With two kids, a "high-strung dog and husband," and a part-time writing career, Wesley C. Davidson was grateful when a fellow Episcopalian suggested a weekend retreat at a Benedictine convent near her home in Westchester County, New York. Her only concern: "How could I, whom my kindergarten teacher called a 'happy little chatterbox,' manage to be silent for a whole weekend?" Later, she filed this report.
I arrived on a Friday evening, late for vespers at 5:20 P.M. I signed in, and then a speaking nun, the "Guest Mistress," led me to my room on the second floor.The room had a well-worn desk with a college-type gooseneck lamp, a twin bed with afghan (homey touch), a vase with lilies of the valley, and a sink. A crucifix hung on the mint-green wall.
I was allowed to speak until after supper. Meals — all comfort food — were announced by bells, blessed, and served buffet style. I sat in the refectory with my friend Phyllis, retreatants from Connecticut and New York, and nuns dressed in the traditional habit. After compline, the final liturgical office of the day, we had to be silent.
Those on retreat are expected to join the community for public monastic prayer and to attend the Eucharist daily. According to St. Benedict's rule, there are obligatory times of daily prayer, "the liturgy of the hours." These include matins, which we observed at 6:35 A.M., terce (9:15 A.M.), sext (noon), vespers (5:20 P.M.), and compline (8:05 P.M.). Church bells announce the time of day, meals, and the divine offices.
These public offices took place in a chapel adorned with beautiful renditions of saints and Florentine gold touches. The services consisted of hymns, psalms, canticles, and other prayers set out in the Rule of St. Benedict. The revised monastic diurnal, bookmarked with satin ribbons, provides visitors with the words and music for each hour. The sisters divide into groups and face one another from opposing stalls. They, and we, chanted psalms, verse by verse, back and forth, responding to one another. There was no organ to accompany us.
At first I found the silence awkward. For example, how much eye contact do you make at lunch? But gradually, I found myself succumbing to the serenity and insight that are unfathomable with words. When you're not interrupted with talk at a meal, you can enjoy your food more. When you're not bombarded by car horns and radios, you can actually hear bullfrogs mating in May and listen to birds calling one another. While I sat on a park bench, I thought of the guest priest's meditation on nature: God is in every leaf and flower, the philosophy of pantheists and Wordsworth.
I moved at a slower pace. No longer preoccupied with mundane details of my life — marketing, answering phone calls, filling out school forms — I felt more relaxed and rested: no intruding cell phones to distract me.
I was able to turn inward and sit with whatever feelings I had. I felt less overwhelmed, more in control. I can see why Christ often took time apart for rest, refreshment, and prayer. Gandhi, it is said, devoted one day a week to silence.
For this safe refuge, I paid less than $100. And I was pampered. Not as in a spa, with its temporary rejuvenation; instead, my soul was pampered, with lasting effects. The silence brought on an inner stillness that made me open to my own voice. It helped me sort out decisions.
It was difficult to return to the speaking, whirling-dervish world, but at the retreat, in silence, I learned to take stock of myself and know when to be silent. Now, if I'm in the car alone, I often don't turn on the radio. When I walk the dog, I am quiet. And my prayers before I get out of bed have become like matins for me. Between that and my evening compline, I take a precious few moments of the day for restorative silence.