Tag Archives: Solitude

An extrovert on retreat – by Jo Herbert

25 Feb

One last guest post in response to this week’s hour-of-silence challenge, by youth worker Jo Herbert. Here she writes about her nervousness about undertaking a four and a half day silent retreat; and how God met powerfully with her there.

joherbertEven I was surprised when my ‘Myers Briggs’ test came back with the result on the Introvert/Extrovert axis with a big fat zero on Introvert and 34 on Extrovert! I knew I loved being with people, but a zero? So, it may be with some surprise that you find yourself reading of someone with (apparently) no introversion in their personality, writing about a Four and a half day silent retreat!

I had been inspired by a television programme called ‘The Big Silence’: a documentary following Benedictine monk, Abbot Christopher Jamison, as he took five people on an eight-day silent retreat. Every one of them met with God, so in a moment of inspiration (it was January) I made it my New Year’s resolution to do a silent retreat.

Excited and expectant, I started my retreat. So you understand the setting and rules, I was in a retreat centre (Glenfall House) in stunning countryside with roughly 25 others. Four and a half days of silence is long, so there are rhythms in the day that break it up: meals, eaten in silence, then 30 minutes with a spiritual director who give you questions to ponder or concepts to meditate. There is a communion service each afternoon and silent prayer in the evenings.

In the documentary, Abbot Christopher explained the journey people take. For the first couple of days, what you would expect happens; your mind is full of the things you should be doing instead of being in silence! After a couple of days that quietens and you begin to truly engage with yourself. Then, after a time you come to the end of yourself, and that is when you truly bump into God.

Although I knew about and understood this journey, I did not notice my own going through it until I looked back. The first full day I slept, only breaking the sleep with the rhythms. All began to quieten in me and I began to reflect on my life and God, and, as the Abbot predicted, I did naturally reach the end of this reflection on myself.

Then, after the best part of a day I learnt some very hard lessons about what it truly means to seek and wait on God (that day/evening is a whole other blog post!); there in the darkness and silence God graciously met with me in the most deep and profound way. There was no fanfare, no visions or shining light. In the quiet, in the darkness, God came. It floored me. I have never been so sincerely humbled in my life. God came with an invitation to go deeper into him.

It was like God took me to the edge of a cliff and showed me the most breath-taking view. As I approached the edge, I found myself overlooking the most enormous chasm that went deeper and wider and further than I could see. It was beautiful, full of vegetation, and it would take a lifetime to explore. This, he said, was how much more depth and life there was in him. This was my invitation to go deeper.

I went to bed that night in a bit of a daze, utterly humbled and floored from my encounter. My last day, I got up, and this raging extrovert sat in peace and stillness for the entire day. I have never experienced contentment in the presence of God like that before or since.

Jo Herbert is a 30 year old youth worker living in central London. She is passionate about justice and loves good (fairtrade) coffee, jogging and hot climates. She dislikes teddy bears (what’s the point?!), spicy food and rain! She’s also Tearfund’s Youth & Emerging Generation Coordinator.


A silent Eucharist, by Penny Culliford

23 Feb

In another response to this week’s God52 challenge to spend an hour in silence, writer Penny Culliford asks: what’s the point of silence?

pennycBy rights, this blog post should be completely blank, with just a profound comment at the end to say what I learnt about God from this time of silence. As you can see, this is not the case.

My head is a noisy place and silence would be a hard thing. I have a very vivid imagination, full of people and conversations.  But I wanted to try. I started with five minutes, intending to work up to the full hour. I sat down on the landing, no distractions there. Nothing needed washing up, putting away or Hoovering.

What is silence? What is the point of silence? Is it the end in itself, or was it the means to an end. Is silence just the absence of sound?

I could hear a distant noise, a man’s voice. I had left the radio on downstairs. I got up and turned it off, returning to the landing. I could hear water rushing through the pipes, and the sounds of my own body. It sounded like a city. The rumble of underground trains transporting oxygen through my veins, my breathing like the breeze, the steady hammer beat of my heart. God was not there.  I gave up after 3 minutes.

I had a train journey that would take about an hour and instead of reading or listening to my ipod, I would try silence again. Of course the train was not silent, but none of the sounds, distant conversation, the occasional announcement bothered me. I closed my eyes and tried to use the time constructively. I imagined a room full of light and Jesus and me. There was a table and 2 chairs. I sat on one, Jesus on the other. I tried to speak, but stopped myself. Jesus was much better at the silence than I was.

We sat, in each other’s company, neither speaking. If my attention wandered, I brought it back to this light, bright room and the companionable silence.

To my surprise, Jesus produced a bottle of red wine and two glasses. He poured and pushed one glass across the table to me. We clinked, and drank. Still in silence.

After that, a basket of warm pitta bread arrived, with a humus dip and olives.

My mind, in silence, turns into a Greek taverna! What’s that all about?

We ate the bread and drank the wine. A silent Eucharist.

Penny Culliford is the author of the Christian novels Theodora’s Diary, Theodora’s Wedding, Theodora’s Baby  and The Art of Standing Still. She also writes plays and recently wrote the scripts for the children’s DVD Henry Hand Puppet. She likes chocolate, TV sitcoms and unexpected acts of kindness. She dislikes celery, stick insects and people who take themselves too seriously. Visit www.pennyculliford.com or follow her on Twitter @PennyCulliford

Stillness, not silence – by Dan Crouch

23 Feb

In this morning’s guest blog, youth worker Dan Crouch reflects on how being an introvert hasn’t helped him to be silent in the way he had imagined, and how the process of trying to be quiet has helped him to learn an important distinction.

Dan crouchI’m definitely an introvert (Myers Briggs told me) so the week 8 challenge of spending an hour in silence would be easy wouldn’t it? I find myself energised by time on my own, by reading and writing; I engage with others as and when I need to and only ever offer a contribution to a conversation that has been well thought through in my head. I think in my own space. But I’m also a youth worker, a role that requires several characteristics commonly associated with an ‘extrovert’.  Surely the ‘excuse’ to spend some time in silence was an introvert’s answer to prayer?

Imagining how straightforward this challenge would be for me personally, I identified a time slot to spend in silence shortly after the challenge was revealed. Having assumed I would manage more than just an hour in the seven days of this challenge I thought I might even begin to make up for my failures from past challenges.  This was an opportunity to gain some God bonus points (we all know that’s how it works, right?)

But then I realised I’m actually not very good at silence. I like to be on my own but I am seldom in silence. I listen to podcasts, music and radio. I read books, magazines and newspapers and I frequent the pages of Twitter and Facebook with regularity that some might deem obsessive. From the moment I wake to the moment I sleep I am taking in information and processing it.

My first attempt at silence totalled an unimpressive four minutes. Four minutes! As a target driven guy falling so short of an hour was a huge disappointment. In my second attempt I managed 20 minutes and towards the end of this time, somewhat unusually, God clearly gave me the words of Psalm 46, verse 10

‘Be still and know that I am God.’

Then I saw I had made a god of the silence.  God has shown me that my ‘success’ in these 52 challenges, like any other area of life, does not depend on me or my ability. This week God didn’t want me to be silent; he wanted me to be still. Silence is the easy part for me. Stillness is the challenge and as we strive to attain this stillness we recognise who we are, and as importantly, who God is.

I’m yet to complete an hour of silence but I have managed 20 minutes of stillness with God and I’m thankful for that. Why not strive for the stillness rather than the silence yourself?

Dan Crouch is an introvert, a youth worker in the parish of Keynsham and a student on the Centre for Youth Ministry MA course. An aspiring writer, he is always looking for ways of sharing his thoughts and experience with others. You can follow him on twitter @DanCrouch where he posts a mixture of quotes and the occasional, well thought-through (in his head) original thought.

The silence of bubbles, by Penelope Swithinbank

22 Feb

This beautifully-written guest post, written in response to this week’s challenge, chronicles a now-seasoned retreater’s first experience of a silent spiritual getaway.

penelope“Ten days of total silence?” gasp my family in disbelief. “You’ll never do it. Won’t you be bored – or lonely?  What will you do all day?”

I have to go on a Silent Retreat as part of a Spirituality Course; it’s not something I have specifically chosen. I go in fear and trepidation.

Packed: inspiring books, kettle and cafetiere, duvet and pillow for comfort, walking boots, laptop, a beautiful new journal, a favourite fountain pen – anything I might need to relieve any boredom and be creatively silent. Provisions – electing to self-cater, just wanting a simple, light diet. And a small bottle of something – I am Anglican clergy after all. It might help me sleep.

Arriving: scary for this introvert– but there are warm smiles, the aroma of baking. And a comfortable room. Relief. I rearrange all the furniture – comfy chair overlooking the beautiful gardens. Plug in laptop – oh, joy and dismay there is wifi. Temptation!  Do I give in?

Sixteen retreatants gather somewhat warily for introductory session with four Spiritual Directors. Then it begins:


But also: excitement and anticipation. I’ve shown up – will God?

And so begins a new daily structure: saying the Divine Hours – the daily office with its prayers and Scriptures on waking, at midday and late afternoon, with compline at bedtime.

Mornings become lectio divina, or Ignatian prayer, or an entire book of the Bible in one sitting.  Afternoons are long peaceful walks, sometimes hoping for God, sometimes not. Followed by 45 minutes with my Director. He encourages me to use the craft room. I hesitate, hate painting.  But calligraphy – a verse that has been especially meaningful earlier, in different translations  (the internet has its uses after all) God almost shows up.

Then I see them: BUBBLES!  Little tubs of bubbles. Suddenly the inner child emerges; I run in the garden blowing bubbles  – laughter and lament, rainbows and rejoicing, gratitude and God, all found in bubbles.

Evenings – and more bubbles. Long deep bubble baths. Relaxing, going to bed luxuriously early, reading, journalling, sleeping deep, in country silence and dark. And God.

God speaks – in ways I would never have imagined – through and in the bubbles, in this time and space and silence. It’s salutary to be reminded of how seldom I stop to listen to God, how seldom I play anymore.

There’s no specific Voice, but I sense his Presence; things are confirmed in my subconscious, He draws near in  ‘day dreams’. And bubbles. All is gift.

Sadness now in leaving – ‘normal’ life strangely unalluring.

The room is returned to its former state, the laptop unplugged. And yes, I Skyped with members of the family once or twice. Perhaps it’s cheating; but for me it’s real, an important part of my life, and hasn’t detracted from the silence and solitude and specialness of Retreating.

Now I’m off to buy some bubbles.

The Revd Penelope Swithinbank attended a Retreat at the Sisters of St Andrew, Eden Hall,  Edenbridge, Kent (Sadly the Convent has recently had to close). Find more from her on Retreats and her own retreat centre at www.ministriesbydesign.org

An anonymous post on the gift of silence

21 Feb

Sometimes we know they’re coming… and sometimes they just appear. This morning’s guest post falls into the latter category; a brilliant reflection on this week’s silence challenge, written by a lady who’d like to remain anonymous. Slow down, make a hot drink, sit back and enjoy…

So God’s having a laugh, right?  My response to the challenge in week 8 – having just come down with a bout of laryngitis, which means that I am spending not just an hour, but looking at maybe three, four days (possibly more) in enforced silence.

But then I thought about it.  Maybe God is trying to teach me something through this silence.  I work in a school, so silence is not something I do.  I rely on my voice.  I rely on myself.   Maybe I need to learn something about relying on God and his resources rather than on my own.  Being without a voice this week has shown me how much of a gift it is.

And there again, there is the silence itself.  Walking back from school with my daughter this week, I was struck by the act of actively listening to her talking about her day.  Instead of the interior monologue that would normally be going on, where I am aching to butt in with my response, I had to just listen.  Of course I always try to listen to my children – it’s just that there are thoughts buzzing around my head like a swarm of particularly pesky mosquitoes.  Being able to keep them quiet for five minutes is a miracle in itself.

So how do I still the interior monologue when talking to God?  For all the times in the Bible we are told that people like Job or David spoke to God, how many more times is listening mentioned, or at least implied?  From God’s point of view,  are my conversations with Him like one of those phone calls you hear sometimes, where the person at the end of the phone is just saying ‘Yes but …’, ‘No ..’, ‘Ok…’, ‘Bye then!’?  How much does He LONG to tell us what He thinks?  His plans for us?

To be very honest, I don’t know how to keep the thoughts from whirling around my head.  Maybe having enforced, or voluntary silence for a period, is the only way to achieve this, albeit inconsistently and temporarily.  But I know that unless I even try (even if I only manage a few minutes), I will be missing out on so much of what God wants to say.  And I think that would be even worse than not being able to talk for a week!

The writer is a wife and mother of two, who works as a teaching assistant in a local school, attends both of her local churches and tries to get involved with music and children where she can.

And on the sixth day… by Danny Webster

20 Feb

This week’s challenge is – according to twitter at least – proving daunting. We’re set to have a bumper week for guest blogs, so here’s the first – a reflection from the EA’s Danny Webster on holidaying alone.

Danny websterWalking through the streets of Bern in Switzerland on a cold March evening I realised I was sad. I had visited the famed bears, strolled around the beautiful city and had a coffee in front of the Bundestag while watching gentlemen ageing gracefully play chess in the square. But everything was not fine, I was missing other people.

Rewind six days and I arrived in Salzburg, Austria, ready to embark on an eleven day tour of five cities all alone. This was five years ago, and each year since I have done something similar. I have driven around Slovenia, Serbia, Bosnia and Croatia, I have stayed in a converted barn in Portugal and a former monastery in Tuscany. And I have done all these things on my own.

It was not until the sixth day that I felt lonely. I am an introvert who lives in a busy world and going away alone has become an important, nigh on therapeutic, activity. Spending an hour alone hardly seems worth bothering with.

I may be an introvert but I am also an activist. I like to be busy, to be entertained and detained by a constant stream of competing distractions. That first day in Salzburg I arrived with an itinerary for each of the eleven days I was away. I had maps, printed and laminated, arranged in a folder with a plastic sleeve dedicated to each day. I had scouted places to visit, sites to see, cafés chosen for their ambience which I could enjoy.

That evening I wondered along a magnificent little street where the houses on one side are built into the cliff-face. Actually I walked along it one and a half times because I realised I joined it halfway along so walked back round to start at the beginning. The final part of that day’s schedule was a walk up to a convent to catch a night-time panorama of the city. When I got to the top and sat on a park bench in a specifically located viewing platform I was confronted with a glaring floodlit white building – the Salzburg museum of modern art.

It struck me as I walked (for the second time) down this street and up the hill that you just cannot do ambiance. And when you try, annoying little things like modern art shatter the pretence.

In the same way we can’t do ambiance, can we do God?

God is not something that can be summed up in a whistle-stop visit or captured on a postcard. There is not a one-hour audio guide available in ten difference languages with special versions for children in German, Italian and English.

When I spend time on my own the temptation is to fill it with activities, perhaps to mask that despite all I have said, I am not always comfortable on my own. Each time I go away a similar cycle occurs: I set plans, have high hopes, something goes wrong and I realise why I need to relax and find time for nothing.

On another holiday I sat outside a barn in Portugal in a village with seven permanent inhabitants. The nearest shop a service station on the motorway that passed by without a sideways glance. The goat bells ringing their very own dawn chorus. Gnarled olive trees littering the landscape. From the shops on the street corner that simply do not ever close transported to a world where a loaf of bread is unobtainable in the early evening setting sun.

Yet even on a last minute trip to the Portuguese wilderness there is the temptation to set agendas, daily reading targets, plans for action. Within minutes of picking up the hire car I had taken another car’s wing-mirror off. Each time I have to learn afresh to stop.

Danny Webster loves to read, write and think – and sometimes puts this to good use. He blogs at www.brokencameras.com on the lessons he is learning about faith and failure. He’s an unashamed political geek with a West Wing quote for every occasion. Sometimes when he’s bored or stressed Danny indulges in a little creative baking.  Twitter: @danny_webster