Maggie and I took time away recently for a 10 day silent prayer retreat at Galilee Retreat Centre, which is set on the edge of a volcanic crater lake in the highlands of Ethiopia. We not only remained in silence from other people; Maggie and I were accommodated in separate cabins at opposite ends of the property, in silence even from each other. This was to be my first ‘directed’ retreat of such length where I would break silence just once each day for a 30 minute meeting with a spiritual director who would help guide the movements percolating within my own prayer.
On day one, my spiritual director, Fr. Wolde Meskel, an Ethiopian priest, asked me what my aspirations were for the retreat time and I shared a few things all related to wanting to be closer to Jesus. Next he completely caught me off guard – he asked me to pack away for the rest of the retreat all the spiritual books which I had brought. What? Not even glance at them? He assured me that even if the books I had brought were filled with great insights, busying my mind cerebrally reading about God is not the same as getting to know God, from experiencing him at work within me. Instead Fr. Wolde would give me a very short biblical text so that I might simply sit in silence with God.
I left our meeting wondering how I could sit for 10 days in silence with only a few words from the bible. For two days I was squirmy and restless and swung some punches into the air of silence. I guess I had a pre-conceived notion about what my time with God was going to be like – I was dictating the terms. I came to realize how much I felt the ‘need’ to feel productive even in my prayer time. By the third day I was able to detach myself from my previous retreat plans and I finally surrendered. And so my real retreat began.
What did I do those days? Practically, I did nothing. My silent days unfolded by following a routine of one hour meditations throughout the day based on only a few verses at a time, the beatitudes of St. Matthew’s Gospel consuming most of the week. I found that I am quite uncomfortable with silence. I am cultured to the craziness and busy pace of our modern society and accustomed to the noise, sensory stimulation and distraction, but in this background it is very difficult to hear the gentle voice of God whispering. I am afraid to be so alone because it forces me to confront whether I truly love and accept the person I am spending all my time with. It forces me to confront my weaknesses and past, and sit exposed before God in a way where I cannot hide my greatest faults or the ways I lack faith.
In the first days I really had to fight my need to be more productive and efficient, but then this need somehow melted. After a few days, I was savoring every moment of solitude. In reality what I did those days was simply waste time with Jesus – to learn about his life in those few verses; to ponder his personality; to contemplate his interactions with people; to soak up his words; to perceive the way he loved. In gazing on him and letting my preoccupations with myself go, I was able to enter that place within me where God resides and to where he is inviting me to come, to stay and to be with him.
What happened that retreat week was actually indicative of a change that has been brewing in me during these last years. Silence is slowly transforming me. More and more now I crave it, because what I want is Jesus – close and unfiltered. In silence, I find him, revealing himself to me. Life here in Ethiopia is busy and most of my days feel just as demanding as life back in Toronto. But slowly, I am becoming a hermit, right in the middle of the world. I am still focused on carrying out the hectic work of each day, but I cherish the times when I follow the voice of God and sit with him in all his splendor, even for a moment.
Maggie, Mark and Emebet Banga, Comboni Lay Missionaries, Awassa, Ethiopia