Lessons in silence and love

Way back when, when I was little, I gave serious thought to becoming a nun. Not because I really wanted to devote my life to Christ per se, but because a life away from endless social interaction and peer pressure seemed very agreeable to me. A life of quiet, calm, routine and plenty of time for reading interesting things. Kneeling on cold tile for long periods of time really did not seem such a high price to pay and the Bible is full of interesting stories, so that wasn’t bad either.

When I quit my job at the beginning of this year I promised myself that I would do new things. And so, when an acquaintance mentioned planning a short stay in a Clarissan convent for a silent retreat, I asked to join.  I had said yes without consulting Beloved, knowing that he would think it would be quite wonderful for me to do something by myself. Admittedly, when he  asked if he could come as well, I was a little surprised.

Yes, I know.. It seems rather out of character, doesn’t it? We are, for all intents and purposes rather worldly people. Do not really identify as religious (anymore). Then again, we’re both interested in expressions of religion and spirituality. We’re both curious and interested in doing things we’ve never done before. So maybe it’s not that strange after all.

With this long and only marginally related introduction I would like to share two positive and freeing things that I learned when I spent a weekend in silent contemplation.

Silence

I am appreciative of silence. I find it easy not to talk much. I am an introvert. However, usually when there is quiet, I am alone. The presence of other people invariable brings sounds. Not just the normal noises of moving, breathing and living, but talk. Chatter, if you will. Experiencing silence with and around other people, is a rarity, even if you do not know these people and want nothing to do with them. Seriously, go on a train ride if you don’t believe me.

Being purposely silent around other people is fascinating. It makes you aware of things you would say. Of the verbal smoothing of interactions. For myself I noticed that what I missed most, were questions. Especially being in an environment where everything was different – where there were rules that I knew I did not know – it is both terrifying and liberating not to be able to ask things. It made me aware how important affirmation by peers is to my sense of safety. Another thing: being silent forces you to be non-apologetic. There is no softening a ‘no’, really. You can smile, of course, or lift your hands in a way that says ” I can’t help it”, but in the end all you can do is shake your head. No. That’s it. And everybody accepts it and goes on.

Is human interaction really unavoidably one long routine of asking, requesting, looking for affirmation and being apologetic? What would happen if I changed that for myself? Not ask so much and apologize less and certainly stop apologizing for asking. It will be a freeing thing to try.

Love

Many churches base their readings on a roster that cycles through bible stories every handful of years. As it happened the story for the weekend was that of the Prodigal Son. In a brief summary, the story deals with a father who has an estate and two sons. The older son is dutiful and a hard worker. The younger one likes to party and, upon reaching the age of majority, he asks his father for his part of the (future) inheritance.

With this money he goes far away, until he has squandered all the money, can’t find a decent job (he ends up a swineherd) and almost dies of hunger. Then, he goes back home, feeling unworthy of his father’s love, but determined to ask his father to take him on as a simple farm hand. The father, overjoyed by the return of the child he thought he’d lost forever, throws a party. When the oldest son comes back from his work in the fields and sees his brother and father amidst all the festivities, he becomes very angry and jealous, telling his father that not once has he, the ‘good one’  been the recipient of even a small amount of the effort and joy that now befalls the youngest son.

I’ve always agreed with the oldest son.  I remember vividly how, when hearing this story as a child, I never understood (and was quite indignant about) how a parents could not value the obedient, biddable child more than the wayward one. I thought ” Damned right this younger son is not worthy of being a child of his father anymore..” and ” Sure, of course you won’t repent until after you’ve spent all the money..” Until I heard it again and it was followed up by the simple exegesis that love (parental love, divine love, love in general) is not something that one deserves. And then it sort of clicked.

While as a child I applied this thought mostly to others – not very generous, but it’s true – I think I have learned over the years that I  can, will, should and want to love others even when they don’t (always) “deserve” it. And yet, I had never made the connection the other way around. Fine, sure. I love people when they’re not perfect and when they’re sometimes stupid or selfish or not living up to my standards in some way. But I’d never actually applied that lesson to myself. This weekend, I did.

It really isn’t fair or productive to think of any sort of love as something that I have to deserve either. Something that I have to be worthy of. Something that I have to meet a certain checklist for, or do a certain amount of favours for or always be dutiful and obedient and perfect for.

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4 Responses to “Lessons in silence and love”


  1. 1 Sheryl March 27, 2013 at 2:51 pm

    I love the idea of a silent retreat and it’s always been something I’ve been interested in. Actually, anything like that where it’s a deep experience of just being fascinates me. Do you think it’s something you’d do again?

    • 2 thesmittenimmigrant April 4, 2013 at 3:05 pm

      I think I could be interested in it again, yes. However, I don’t know if I would choose the same setting. Perhaps a next time I would try a different religion that has a monastic tradition or an oecumenic or non-faith related retreat. Maybe I’ll even do something all alone.

      If you’re interested, I certainly recommend you try it.

  2. 3 Daria March 31, 2013 at 4:32 pm

    Thanks for this, lovely writing and food for thought..


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