The opportunity to spend last weekend on a silent retreat came as a wonderful invitation to leave aside the bustle of pre-Christmas preparation and enter into the ‘wilderness’ that we hear so much of in our Advent readings.
Scripture abounds with such references, a particular favourite of mine being the gentle luring by the Lord into the wilderness where he speaks to the heart, the wilderness there being the place of betrothal between God and his people (Hosea 2:16)
Why the need for silence? And why now?
Meister Eckhart remarked that there is nothing so much like God as silence and it seems particularly appropriate to carve out space for it in Advent, as we watch and wait and prepare for the coming of the Word – and as is well known, words can only be heard by one who listens, and one can only really listen when one is silent oneself.
Silence therefore lets us hear within us this Word of God, spoken throughout eternity and made flesh amongst us, a Word that we can hear and see and touch if we are only open to it (1 John 1:1). There is so much in this Word on which to reflect – the Word of God that creates in Genesis merely by being uttered, ‘let there be…’ (Genesis 1).
The Word of God that is a light in all situations (Psalm 118:105), and is so delightful to the prophet that when it comes he devours it (Jeremiah 15:16). The Word of God that is alive and active (Hebrews 4:12).
And the Word of God that needs silence in which to be born among us. St John of the Cross reminds us that
The Father spoke one word which was his Son, and this word he speaks always in eternal silence, and in silence must it be heard by the soul.
Perhaps easy for a mystic to say, and we may wonder how practical that is to achieve, amidst all that needs to be done between now and Christmas Day. We live in a noisy world where often it seems we are uncomfortable with silence, feeling the need instead to fill each moment with stimulus of one kind or another.
The space to ‘switch off’ from all of this for one short weekend was a gift indeed but the challenge now remains for me to bring the silence I experienced there into my daily life of commuting, working, and family living.
And when I wonder where I can find this in my everyday life, I also begin to ponder whether it was so very different at the time of Christ’s coming. Think of the journey endured by Mary and Joseph, and the tumultuous chaos they faced in Bethlehem, so crowded with people coming in response to the census summons that there was no room for them at the inn.
Pieter Bruegel the Elder captures this beautifully in his famous painting, where one has to look hard to see, amidst all that is going on, the tiny figures seeking somewhere to rest so Mary could give birth to her child. The noise and bustle must have been enormous and they had to snatch space where they could find it. And when they did find it, then ‘how silently, how silently’ was the wondrous gift given as we hear in the carol (O Little Town of Bethlehem, by Philip Brooks).
Let us, too, snatch space and time where we can, opening ourselves to God with waiting hearts and silent longing. Even short moments, at the beginning and end of the day perhaps, reflecting on a word or two of Scripture can bear fruit within us.
We can then allow a heartfelt ‘Maranatha, come Lord Jesus’ (Revelation 22:20) to echo within our hearts at all times, knowing that this gift has been promised and that God is faithful to his promises. May we embrace at least some periods of silence so that the all-powerful Word of God made flesh can truly be borne in our hearts at Christmas, and always.
When peaceful silence lay over all,
and night had run the half of her swift course
down from the heavens, from your royal throne,
leapt your all-powerful Word.
The Retreat Association lists a variety of places which offer space for silence and prayer, from quiet days to longer retreats. Audrey spent her weekend advent retreat at The House of Prayer in East Molesey in Surry, run by the Sisters of the Christian Retreat (details available on their website)