Silent Retreat

I was at a silent retreat at the Capuchin Retreat center in Macomb County, Michigan, this weekend. I had a lovely time reading books, drinking tea, meditating, wandering around their one hundred acres in the rain and snow, listening to a few sessions from the resident spiritual directors and friars, celebrating services in chapel, and sleeping as much as possible.

This was my second silent retreat at a Catholic center, and the silence is supposed to be maintained throughout the weekend, even at meals. The silence is a discipline, to encourage the retreatants to slow down and listen, but it often feels uncomfortable and even impolite, for instance if you’re sitting at a table with a few other men and not making eye contact or saying a word. 

At the first silent retreat I went to, they piped in recorded messages on the teachings of Pope Francis during meals, but at this retreat we listened to music in the dining hall. Without as much to occupy my mind, I found myself paying more attention to the food. I thought a lot more about the sweet, acidic taste of pineapple, or the crispy, golden outside of hashbrowns, or how I actually like oatmeal when it isn’t too sweetened. I also found myself telling stories about the food, already imagining conversations where I was telling other people about the experience of eating in silence and how it changed the meal for me.

I am a storyteller, if not by nature, then certainly by training. And without anyone to talk to during the weekend, I found myself spinning narratives about pretty much everything. How would I digest this conference session and explain it to someone who wasn’t at the retreat? If I were describing this walk through the woods in an email or, say, a blog post, what details would I pick out? I had my first professional massage with a massage therapist during the retreat, and processing the new-to-me experience, I thought a lot about the sensations. What are the words for that feeling of someone rubbing circles in the palm of your hand? What’s happening to your bones and muscles when someone pulls back on your foot and toes?

I’ve stored up thoughts, sensations, emotions, and descriptions for as long as I can remember. I suppose there’s something acquisitive about it. For a writer, it’s imperative that I am able to call to mind how different experiences, conversations, or emotions feel or affect people. And in the endless cases where I’m describing something I’ve never personally experienced before, I need to talk to people or read books by people who have had that experience so I can better imagine it myself and express it on paper.

The strange thing about this writerly impulse—I realized in the middle of my massage—is that it also distances me from my own experience. In one way, I’m not staying with the experience because I’m trying to step back enough to get some perspective on it. Paradoxically, I need that perspective so I can describe to someone else what it really feels like in the moment.

In some way that I still can’t wrap my head around, storytelling seems to pull me closer to experiences and also provides me greater space from them. And these two movements seem to happen at the same time.

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