Sounding the Silence - reflections from the Retreat Association’s conference

Posted on July 7th, 2018

We began arriving at the Hayes Conference Centre – about 250 Retreat House leaders, Spiritual Directors, Spirituality trainers greeting friends we hadn’t seen for ages, smiling at new faces as we trundled our ubiquitous cases along, gathered our Conference packs and found the rooms which were going to be home for the next four days. A tangible sense of excitement and expectation was in the air. What were we going to find, to learn, share at this triennial Retreats Conference. It was to be overflowing with riches for anyone who is accompanying others on their Spiritual journeys. If you go to their website, you will find the report, then may I invite you to come back here and I will share some of my memories.

“Sounding the Silence – Exploring the depths in Stillness and Speech”. An enticing theme and, through presentations, workshops, worship, prayer and reflections in cell groups, there was silence to enjoy and space for rest. You will have seen the beautiful art work created in a drop-in oasis. For me, the gardens and walks around the lake, surrounded by bees and birdsong were daily walks of the Senses. A notice pinned on the life ring which hung on a wooden support – a wooden cross, warned “Danger deep water…”

Indeed, we were taken into the depths of silence, which of course is not just absence, not unfilled emptiness. Silence has its own way of speaking – inviting us to listen to God in ever new ways. One vivid memory for me was when Graham Sparkes showed us a painting by Hopper; “Night Hawks” depicts the utter loneliness of silence. A room without a door. It set me thinking of other paintings which speak of Silence.

Sara Maitland, author of “A Book of Silence”, talked about desert experiences of meeting the God who travels with people, from Hagar, Hannah and Elijah in the Old Testament, to her own experience of a 40-day retreat on Skye. I didn’t know that “still small voice” is a mistranslation of “pure sound”. Was Elijah bi-polar? And the famous coat of many colours, wasn’t - but the important point was that it had long sleeves… The big question for us today is how do we alleviate the famine of silence for children, when “Go to your room” is a punishment rather than an invitation to a safe space.

Peter Tyler, speaking of Mindful Silence, referred to a number of the great teachers from the desert mothers and fathers to Theresa of Avila, John of the Cross, Anthony de Mello and Keating. I was challenged on mindfulness and mindlessness and being aware of who we are - could that be a kind of heartfulness? At lunch one day, Peter spoke of Gerard Hughes SJ, Bishop Graham Chadwick , Patrick Purnell SJ and Sr. Madeleine Prendergast who had been the initiators of the Weeks of Accompanied Prayer, an ecumenical retreat based on the Ignatian Exercises. I am so grateful to them for leading me along my path.

Malcolm Guite spoke of the poetry of loss and recovery. He, like Sara Maitland and Peter Tyler is well represented online but to hear him reading poetry was a magical, musical experience for me, especially Herbert’s poem, Prayer. He sang in the bar area one evening, as he does in pubs around Cambridge. Must go!

What a feast: three contrasting, erudite speakers, teaching us new ways of exploring Silence. And yet there was more!

Thirty-four workshops were offered, but sadly there was only time to attend two. They were led by various members of the Retreat Association, spanning Silence as a ministry of care, Sharing silence and speech: a Quaker perspective and Silence in music to Spiritual direction and the homeless, exploring icons and Death the great Silence. I attended this last one, where we looked at exterior and interior silence, silence as a tool of rejection and as a tool to bring about change. I also cherished beginning to read the icon which has been given to The Retreat Association.

Please forgive me for not including more, and there was much, much more, but in about five-weeks’ time you can buy the CDs of the conference from Agape Ministries.

So, as I walked to my car through gardens at the end of the conference, I was left with the hum of silence - the tiny bees still going about their work. Thank God.

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