When I first mentioned running a silent retreat at the school where I serve as chaplain, the response from the administration was underwhelming to say the least. Skepticism was the order of the day, despite the fact that students had hinted at their openness to contemplation in their responses to the biannual student survey. Our students had intimated that spirituality was something that comes from within, whereas religious institutions and other structures bent on offering them answers to life’s questions were remote and external. They appeared to be at the beginning of an inward journey but they weren’t sure what that looked like.
In spite of the initial skepticism, I was given permission to initiate meditation across the whole school and offer a week-end silent retreat. I discovered at the beginning of this process that many staff and students were already on a spiritual journey and had begun to develop their own spiritual practices and rhythms. To maximize the benefit, I invited the staff to lead the meditation in a style which suited them and their students, usually for about five minutes or so, two or three times a week. This became a great foundation for those who would become involved with our three-day silent retreats.
No Quick Fix
At first, silent retreats were offered as an opportunity for senior students about to enter final exams to take some much needed space to unwind. As such, for most of the staff, silent retreats were seen as a tool to help solve problems students may have. The retreat was seen as some kind of therapeutic miracle-worker. If a student had plans to go on silent retreat, some teachers would inform me of issues they wanted us to address with that student over the retreat. They thought the silent retreat would “fix” a young person, solve a problem, or make a difference to a certain perceived problem. They saw the silent retreat as a cure-all. It had to have a certain declared outcome to be of value.
“There is a way between voice and presence where information flows. In disciplined silence it opens. With wandering talk it closes.” — Rumi
Well, the truth is the retreat doesn’t fix, cure, or adjust an individual according to our wishes. What happens on a silent retreat, like the retreat itself, is mysterious and peculiarly personal. Silence works as the wind blows: where and when it will. The learning for both students and staff is full of grace and particularity, free and differentiated. It happens without being sought and it does so in precisely the way each person needs and is ready to receive, even if they don’t know what that is.
Western appropriation of mindfulness and contemplation tends to be instrumental. To be considered valuable, it has to be both practical and logical and must lead to a scientifically proven outcome of possessions such as happiness, health, well-being, and wealth. In the endeavor to harness contemplation and silence for our own purpose, we have emptied it of the very ingredients that lead to contentment. We have diluted the mystery and ignored the transcendent, yet we are unaware that the emperor has no new clothes at all.
It is only when we open ourselves to the mystery of the created world, including ourselves, and seek that which is beyond us, hidden and elusive, that the benefits of mindfulness, contemplation, and silence begin to be experienced. Silent retreats do not always solve problems or result in wonderfully happy moments. Sometimes, and this is the case more than not, students uncover unresolved emotions, experiences, and past events or future fears. They are forced to recognise where they are, what they may need to make friends with, and resolve to do what is necessary. There is nowhere to hide and no way to avoid the unavoidable.
Yet this works best when they do not come with problems to solve, things to fix, or ideas to tie down. Trying to control the weekend experience for our own purposes leaves us empty, unfulfilled, and frustrated and may in fact make things worse when we return to ordinary life. The sense of failure can be crippling.
Opening to Silent Retreats
For the students, the only decision they make is to open themselves up and listen for what is being whispered in the silence surrounding them. What they discover is diverse, unique, and specifically for them. They experience the best of education: true learning that is not premasticated for them. It is new, so new that nobody else has received that particular learning at that particular time in that particular way.
The same goes for those who lead the retreats. As adults, teachers, and pastors, we are experts at giving the impression that students are free to experience something for themselves, all the while ensuring we get the type of outcome we want. Leaders want to be in control, maintain their power, and do only what they are comfortable with. If you don’t believe me, try to bring change into the classroom teacher’s life and see what happens! And teachers aren’t the only ones. Pastors and parents respond in a similar manner, fearing that they will lose control. But on retreat, we model for the students that the most powerful person in the world is the person who gives away power, as demonstrated with the incarnation of the Christ.
Place is important. Having the right retreat space sets the tone and provides the underpinning for all else we do. The site we use has been carefully picked for that purpose.
Getting off the bus kick-starts the retreat. This is no ordinary place. It is different. You feel it, and so do the students. The noisy chatter stops. They seem to do everything with just a little more attention, as if they are aware they have begun their quest by being transported to a very different place.
Perched on the mangrove-guarded edge of the Moreton Bay on Australia’s eastern coast, Santa Teresa Retreat Centre is as mystical as it is picturesque. Started by the Cenacle Sisters who worked with the indigenous community on the nearby North Stradbroke Island, the Centre remains intimately connected to its roots. On the wall outside the chapel are samples of soil taken from the nearby island, from an indigenous mission in Alice Springs, and from the site itself, creating a web of earthiness that is the spirit of the place.
A slow walk around the centre includes a visit to the main chapel and the Chapel of the Blessed Sacrament, an explanation of the Stations of the Cross, and a visit to the recently laid labyrinth and prayer walk. An air of serenity begins to settle across the group as we move together as a unit toward the Carmelite church. Upon entering, some students release audible gasps at the beauty of stained glass windows in the setting sun. We stay some time here, allowing the sanctity of the space to invade our souls. Some sit, others walk slowly around the church, while others just stand and soak up the experience, whatever that may be for them. They don’t know it yet, but this will become a sacred space for them as part of their experiment in silence.
The Rule is Respect
The rules students are accustomed to remain at school; the retreat is not just another school camp. Here there are no teachers, no students. All are learners, and all learn together, teaching each other.
The key is respect—respect not based on position, title or role, but on the fact that each one here is a person who deserves reverence for simply being. Respect begins with respect for self and for the silence we have come to explore. In their regular lives, students treat silence as do most people, with little thought or acknowledgement. It is pushed aside by the busy cacophony of distraction. In so doing, they lose themselves, their true selves, to the external advertising which has become their life. Respect for self and the silence living within is the first imperative of the Silent Retreat Rule.
The second imperative is as important as the first.: respect others and the silence within them. This calls for us to leave space for others to meet with their true self in their own inner silence. We do not talk to, meet with, or interrupt in any way the silence of others. We are to listen to the silence and be open to experience the infinite possibilities it holds for us. Perhaps for the first time without organising, controlling or anticipating our every doing, the rule asks for us to let go and allow whatever will be to be. All the distracting questions and queries surface as the mind begins to respond to the request to be silent. Like the concert hall cough that begins when we have sat still and quiet during a performance, our minds and our bodies seek to express their independence.
The simple Rule of Respect for self, others, and the silence shared with them in creation, sets the parameters for the weekend and extends to the relationships between participants. Where on most school camps or retreats there is a clear demarcation between teacher/leaders and student/followers, this is not the case on these silent retreats. Yes, the leaders are responsible for the event. But so too are the students. In fact, a key learning for all begins with the understanding that, for this weekend, the students are to see themselves as adults, not teenagers. We tell them that what they are about to embark on is seen as an adult activity, and so, they will be treated as equals.
Everyone is on first name terms. Everyone regulates their own day—when to get up, when to eat, when to rest, when to go to bed. There are no room inspections, no set time for lights out and no strict regulation of how students use the time. It is up to them to maximise their experience by taking full adult responsibility for themselves. A list of mealtimes, input sessions, and spiritual direction interviews are made available and students are expected to attend.
And it is not only in terms of routine that students are respected as equals. It includes what they bring to and offer up to the group through their insights, questions, and experiences. The learning is not one-way. It comes in so many different shapes and sizes according to the make up of the group.
The students’ insights are always powerful and profound—and we should not be surprised by this. It’s there within all the time, even if we rarely see it. Is this because we over-program their education, timetable out the possibility for insight, and formalise knowledge as something they acquire externally, extinguishing the wisdom they have been born with? I fear so.
The retreat follows a modified monastic routine consisting of three periods of discussion and meditation every day; spiritual direction for each participant for thirty minutes every day; Eucharist on Sunday and Monday mornings; greeting the sun on the Monday morning before the Eucharist, and shared meals. These meetings are interspersed with spiritual reading based on The Pocket Thomas Merton, rest and quiet, walking the labyrinth, and attendance at morning and evening prayer at the Carmelite church—which is optional but has become as significant for some students as the rest of the weekend, especially when the sisters include them in their prayer as they have become accustomed to doing.
All is carried out with respect for the silence. Even meal times are taken in complete silence. It’s awe-inspiring to watch young people move quietly and gently into their meal, paying full attention to themselves and their food. Little things happen. People clear others’ plates, return with their dessert, organise drinks for those at their table and genuinely make space for each other. It is special. It is deeply respectful of all.
All Are Learners
Silent retreats work best when they are built on trust and respect, when the role of teacher and of student is replaced by that of the learner. In other words, except for those things a leader needs to do such as organize the weekend, run the sessions, and conduct the spiritual direction, all have an equal part to play. Learning is then mutual as we learn from each other. We are responsible for ourselves and our relationship with the rest of the group, and the effectiveness of the retreat lies within the group, not at the feet of the teacher or the spiritual director.
“When’s lights out?” a student will inevitably ask.
When you want it to be.
[Uncomfortable looks all around.]
“I mean, when will you come around and make sure we are in our rooms?”
I won’t. You know what the weekend involves. So like any adult, you decide when you go to bed, when you get up and how you behave.
[Very uncertain about this.]
“So, what do we do now?”
Whatever you like.
Really. You know what this weekend cost yourself and your parents, I suspect you’ll want to get the most out of it, so I also suspect you’ll think of that when you decide what to do next.
“What do we call you…Father Glenn?”
You can. But for the purposes of this weekend we are all adults, so Glenn is okay by me, if that’s okay for you.
“Yes, Father Glenn…. I mean Glenn.”
What happens next happens all the time. They are in bed early (eight o’clock or thereabouts) and there is no need for me to do anything, even if I were going to. They slowly begin to acclimate to the routine. They begin to act as adults. And not only do they act as adults, they think and engage as adults.
This only works if the leaders remain outside of the traditional teacher/leader role. They are to act in the manner they want the students to. They have to be open to learning from the students, to being mindfully attentive to what is being said verbally, emotionally, and spiritually, and to respond as a peer. This means avoiding the superficial and quick answers we are prone to give, and to stay in the moment of learning with the young person in front of us. We are to acknowledge our own vulnerabilities and the learning we share with them. This place of mindful being, one with the other, is the key to maximizing the benefits for all.
By loosening the grip of formal roles and expectations, you and they enter the space-in-between what you are used to and where you will be. It is here, in this space, you both begin to learn from the uncertainty of freedom—freedom to explore new roles, new ideas, new relationships, and new experiences. Together, you have never been in this place before. At school the roles are formalized and structured; you each know where you stand and what you do. Here, it is different, and it will take some getting used to. But by the end of the weekend, all will share a new level of relationship and respect.
Shared vulnerability is important. If you are unwilling to share honestly and openly with the students and they can sense you are not authentic, then the retreat will miss its mark. They need to know you trust and respect them enough to share yourself, your experiences, your fears, your hopes and your struggles with them. The real ones, not just diluted teacher to student stories. These have to be the real thing. It may be appropriate to leave out some deeply personal or distressing details, but they have to sense that what they are hearing resonates with their experience as real.
Being the Change
Silent retreats are not added extras, some kind of mystical experience outside the educational sphere. Silent retreats epitomize the very best of education. They are person-focused and personally owned. Students are engage at every level; spiritually, intellectually and physically. Thomas Merton suggested the least of learning is done in the classroom, asserting that all education needs to be focused on helping the person to discover themselves. On retreat, students have the freedom to discover themselves in relation to themselves, others, creation, and God. They’re free to expose who they are without the need to maintain their mask. The learning is theirs, and though they may share it with others, it remains theirs alone. The learning that takes place on a silent retreat is outside the present capability of regular education. Yet, I hope this will not always remain so.