It was a gamble, one I found myself second-guessing as soon as I started it. The parish council had asked for a facilitated day with the goal of strategic planning around a newly formed vision statement. Based on previous days we had together, they had also requested that part of the day be a retreat time. Since they didn’t specify what that should be, it was my choice to decide what the “retreat” would look like as well as how much time we would devote to it.
In my planning, I looked at their goals for the day. It was an ambitious agenda for a five-hour day, one that included a review of the vision statement itself and then a process for setting specific goals to achieve it. Previous experience told me strategic planning of that type takes more than a few hours. While I applauded the wisdom of the retreat idea, I struggled with how to fit everything in.
Hence the gamble. I was worried as I stood before them, giving them instructions for the next portion of the morning. We had just spent 20 minutes reviewing the wisdom of “deep listening” and the spiritual benefits of silence. I had quoted mystic Meister Eckhart to them, “There is nothing so like God as silence,” and the Sufi poet Rumi: “The quieter you are, the more you are able to hear.”
We had considered the Zen story of the disciple who came to the Master seeking enlightenment. Sitting down with the disciple for tea, the Master began pouring tea into the disciple’s cup, filling it and then over-filling it, seemingly unaware of the overflowing teacup. “Master,” protested the disciple, “Stop! Can’t you see the cup is full?” The master stopped pouring and smiled at the disciple. “So it is with you,” he declared gently. “You are like this teacup, so full of knowledge and ideas that nothing more can be added. How can I possibly teach you anything when you are already full? Before you start to learn, you have to empty your cup.”
Their workday, I suggested, was to be one of listening not only to one another but to the Spirit working in and among them, so a good place to start would be with empty cups. Given a choice of being, “full of self or empty with spirit,” we wanted to be, “empty with spirit.” The pathway would be through sacred silence: endless chatter could be stilled, and personal agendas and preconceived ideas released, so that one might truly be able to hear the other.
Our prayer, I had explained, was to be visio divina. Latin for “divine seeing,” visio divina shares its roots with the more familiar lectio divina, the slow, careful reflection with Scripture where one allows a word or phrase to rise in one’s consciousness. Visio divina uses visual representations, like a painting, photo or icon, for the same purpose: in prayerful reflection, one invites elements of the image to speak.
Our scriptural focus was Elijah’s story from 1 Kings. Elijah is hiding in the cave, waiting on the Lord. Sequentially a mighty wind, an earthquake and a fire arrive and depart, but the Lord isn’t in any of them. Finally, there is “the sound of sheer silence,” and Elijah goes to the mouth of the cave. There the angel of the Lord speaks.
After giving instructions for the process of visio divina and reading the scriptural passage aloud for them, I give each of them a photocopied image of a painting: Elijah huddled in his cave, with his hands covering his face and the mountains stark around him. The instructions are to take the image, find a quiet spot and remain in silence for an hour.
And that’s the gamble and my worry. Would they like the form of prayer? But more, was the hour of silence too long? Many can’t handle 20 minutes of it, let alone a whole hour! I prowl around for the first half hour, anxiously checking. I am heartened to see their commitment. Some are resting with eyes closed; some are walking outside; some are journaling. All are perfectly quiet. The truth, though, will come when they return to share their experiences.
“When I first heard it was to be an hour of silence, my heart sank!” reports one participant. “But it took me almost 15 minutes to settle down. My mind was racing and only gradually did I get quiet. Then I was able to enter the silence and pray with the image. It was wonderful and I wasn’t ready for it end.”
One man simply said, “The hour was a gift. I went and walked in the forest. I listened to the birds, looked at the trees, enjoyed the sun. I realized I hadn’t had an hour to myself without tasks or other people needing me, for ages. It was so peaceful and eventually, I realized, prayerful. Now my mind is clear and my soul is quiet.”
And so it goes: most report an initial hesitation moving to a whole-hearted embrace of the experience. In the silence, they found themselves at a place of stillness and their prayer was richer for it. The insights they share that surfaced in the visio divina are profound and wonderful. Overwhelmingly, gratitude for both the prayer form and the silence are the order of the day.
“So,” I think ruefully, “Not so much a gamble after all.” I should have trusted more: in the sacredness of the silence and the slow, winding work of the Spirit. Duly noted; lesson learned, and we move on to the rest of our day.
Prather, BEd, MTh, is a teacher and facilitator in the areas of faith and spirituality. She was executive director at Star of the North Retreat Centre in St. Albert, Alta., for 21 years and resides in Sherwood Park with her husband, Bob. They are blessed with four children and 10 grandchildren.