Silence, once unpalatable, made space for deeper insights

‘‘I became a person tolerating silence.’’ PHOTO: GETTY IMAGES
‘‘I became a person tolerating silence.’’ PHOTO: GETTY IMAGES
Jenny Beck discusses the blessing of silence.

In 2018, a friend invited me to attend a week-long silent retreat at En Hakkore.

“Who, me?” was my slightly incredulous response. In 2005, I honestly hadn’t been able to get through a 24-hour silent retreat (without mouthing a word or hundred to my friend, Sheryl).

How could I possibly go chat-less for a whole seven days? I refused on the basis that I’m just not the right type — silent and meditative.

Have you found that sometimes when you’re at your most settled about what sort of person you are and what you can cope with, a hinge moment comes along? You find yourself figuratively walking through a door and nothing is the same on the other side.

I expected my 2020 to be more of the (very pleasant) same — full of family, work, church, travel. Social occasions galore. All the good things. I loved my life. I felt a huge enthusiasm for it.

I’m ashamed to say this, especially in light of the Covid-related suffering in other parts of the world, but I found the first two weeks of lockdown profoundly distressing. My month’s travel to visit family overseas had been scuppered. People and community, cafes in which to write and people-watch, fun — it felt as if everything had been snatched away rudely.

I went walking regularly with my pugs during those quiet days. Their stocky little bodies usually had the effect of lifting my heart. On Good Friday we did a stiff circuit around Ross Creek. But although my body was moving vigorously, my spirit was wilting, disconsolate. I just couldn’t seem to find purchase. I felt adrift with so much familiarity not to mention how colour leeched from the world.

There was a backdrop to all this. In fact, I’d felt a soul nudging for some time. The old spiritual masters called it a kind of “dread”, the sense of being untrue. In my case I worried that my life, possibly overstuffed, was missing the mark, and that I’d begun chasing after what didn’t matter. I’d been ruminating upon this off and on, and then in the weird displacement of lockdown dread seized me and wouldn’t release its grip.

God, restore to me the joy of life, I breathed as I gazed across the reservoir from the far side.

It was then that God spoke. Not audibly, but clearly in my heart: “Make me your one and only.”

I couldn’t argue. I’ve followed the Lord all my life, but it seemed suddenly that all the good things filling my days had become a clamour in my ear, drowning out the still, small voice. Lockdown was precipitating a stopping, me stepping off the treadmill and taking stock of my life. Here was the much better thing — to choose to follow Jesus again. “Everything else is dross,” I heard.

I stopped in my tracks. I had to relinquish. Just a few weeks before that a Thomas Merton quote had pierced my heart: “The things that we love tell us what we are.” On my way home I realised a clear-eyed reframing was being asked of me. Here was an unlooked-for opportunity to sit in stillness at Jesus’ feet, and pursue this primary relationship all over again. This was the answer to the need of my soul: God only.

In the end I didn’t want lockdown to end. For that period of time I became a person tolerating silence.

I’d felt challenged to “set all my packages down” as Barbara Cawthorne Crofton urges, and now as ordinary life reasserted itself I wanted to pick up and carry forward only what I needed. In order to keep unnecessary noise of the world out I’ve tried every day since then to “consider Jesus” in silence — spending time alone deliberately to pray more honestly, reflect and write in my journal.

I think (or hope!) I’m not so dependent on external approval, social media or whatever; I’m much keener on actively practising the presence of God and being content with the life he’s given me here and now.

My friend Eric Hight, vicar at St John’s Roslyn, posed this question before Easter, “If God seeks to save me, where is the door through which he might enter?”

For me God’s grace entered through the unexpectedness and disorientation of lockdown, unmasking me for someone preoccupied and distracted, and delivering me into a place of greater peace and focus.

C.S. Lewis said, “Among times there is a time that turns a corner, and everything this side of it is new.” If I were to receive an invitation now to a week-long silent retreat, I might screw up my courage and say, “Yes”.

 - Jenny Beck is a lawyer and member of Dunedin City Baptist Church.

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