Cedarcrest Conference Centre in Belfountain, Ont., north of Toronto, hosts retreats guided by Opus Dei priests. Below, the oratory with original paintings and marble altarpieces. Photos courtesy Cedarcrest Conference Centre

A silence that is truly golden

  • September 12, 2019

I rarely shut up. I also have a loud voice, though most of the time I am not aware how loud I am.

For me to be quiet is real work. It takes concentration. When I was a newspaper reporter I had to train myself not to interrupt when a subject was speaking. If the interview were over the phone I would place my hand over my mouth so as not break the flow of someone’s comments. When desperate I would bite my hand.

I also had a problem talking before Mass started while sitting in the pews. This I cured myself of quickly after stinging admonishments from my fellow Catholics. 

They were right to shush me. Sacred space does not need my booming voice. Likewise I learned to speak more softly in the confessional. I feel the need to confess quite often but to the priest and not the entire congregation.

Last year I purchased The Power of Silence by Cardinal Robert Sarah. I thought it would help me. It did, but not in ways I expected. To be clear it is not so much about not speaking but about holy silence as the way to listen more carefully to God.

Remember the prophet Elijah in 1 Kings trying to hear the voice of the Lord?

“And after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire the sound of a low whisper.” 

Then I found out about three-day silent retreats guided by Opus Dei priests. I was not really worried about keeping quiet; I do have some self-discipline when called for. But I was more worried about what would be rattling around in my head in the quiet of a retreat. 

I have now been on two retreats. Both were held at Cedarcrest Conference Centre, about 90 minutes north of Toronto. 

The retreats are heavily structured but still with enough time for rest and private reflection. A typical retreat day starts early in the chapel with a reflection. Then comes Mass. Through the day there are more reflections, exposition of the Blessed Sacrament, the way of the cross, spiritual direction and confession.

All three meals were held in silence. You get good at hand gestures and facial expressions to express such desires as “pass the soup” or “more bread.” 

None of this should seem surprising. It is a Catholic retreat and so the focus is on our faith. What was surprising to me was how the silence merged with religious observance to slow down my head. 

This is what I realized: When I go to Mass on Sunday or during the week I am focused on what is going on around me. I will sometimes be moved by a homily. But then it is time to go. By the time I hit the street I am thinking about what I might pick up on the way home or what might be good for supper. Then the radio comes on. If it is the news it immediately erases all that took place in Mass just 15 minutes before. I do not mean the effect of the Eucharist, but rather the small sense of peace. At Mass we are transformed but then we are thrown back into the incessant noise of the world we live in — and the noise tends to win out.

But being silent allowed me to reflect on what I had heard and felt during the retreat. There was time to soak it in. 

This may not sound like much but, trust me, it is bigger than you think. The silence was never a burden because it supported holy thoughts. It allowed me to reflect on the eternal rather than the temporal. I had time to learn rather that just hear.

At the end of my first retreat I gave a lift to one of my fellow participants. We quickly left the beautiful countryside behind and before we knew it we were on the 401 near the airport. 

Nothing we could do about the traffic and the din of jet engines, but we chose to leave the radio off and the bad news sure to be broadcast. There would be time enough for that.

For that moment in the car we could hold on to the glow of holy silence.

(Lewis is a Toronto writer and regular contributor to The Register.)

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