In my mid-30s, I found a retreat center not far from home where I could go and spend time in silence. I was a mom of young children; getting away was a luxury. I spent one and occasionally two nights at the retreat house.
Here I lay down the heavy responsibilities of motherhood. I could wake at my leisure. I could watch the birds outside my open window and sway in the heavy rocking chair, listening.
Fifteen years later—one month ago—I returned. My children are adults now, self-sufficient and thriving. I came to lay down the heavy responsibility of leaving my job, a career that had supported my family when I had become a single mother. It paid my mortgage, music lessons for my children, and kept the pantry filled with three meals per day for years.
On retreat, I received nutritious meals prepared by people who had dedicated their lives to offering rest. This is their ministry. They welcome you, help you carry your bags to your little bedroom, and show you where there are snacks, a library of books, and walking paths through the woods. At the entrance of the guest house is a sign that asks all who enter to respect the silence. Speaking is saved for prayers before meals and nightly eucharist.
I sat in a little chapel each night, the walls adorned with artwork. Stained glass hung in the windows. Crocheted afghans hung over the backs of chairs for warmth on a cold night. In dim light, I sat and stared into the eyes of Jesus—an icon lit by candles—and felt startled by a presence that “passeth understanding.” He stared back calmly, as if to say, Take this peace with you. Remember me. I walk with you.*
When you spend your days in silence, your awareness expands and sometimes you feel blessed by an experience that cannot be named easily in the louder, more linear world. In my bedroom afterward, I felt that gaze and peace stay with me. As it had years before, and as it will 15 years from now.
Life veers and moves you to new places. It’s changing, always changing, but there is a stillness that does not change. I’ve forgotten it at times in my life, but gratefully when I do remember, I can return. It takes a while to sink back into the quiet, but it’s there.
Since my first visit to the retreat house, I’ve lived in four different places—even another continent. I’ve experienced divorce, fallen in love again and married, helped loved ones through illnesses, and said goodbye to dear family members who passed from this life to the next. I’ve watched my children grow into young adults. And I’ve resumed and left again a career that supported me well.
I returned to the retreat house to listen for the whisper again, the one that says: This way.
This way. In times of transition, when it seems as though you could not possibly stop, when the way could not be muddier and more uncertain, that’s the time to slow down. To pause. To retreat if possible. To be silent and listen.
Lisa Groen is the creator of the course Figuring Out What’s Next. This course came from a deep desire to listen in her own life and took shape after weeks of writing her way through a transition.
* For more insight into the intuitive practice of icon gazing, I recommend Henri Nouwen’s book Praying with Icons, which I first discovered after having an experience (while on retreat!) gazing at an icon of the Holy Mother, Mary.