One of my ministerial friends is on a “silent retreat.” At face value, it sounds pretty attractive, with no looming distractions, no interruptions and no pressing deadlines.
The needed rest it promises is particularly appealing for those, like me, who struggle to keep the principle of the Sabbath while constantly being stretched thin with numerous pursuits, interests and commitments. Needed rest can so easily become just another responsibility to put on the weekly schedule.
But true Sabbath-keeping is not merely a break from work and an invitation to leisure. It is not intended for “me time” – working on hobbies, taking a drive, watching or participating in sports, exercising or enjoying entertainment. Nor is it a purposeful retreat from the expected demands of interaction with others.
While all these things can be restorative to our mental, emotional and physical health, none is equal to the greater spiritual value of an intentional silent retreat – a place for no phone calls, emails, texts, voice messages, Internet service, television, newspapers, books, radios, iPods, DVDs or other contact with an all-consuming and relentless world.
How long could you last without these tethers of information and involvement to what’s happening? One of the desert fathers, St. Anthony, summarizes it thusly: “Who wishes to dwell in the solitude of the desert is delivered from three conflicts: hearing, speech and sight.”
Solitary confinement is considered a punishment in prison. Few of us who value our influence and the meaning our lives take from frantic activity can unplug and disengage so effectively.
At times, I know I crave privacy, but not silence – alone time but not completely quiet time. Even then, I sense a need to fill up the emptiness with study or knowledge or prayer or writing. I tell myself I can finally use the silence to do all those things I feel I have neglected when staying busy managing a succession of tasks.
In Buddhism, they speak of vipassana, or insight meditation. Its practice of prolonged periods of silence cannot be attained in a few hours or even a few days, but suggests that after several days of prolonged silence comes the experience of penetrating and transformative insight.
The 40 days in the wilderness, driven there by the Holy Spirit after baptism, must have had a similar focus for Jesus. Even the reformer, Martin Luther, supposedly taught, “the fewer the words, the better the prayer.”
I will be eager to learn about my friend’s “silent retreat.” I am curious what he experienced in the silence – or did the busy and demanding world reach him even there?
Mark Johnson is senior minister at Central Baptist Church in Lexington, Ky.