I began my sabbatical with a seven-day silent retreat. It was organised by the Chemin-neuf Community in a monastery in a small village outside Lille in northern France. My Catholic colleague is a member of this international Catholic ecumenical community.
It was quite liberating to be with people and not have to speak! There were twenty-five of us in the group, plus the retreat team and the community members who lived at the monastery.There was a chance on the first evening for everyone to introduce themselves. But this was really only name, home town and hopes for the week. Apart from asking simple questions of the organisers as needs arose there was no need to talk at all.
We ate all our meals in silence. We washed up, silently, together. We all had roles helping with preparing, serving and clearing up after meals and doing the inevitable basic housework needed in a not-for-profit community.
It created a kind of companionship in solitude. We still got to know things about each other – who were the most eager to help, who did not want to make a fuss, and those who were content with themselves and knew their needs.
The silence did not inhibit laughter and delight. It seemed however to reduce tensions. The shared silence kept the group open to each other. It made small sub-group bonding impossible. People sat in different places and with different people each day.
What was startling was the sense of liberation. I realised I often feel the need to connect well or entertain others.I have my needs to be entertained, inspired and to connect well with others. But in silence all that was needed at meals was the basic awareness to pass the salt, water jug and serving dishes to those sitting on our table.
Being in silence with others revealed to me the projections and imaginations that are going on in my communications. I would notice a thought like ‘ I wish that person would chill a little and not be so keen to help!’ There was so little else going on it was easier to be aware of my internal dialogue. And in the silence there was plenty of time to live with the disturbing question ‘and why does this person’s kindness annoy me??!!!’