Retreats used to be a focal point of religious life in Ireland. They may well be enjoying a rejuvenation of sorts as busy professionals look to disengage and step outside the online world. Generally, they last for anything from a half-day to two weeks. Most are preached, some are guided (as in silent). And it’s the silence I’m taken with. I’d been toying with the idea of doing a 10-day silent stint somewhere but figured that I should start off slowly – just to see. So when I got a present of a one-day silent retreat at Manresa House in Clontarf (an Oasis Day), I was dead chuffed. That said, it took me two years to get around to booking in and last Saturday was the day.
I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. The last time I’d been on retreat was back in Secondary School and that wasn’t today or yesterday. And back then, prayer and reflection were about as far from our minds as silence.
They told us that we could do as much or as little of the set programme. We could walk the beach at Clontarf across the road, or stroll through the neighbouring St Anne’s Park or simply wander the grounds. And we could have done all three had the weather cooperated. But it was miserable. Teeming rain and howling winds made it a perfect day to be indoors.
Nineteen of us in all showed up. Given the option of a silent lunch or a talking one, I opted for the former. The whole idea for me was to say nothing to nobody. This was my trial. No phone. No laptop. No talking. We had our choice of places to retreat to: a chapel, a prayer room, a library, or the lounge, complete with floor to ceiling windows and reclining chairs.
As I said, I didn’t know quite what to expect. The first of three guided meditations got rid of the residual stress. Left to my own devices I wandered the library and picked up a copy of St Matthew’s Gospel. I cracked it open and read a passage – the answer to something that’s been bothering me for months jumped off the page. I was sold.
The next meditation, coincidentally, was also on a passage from Matthew – a different one. My mind was all over the place but I was getting the hang of it. I’d visited the honor-system book stand and purchased a copy of Antony de Mello’s Rediscovering Life, and each time we were left to amuse ourselves, I’d retreat to a corner and read.
De Mello has it all figured out. The root cause of sorrow is attachment. He tells a story of a guy going into a restaurant with his mind set on tomato soup. But there’s no tomato soup of the menu. He’s mad. He leaves. He goes to the next restaurant. That’s me. I’ve done that. I once tried four Chinese restaurants because I was fixated on having dumplings for dinner. In de Mello’s lingo, I was attached to my dumplings. And I got quite worked up about not finding any. How much better for me had I been detached and simply picked any one of the may other dishes I liked. The angst I’d have saved myself.
I read this before lunch. Which was just as well.
There is one dish that I cannot abide. I can’t abide the taste of it or the smell of it. I’d rather go without that to sit down to a plate of boiled bacon and cabbage. And that’s exactly what was on the menu. Bacon and cabbage and potato with the obligatory parsley sauce. What a great opportunity to practice detachment. Anyway, there was no choice. I’d not phoned in my dietary preferences in advance (usually I go vegetarian for communal dining), so I ate the bacon. And it wasn’t bad.
Later that afternoon we had more guided meditation and then confession. It’s been a while. Although a practicing Catholic, I’m at odds with the institution and find it hard to confess to things I do not repent. But the Jesuits are pragmatists, believing that ultimately it’ll be between me and my maker and if I can live with the thoughts of how that conversation might go, so can they. Not for the first time, I left the confessional without receiving the sacrament but having enjoyed an enlightening conversation that helped square away something else that had been bothering me for a while. I was batting 3 for 3.
We finished up with a final meditation, what St Ignatius calls the Daily Examen, an elaboration on my nightly grateful ritual. Before we left, we had the option of going to mass. I usually shy away from Mass in English as I’ve been a little disillusioned by the inability of those preaching to make the Gospel relevant. Best, I think, to spend my mass time in communing in my own way, none the wiser.
The celebrant was from Malta. I could tell by his accent. And given that both Brexit and the Trump election were mentioned, his sermon was Relevant with a capital R.
Conclusion: It was a great gift. A very worthwhile way to spend a day. And although I did think more than once that I could enjoy a similar quiet and solitude down by the Kis Balaton, I realised that there, I’d always find something to do. A day devoted to thinking, reflecting, and yes, the occasional nap, is a rarity, but one certainly worth repeating.
Maybe next time, I’ll try the 4-day one and gradually work myself up to the full 8 days of silence. Bliss.