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August 1, 2016

August 2016
Marilyn McEntyre

 

  I recently attended the first silent retreat I’d been to for quite some time. Though I had found the experience of several days of sustained and intentional silence deeply restorative when I attended such retreats earlier in my life, I haven’t done it regularly.Life trundles on, and somehow making time even for the things that seem most helpful becomes more complicated.So entering into the silence this time was nearly as novel as the first time.It takes a while to adapt to little courtesies that seem unnatural and awkward since they run counter to many of our basic social reflexes:when you walk by another retreatant in the hallway you either nod and say nothing or simply walk by, making no acknowledgement.You sit with other people at a table sharing a meal and say nothing.You say grace silently.Most of you stare into space or gaze with undue deliberation at the applesauce.You enter into discussion during the morning and afternoon talks, then leave the thread of conversation behind when you exit the gathering room.  

  All these odd behaviors, once you accept them, support what you’re there for—to hear the silence, to enter more easily into prayer or meditation, to listen for the Spirit who speaks in subtleties, to reacquaint yourself with yourself, and—because it is permitted and encouraged—to rest. At one point I took a nap for the first time in many moons.I took a walk without my cell phone.And when I went to the daily service where Psalms were chanted, the voices around me were a delicious pleasure, joined in prayer that rose out of deep, shared silence.

  Not long after I returned home my husband decided to undertake an 8-day juice fast. I noticed some parallels:our rhythms of eating together were disrupted, but in a way that made meals more intentional and somehow enhanced my gratitude for the ways we are nourished.Conversation shifted:we mused about the fast and its effects; it made me more reflective about cleansing, helping the body restore itself, breaking insidious habits of idle eating.And after a few days, something opened up in me that I would call, paradoxically, a sense of freedom.The limitations the fast imposed on us both made me aware of habits to be reexamined, irritations to explore, privilege (eating organic, for one thing, and buying the piles of fresh vegetables required for juicing), and spiritual dimensions of eating that become submerged in an environment of social chatter.

  Fasting, even in small ways, yields nearly immediate rewards, whether it is a relinquishment of food or of conversation or, as some students I know recently undertook, an “electronic fast” during which they forfeited mobile phones, iPads and computers for all but truly necessary uses. Living in an off-campus house together, they found themselves gathering in the shared kitchen for conversation they wouldn’t have had otherwise.They came to cherish that time and sought ways to keep having it even after they returned to their “normal” plugged-in routines.It is reassuring to find that one really can be relieved by severing small attachments, and surprising to discover new pleasures in the absence of old ones.

  My time of silence was not a 30-day Ignatian retreat, and the juice fast wasn’t a week of unmitigated water, solitude and prayer. These were small, easily manageable moments of consent that still yielded enough blessing to be noteworthy.No turning toward God and away from self goes unnoticed, no small relinquishment for the sake of proper attention to body and spirit unrecognized.I have appreciated again in these recent small adjustments of schedule and habit how much God’s will is to bless us, and to invite us again and again into rest, refreshment, and renewal, if we are willing.

Marilyn McEntyre (Ph.D.) is a writer and professor of medical humanities at the UC Berkeley-UCSF Joint Medical Program, who leads retreats and writing workshops and teaches for New College Berkeley.

 

Posted on August 1, 2016 at 8:09 AM
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