June 7, 2018 — Silence can be golden, but it also can be scary.
Just ask Fathers Larry Gillick, SJ, and Greg Carlson, SJ, two longtime Creighton University priests who regularly direct silent retreats.
“When people hear of a silent retreat, they’ll say, ‘Oh, three days! How could I be silent for three days?’” Fr. Carlson says. “We Jesuits, twice in our formation, make 30-day silent retreats. And people can’t conceive of that.
“I think they’re afraid of it. I think that’s probably in our culture, to be afraid of that much silence.”
With a culture that embraces the constant connection offered by the latest technology, it can be difficult to unplug and enter into undistracted silence. But Frs. Gillick and Carlson believe a deeper fear quietly lurks beneath the surface.
“We’ve had people say, ‘I don’t want to make a silent retreat because I’m afraid of what I have to see — what I have to face in myself,’” Fr. Gillick says.
Fr. Carlson agrees, adding: “People find silence, and I think prayer, frightening because it’s going to bring them face to face with the big questions: What do I really want? Am I being the person I want to be? It can be painful to stop and look at that.”
|Fr. Greg Carlson, SJ|
Frs. Gillick and Carlson explain that silent prayer — in fact, all prayer — is really about moving from “doing” to “receiving” or simply “being,” which can be especially difficult in a culture so focused on productivity.
Fr. Gillick compares prayer to a relationship — which, as it deepens, can move from going out on dates to simply enjoying being in each other’s company.
“The standard question in our culture of productivity is: What did you get out of it?” Fr. Carlson says. “That’s not always the appropriate question. For instance, after a conversation with a friend, you wouldn’t say, ‘OK, what did we get out of this?’”
The two priests often find that people are concerned that they are not praying “correctly” — which, again, they say, focuses too much on the doing.
“If you ask anybody about their praying, they will probably say, ‘I’m not doing it as well as I should,’” Fr. Carlson says. “And ‘should’ is the operative word. It’s a measurement. You are called to give up that question.”
|Fr. Larry Gillick, SJ|
More fruitful questions, Fr. Carlson says, could be along the lines of: Is there something here I can be grateful for? What fascinates and leads me? Where do I find delight and joy?
Frs. Gillick and Carlson add that silent prayer is not about self-improvement — nor is it necessarily about coming to some great insight about Scripture.
“It’s about letting God improve you, if that’s what God wants to do,” Fr. Gillick says.
And it doesn’t have to be scary. Start softly and slowly, advises Fr. Carlson. “Try praying once a day quietly. It really is an exercise in listening to your life.”
Frs. Gillick and Carlson suggest imagining yourself in a Bible scene, and examining your thoughts and feelings. While not exactly silent, soft music may help.
Or you could reflect on a poem; Fr. Gillick suggests Sometimes by David Whyte and William Wordsworth’s Solitude. Or you can find support and camaraderie through a silent retreat. [Sources: Midwest Jesuits, Creighton University]