Sounds of Silence

Reflections on a recent Parish Retreat

On the weekend of 13th - 15th September some nineteen of us from St Peter's made our way to Parcevall Hall in Wharfedale, North Yorkshire. We came by a variety of devious routes but all were there for the first session after supper. The plan for the weekend was to be on the whole silent from Friday evening until coffee at 11.00am on the Sunday morning.

The retreat leader, Sister Christianne, was a French Catholic nun from the McGuiness Centre in Nottingham. She gave five talks during the weekend, displaying considerable energy and speaking in a strong accent, to which she often referred with a delightful fund of self-mockery. She was at different times thoughtful, stimulating, challenging, and encouraging; but shining through it all was a strong faith in the presence of God's love in the world, here and now, accepting each one of us - not only as we might be - but just as we are. We also did a number of short exercises on such things as 'listening', 'letting go', and acknowledging our own gifts.

How does one respond to the discipline of silence - or at least not talking to other people for the best part of a day and a half? No doubt there would be nineteen different responses, so I can only give a personal view. My own reaction reflects a mixture of feelings. On the whole I enjoyed the 'freedom of silence' - not feeling obliged to take part in whatever is going on, and being able to read and reflect in my own way without distraction. I got so used to it that I even found myself resenting having to 'come back' for meals or collective worship. On the other hand there was also a feeling of selfishness in shutting out the concerns of others and the wider world. Probably the least comfortable aspect was being with people I knew, at least to some extent, and not having enough opportunity to get to know them better. Perhaps being on silent retreat either with people one knows really well, or a group of complete strangers, would be better, or anyway less frustrating.

During time on my own, as well as rejoicing in the beauty of the contours and the quiet rural seclusion of Wharfedale (it is not difficult to feel holiness at Parcevall Hall), I found myself asking what may seem a daft question: 'Why don't I ever get angry with God?' This was prompted by Sister Christianne saying that she often did, or at least she had 'serious words with the Lord'. Unfortunately it seemed to fit in with the opening session in which she asked us our expectations for the weekend and gently chided us for expecting too little of God. Perhaps one doesn't get angry with God because one's expectations are too low! It seems there is always scope for having more faith.

A book that I was reading during the weekend stressed the significance of God's active presence in the world - today, here, now. I was struck by the way this echoed a theme from one of Sister Christianne's talks - living in the present, encountering God in the here and now. The title of the weekend was An Encounter with God, and there is indeed something very here and now about the notion of an encounter. For someone whose mind is always projecting forward and dwelling on future possibilities it is a good thing to be challenged in this way. There is always the danger of sacrificing or compromising the present for the sake of the future, so that, when looking back, one can frequently feel dissatisfied because of what might have been. This lesson is summed up in the following reflection by Helen Mallicoat, which was read to us during one of the sessions:

"My name is I AM." He paused.
I waited. He continued,

"When you live in the past,
with its mistakes and regrets,
it is hard. I am not there.
My name is not I WAS.

When you live in the future,
with its problems and fears,
it is hard. I am not there.
My name is not I WILL BE.

When you live in this moment,
it is not hard. I am here.
My name is I AM.

This somehow seems seemed to capture the flavour of the weekend. Returning to an intensely busy period I feel encouraged to try and 'take the present with me' into the future.

Jim McLean, September 1996
St Peter's Church, Nottingham
Last revised 5th July 1997