Silence is Golden

by Joanie Butman


How does one go from mechanical bull riding in Nashville to a silent retreat the following weekend? “By accident.” Though quiet was a welcome respite from the rowdiness of Nashville, I had no idea I’d signed up for a ‘silent’ retreat. My previous women’s retreats involved their own sort of raucousness, as we frequently stayed up late into the night sharing experiences, laughter and suffering of all sorts. I remember one retreat where late-night Karaoke helped lighten the atmosphere. Assuming this retreat would be similar, I arrived hungry for fellowship, eager to discover who and what God had in store for me. As is often the case, it wasn’t what I expected.


I bounded in enthusiastically announcing my arrival to the first woman I met. “Hi, I’m here for the retreat!” Rather than a warm welcome, I was greeted with an emphatic shushing, reminiscent of the nuns of my youth. She then looked with annoyance at the rolling suitcase I was towing across the stone floor disturbing the Godly atmosphere. After informing me that no talking was permitted, she kindly directed me to a list indicating my room assignment and announcing dinner at 6. Then she left – quietly of course. Hmm. “Now what?” I thought for the first of many times that weekend. I found my room, settled in and took a nap so I’d be refreshed for the evening ahead. Not necessary, as I found being silent doesn’t require a lot of energy - just mental discipline.

Dinner was a subdued event even though I was relieved to learn that we could speak in the dining room. Even so, these women were serious about their stillness so little conversation ensued. I wandered around after dinner trying to figure out where everyone was and what were they doing. There was a brief meeting at 7:30 to go over the ‘rules’ for the weekend, which did little to dispel the mystery of what to do in all my free time. I retired to my room more than a little perplexed. One of the rules, of course, was the obvious ‘no electronics’ edict. I was here to contemplate, but I learned a long time ago that “my mind is a bad neighborhood I try not to go into alone.”*

Throwing caution to the wind, I decided to watch something on my computer. It didn’t take long for God to correct my rebellion. I dozed off and the computer on my lap fell forward and hit me across the bridge of my nose leaving a telltale cut announcing my defiance. If asked, I wasn’t going to compound my transgression by lying about it.


To make matters worse, I was allergic to whatever soap they used on the sheets so sleeping was an itchy nightmare. I leaped out of bed at first light searching for coffee and conversation. The only one I had to talk to was God, so I poured out my heart: “This is ridiculous. What am I doing here? My nice comfy bed is five minutes away. Should I just bolt? What are you trying to teach me?” Who knew the silence decree would include Him? I heard no response. No still small voice. Just my own incessant recriminations for not reading the brochure more carefully. I wish someone could get the silence mandate through to the relentless voice in my head. That would definitely be worth the price of admission. Finally, I decided to just lean into it and be open to whatever God had to say or not. Who couldn’t use a few days alone with the Divine? He doesn’t need to speak for me to enjoy spending time with Him. I chose to embrace my vow of silence and see where it led.


There were two short meetings on Saturday and mass at 5:00, which I enjoyed, but not much else in terms of guidance. I brought along James Martin’s, The Jesuit Guide to Almost Everything, so spent Saturday delving into the way of Ignatius. I was surprised to discover that I shared the Jesuit tradition of finding God in everything and everything in God. My kids have been deriding me for that belief for years. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been the recipient of the eye-rolling response, “Oh mom, you think everything’s about God.” Precisely. Based on the number of times it was repeated, I’m confident they got at least that from my tutelage.


So many people take spirituality too seriously. Out of all the illustrations of Jesus available, the ones I like the most are the ones of Him laughing. As James Martin explains “There’s no need to be deadly serious about religion or spirituality because joy, humor, and laughter are gifts from God.” With that in mind, going from noisy Nashville to a silent retreat no longer seemed strange at all. They are simply different ways of experiencing the Divine. Enjoying good music while appreciating the blessing of time with life-long friends sharing love and laughter is just as much a form of worship and gratitude as contemplative prayer. It’s not what you’re doing; it’s the attitude with which you’re doing it that matters.

My take away from the weekend? A few things:

  1. My ride on the bull seems analogous to my spiritual journey - a wild, bumpy ride, full of joy, laughter and pain, often holding on for dear life calling, “Sweet Jesus, save me!”

  2. Choose to see God in everything and everything in God.

  3. God will meet you wherever you are whether it’s on a mechanical bull or in a retreat house. Maybe that’s what He wanted to teach me. I didn’t need to DO anything other than choose to be open to His presence.


*ANNE LAMOTT, Operating Instructions: A Journal of My Son's First Year