot less than i used to. there is much more mystery at the heart of things. and whereas in my younger years (wow i really do sound old!!!) the experience of the sense of the presence of god was really important, i have now simply set my life's direction to follow in the way of christ and that won't change. i take what epiphanies i am given as gifts on the way but also what i have been given is enough. there is no better story to live a life by. i guess i am no longer adolesecent in my spirituality?! i have tried in my own way to pass through the veil of the senses. so i was very happy for the week's silence to just slow down, to be quiet, to still, to unwind, to be, to be in god, in the world. and not expecting to experience this sense of presence. but i bumped into her almost everywhere i turned! now i am back into london, into life, into noise, i am sure this will evade me but it was an extraordinary tangible thing. i will recognise her more clearly now...
i am back from an 8 day silent retreat. inevitably i will try and offer some reflections on it over the next few weeks or maybe months though i think it will take me a while to process and it's also possibly impossible to say anything meaningful about silence! i successfully managed to unplug from everything - phone, email, internet, texts. i didn't see news or an advert even the whole time i was there. that in itself was good for my soul. it was an extraordinary time. this is me in a typical pose sat doing nothing other than being - yes you guessed it - silent!
i was on a guided retreat so there were others with whom i was sharing the experience though we hardly spoke other than at breakfast on the day of departure. we were gathered on the first evening and one of the guides for the week, a lovely woman who you could tell knew something of the power of silence, shared a few words to set the tone for the week. poem is probably an overstatement but i wrote this piece afterwards and for me it set the direction - this was somehow what i was trying to do or be or let happen...
Whose outer and inner worlds have fused on the horizon of stillness
Who have waited like a bird watcher to receive the gifts that come towards you
Whose wounded soul has found healing in love's presence
You have been asked to say a few words about silence...
In a whisper only heard by leaning in with attentiveness,
but laced with the depth of oceans
Let the silence enfold you
There is an outer silence which is good
But you have come also to find an inner silence
That can be scary
Be kind to yourself...