The call of the silent retreat

A religious icon of mother and child in gold and red.
An icon and candle at St. John’s Convent in Toronto
 on September 28, 2022
Michael Hudson

Finding our inner calm and peace can be difficult in this world that is so full of noise, distractions, unrest and violence. We live in troubling times and are beginning to emerge from the isolation and chaos caused by the COVID-19 virus, only to be confronted by war, climate change disasters, and economic and social problems on an international scale. It is easy to find ourselves lost in the confusion of our many thoughts, opinions, preferences, beliefs and grievances. It is easy to find ourselves locked in a prison that is characterized by stress, struggle, anxiety, confusion and argument. There often seems to be so many voices arguing within – some kind of inner division.

In my experience it has been the silent retreat – the silence itself – that has the capacity to help us enter this inner division to find an inner beingness, an inner rootedness, a wholeness. Margaret Silf suggests in her book Going on Retreat that one of the main qualities that turns ordinary time into graced time, with the power to renew, to challenge and to redirect us, is an intentional time of retreat. This time is always a spiritual experience, whether or not the person making the retreat would call themselves spiritual. Going away for a time of silence always takes us closer to the core of our being – a space where we also touch the reality of God.

Many years ago, Simon and Garfunkel sang a song called “The Sound of Silence.” Over the years, the last line of each verse has stayed with me as an important reason for going off into intentional periods of silence: “within the sound of silence”; “touched the sound of silence”; “disturb the sound of silence”; “echoed in the wells of silence”; and “whispered in the sound of silence.” I hold them within this shared reflection, a backdrop for the importance of taking periods of silence – indeed, for considering going on a silent retreat. They are words that are pregnant with meaning for us today – within, touched, disturb, echoed, whispered – all gifts waiting for us within the silence, a way to still the mind and be more present.

Scripture records that Jesus frequently “went off to a lonely place by himself” to be alone with God in that inner beingness, that inner rootedness, that wholeness. At times of major decisions, he went off alone for an extended period of time, off in the hills in silence trying to discern his way forward. I know, and I believe so many of us know, that same feeling, a longing within us in the busyness of our daily life to just take a moment and gaze at the world, trying to see it through God’s eyes, a time to reflect on the ways in which God’s energy may be active in our everyday living. I know the graced times apart that silent retreats have given me, of having time to reflect on my life, on my community and the world. A chance to become relaxed in the time away from my normal and often hectic pace of life. These graced times have opened up a space where I can be touched by the gentleness of God’s unconditional and tenacious love for me and for the whole world. Silent retreats offer the time and space to open the eyes of my eyes, the ears of my ears: to open the eyes and the ears of my hearts as I search for a deeper intimacy with myself and God, or just to experience holy space while trying to make a decision or find inner meaning in the midst of grief or trauma.

Silent retreats are a time to do what Psalm 131 calls us to do: “I still my soul and make it quiet.” This is the open door of the God who waits for us, a call to an inner attitude of waiting and listening silence before God. It is so true that silence and stillness can cause me to address issues I might have been running from! John of the Cross said that “silence is God’s language” – and within silence, touched by silence, disturbed by silence, surrounded by the echo of silence. Like Elijah in the cave in the Old Testament (1 Kings 19:9-14), we discover that God is not in the earthquake, the wind or the fire but in the still small voice – the whisper of silence. I discover that God, the faithful God whose steady presence and companionship is with me – be it in the chaos, in the tumult, in the joy and the sorrow – is “uncovered and discovered” anew in the silence.

In the silence of a retreat, I often use a familiar meditation that is especially helpful when I feel like I am being torn apart by so many things. It goes like this:

Be still and know that I am God.
What does this mean to you?
Be still and know that I am.
What is the image of God in your life?
Be still and know.
What does God want you to know?
Be still.
Stop. Relax, take a deep breath. Empty your thoughts and focus on the presence of God. Be still.
What does it mean to just be? Who are you? Strip away all your roles and identities … and just be.


Sister Doreen McGuff is a member of the Sisterhood of St. John the Divine and has led and participated in many silent retreats.


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