The Essence of Retreats: Preparing for Silence

This is part three of our series on effectively preparing for retreats. You can find part one on picking a retreat here and part two on prayer here.

If you are planning to make a retreat, whether it is your first retreat or an annual occurrence, the question always comes up on how to best prepare for it.

We asked hundreds of retreat center directors that question and compiled their answers.


Let’s say you’ve committed to the details nailed down – type of retreat, date, location, and so on. You know how long you have until your retreat. You have started praying daily for the success of the retreat. What else should you do with your preparation time?

The third pillar of retreat preparation is essential, but it is not simple. It is a core element of retreats.

Silence

A main purpose of retreats is getting away to a place of silence to pray and reflect.

In his book “The Imitation of Christ” Thomas a Kempis notes that “In silence and quiet the devout soul advances in virtue and learns the hidden truths of Scripture.”

Many of the retreat center directors that we surveyed mentioned silence as a crucial element of retreat preparation. They discussed silence in two ways. Here are just a few of their thoughts:

    • “Plan for quiet time and unplug from outside world while on retreat.”

    • “Be prepared to “disconnect” with the “outside world,” shut off the electronics. Give yourself the gift of being only in communion with your creator. Surrender for a few days into the arms of God”

    • “Prepare for a retreat the way you would prepare for a vacation: set your email auto-responder and change your voicemail message to alert the “outside world” that you are not available.  Mark the time away as “sacred time” for you and God.  Plan to leave behind the trappings of your busy, everyday life… laptops and iPads, to-do lists and responsibilities.  By creating a concrete separation between your everyday life and the retreat, you will be able to enter more readily into the mindset of “retreat,” which will then bear more fruit, both during your retreat and after you return to your busy life.”

    • “As persons prepare for a retreat, begin to turn off the devices and slow down so that it becomes easier for you to meet and hear the Holy Spirit in the silence and solitude.”

To sum up their thoughts, on one hand the retreatant needs to be able to enter silence from the outside world by turning off the interruptions that are trying to come into the retreat and cause distraction.

On the other hand, we also need to be ready to spend time in stillness and silence.

In prayer we talk to God, in silence we listen.

Even if you are preparing to make a preached group retreat, where the content of the experience is a series of talks by the retreat director, there will typically be dedicated periods of silence during the day.

Not So Simple

Have you tried sitting in stillness and silence lately? It is much more difficult than it sounds.

If it is not a habit in your life already it will take some practice before the retreat.

We are not accustomed to quiet and stillness any more. We usually have a cell phone or a book or a magazine or the TV or the radio to occupy ourselves when we have down time.

We rarely sit still without any of these distractions.

That is what makes silence and stillness difficult. Try it. Turn off all of your electronics and sit in a quiet spot for five minutes. For many people this causes an anxious feeling.

You start to think about all of the things you could be getting done or need to do. You get restless waiting for the time to pass. You forget to actually focus, relax, and let God work in you.

The silence actually “hurts” because it is so different from how most of us spend most of our time.

The first reaction of most people is to fill this time with something – reading a holy book or turning on nice music – but try to avoid this, at least for a while. Work toward real stillness and silence.

Build Slowly

Sitting in silence takes time and effort before it becomes comfortable. It is like strengthening a muscle – a little bit of work each day gets the job done over time. Too much effort all at once can actually be detrimental.

Start with five minutes a day, immediately following a short period of prayer if possible. Eventually five minutes will become easy, and you can slowly increase the time.

If you are preparing for a retreat that is a week away, working in five to ten minutes a day at home will give you a great base as you enter the retreat. The silence will feel familiar when you are on retreat, and that time will be more fruitful.

A Silent Place – Eucharistic Adoration

Perhaps the ideal place to build your “silence muscle” is at a chapel with Eucharistic Adoration.

Adoration is a time of quiet prayer with our Lord in the Blessed Sacrament placed on the altar to be with us.

Depending on where you live, this may or may not be available. Some churches offer it once a month, some offer it weekly, and some actually have a separate designated 24/7 Adoration chapel. This is called “perpetual Adoration,” and it is more often found in larger cities that have a large enough population to support having somebody in the chapel with the Blessed Sacrament at all hours of the day.

Often, but not always, times of Eucharistic Adoration are times of silent prayer, especially if you are at a perpetual adoration chapel.

If adoration is available near you, make an extra effort to stop in, even if only for a few minutes. This time with our Lord physically in the room with us is particularly fruitful.

As you progress in your prayer life and become more comfortable with silence you may be able to work up to a “Holy Hour,” whether that is a scheduled hour at a local perpetual Adoration chapel or a time that you regularly set aside at home for prayer, silence, and study.

Keep in Mind

  • If you do not have regular time of silence in your life it will “hurt” at first
    • You may feel anxious and want to hurry it up or fill it with something
  • During the time of prayer, talk to God. During the time of silence, listen to God.

Action Steps

  • Start adding in short periods (5 minutes) of silence each day and gradually make them longer
    • Turn off all noise – tv, radio, phone
    • Don’t fill the silence with reading or anything else. Just be still and open to God
    • The ideal time to sit in silence is immediately after prayer – start with 5 minutes of prayer (talking to God) followed by 5 minutes of silence (listening to God)
  • Journal about it – what were your thoughts, emotions, or anything that came to you in the silence?
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