Silence does not dwell on top of mountains
Nor noise in street and marketplaces
Both are to be found inside the human heart
Silent retreats have become quite popular here in Finland. Unsurprisingly, in our more and more hectic lifestyles. Many of us are stressed out at work or otherwise exhausted by a busy life, and long to take some time off just for themselves, away from it all. Having heard about retreats from friends, it was, first and foremost, curiosity that attracted me to sign in for a weekend silent retreat.
What is a silent retreat then? Briefly, it is a chance to spend a weekend, or a longer time, in silence, with full board, usually somewhere in the countryside, in the lap of nature. Quite often these retreats are organised by a church, and thus involve prayer sessions and even full church services, although the participation in any of these activities is fully voluntary. You can simply spend the whole time on your own, in your own thoughts if you so wish.
Driving to the retreat, I felt a little anxious. I am not especially religious, so the role of the church as the organiser concerned me a little, despite my friend’s reassurance that I wouldn’t have to participate in anything I didn’t want to. What if I couldn’t help uncontrollable giggles during the silent meals? Or imagine suddenly bursting into tears in front of other people! Maybe I would find the silence too oppressive to bear. Then again, I was looking forward to a whole weekend without any of my everyday chores or responsibilities. Just a book with me, and two days to meditate and think about myself, my feelings and life in general. For a teacher, dealing with hundreds of people in a noisy school every day, this sounded heavenly bliss!
The venue was lovely. Rustic style wooden houses by a lake, still frozen in mid-winter. Snow and ice everywhere but a wonderfully warm atmosphere indoors. There were a dozen of us, and each of us was given our own individual room, with all mod cons. One of the best parts for me were the regular, delicious meals, and the luxury of walking into the dining room with a ready-made buffet table, candle-lit tables and gorgeous views out to the lake. I soon relaxed, and didn’t even find the meals, enjoyed in a group in total silence, at all awkward or strange. In fact, silence shared in a group was a nice, relieving experience.
I spent quite a lot of time inside my room, reading or just deep in my thoughts. Long walks, despite the blustery, icy wind, were refreshing, and offered me the opportunity to observe the surrounding countryside. I must say, for me, nature really showed its calming and healing qualities, even during this very brief time. More regular walks in the woods will definitely be part of my weekly schedule from now on! Being in Finland, of course the sauna was heated in the evening, and many people even ventured for a dip in the ice hole in the lake (a typical Finnish wintertime activity). There was also a separate fireplace room where you could sit by the flaming fire, snuggly wrapped inside a soft blanket, till late at night.
I wonder how the people attending all the church activities found the quite busy programme. If you took part in everything, you had something going on about every two hours, including the meals. Obviously, the church activities had speech, singing and music, which meant the silence was actually broken. I can see the church point of view – after all, they were the organisers. What’s more, they had to make sure that everybody showed their faces at regular intervals, to avoid any issues with loneliness, mental break-downs or other personal crises, which can easily manifest themselves during such a solitary experience. Personally, though, I would have found it far too much, had I participated in all of the organised activity. Personal choice and freedom was a definite plus for me!
All in all, the weekend passed by far too quickly, in my opinion. I fully enjoyed the experience even if no life-changing revelations entered my conscience. I slept like a log, and felt rested and energised after returning home. Never once did I regret going, and all my initial doubts were proven unfounded. I will definitely go again, if possible. On the other hand, I do also now better understand people who say they couldn’t ever imagine participating, as they are far too sociable and talkative, and simply can’t see the point in wasting any time in silence. Different strokes to different folks, as they say!