During my two month working retreat this past summer with the Sisters of the Humility of Mary, Wednesday was my day in silence. Silence defined as not only no in-person conversations but also no cell phone, no iPod, and no laptop. Each Tuesday night, I turned off my devices (which, as a typical member of my generation, I generally treat as extensions of myself) and stuck them in a drawer. I unplugged from my normal way of being in the world with the hope I would plug into that larger Voice which is so easily drowned out by noise and activity. Knowing my own tendency to binge-read, I made the rule of no books during my days in silence – since I know I could spend a day reading about prayer…and not actually pray.
So what exactly did I do on those Wednesdays?
Mostly, I prayed. That is to say, I listened. I felt my mind slowly unwind and my soul slowly expand. I prayer-walked the Sisters’ cemetery. I swam laps. I sat in the meditation attic, my hands open on my lap. I journalled. I walked – sans earbuds – among the blue heron by the pond, the geese by the labyrinth, the yellow finches back in Billy’s field. I painted and drew in the art house – aware of but not heeding the nagging inner voice that told me this whole endeavor was ridiculous, self-indulgent and a waste of time.
You see, I’m a US North American, a life-long social activist, as well solidly extroverted according to the Myers Briggs Type Indicator. None of these traits make me a natural fit for a day of contemplative silence and solitude. The thought of going more than an hour or two without a to-do list makes me a little nervous. Moreover, I was conscious of what a privilege it is to take a day in silence. Given years of ministry on the margins – in rural Latin America and among the working poor here in the US – I am acutely aware of how much of humanity lives in works sixty or seventy hours a week to just scrape by. In light of that, how could I justify the “luxury” of a day each week given over to silence?
Of course, a practical case can be made for silence, prayer and contemplative practice. There are numerous studies that show that prayer is good for our health – lowers blood pressure, reduces inflammation, boosts the immune system, and lots of other things that will win you praise from your doctor. But the practice of a day in silence can’t – or shouldn’t – be on par with eating leafy greens or climbing on the Stairmaster for half an hour of cardio.
Nor is the practice of a day in contemplative silence simply about charging one’s battery to go out and do more apostolic work. Of course, it is true that our service to the world is nourished by our spiritual practice. This is the model we see over and over in Scripture – Jesus going off on his own to prayer, and then preaching and healing. But contemplative silence is not the spiritual equivalent of plugging in one’s laptop or filling one’s car with gas.
After practicing a weekly day in silence for a summer, I believe that the only way the counter-intuitive and counter-cultural practice of contemplative silence makes sense is if it is based in both Scripture’s exhortation to pray (both the Christian Scriptures as well as sacred texts from other great traditions), in addition to science with its wild and wonderful theories of quantum entanglement, strange attractors, and the like. Both Scriptures and science use their own language to point to the same reality: that our thoughts and intentions and energy are real and make an impact.
The motivation for contemplation is trust that somehow mysteriously God can take our “wasting time” and “doing nothing” in contemplative silence as an offering for those most in need, for the transformation of the pain of the world. It takes a leap of faith to believe that my silent, open-hearted hours logged in the chapel, on the cushion in the meditation attic, and on the land can mean something for this beleaguered, beautiful planet and the seven billion human beings residing here. It takes trust that being – mirroring that ground of Being – can mean as much if not more than doing.
After a summer of this practice, it seems to me that contemplation is an end in itself and not a means to something else. Contemplative silence through/with/in God is not to be undertaken as part of a health or self-improvement regime. Nor is it an obligatory battery-charging pit-stop on the road of apostolic work. It is – or at least aspires to be – uniting one’s own heart with the heart of God. Sandra Schneiders, IHM, reflecting on the words monk-and-activist Thomas Merton, puts it beautifully: “in contemplative prayer, according to Merton, we pass through the center of our own being into the very being of God, where we see ourselves and our world with a clarity, a simplicity, a truthfulness that are not available in any other way.”
Of course, I will not give up seeking to practice the works of mercy and resist the acts of war and encouraging others to do the same. Action and contemplation certainly relate as both/and, not either/or. I invite you, dear reader – especially if you identify as an activist or are a super-plugged-in Millennial like me – to take the leap of faith into a moment, an hour, or even a day of contemplative silence. Not as an escape from this beleaguered, beautiful world but as a way of diving more fully and deeply into it – through/with/in our awesome and mysterious Creator.
About the author: Rhonda Miska is a partner in mission with the Sisters of the Humility of Mary, a former Jesuit Volunteer (Nicaragua, 2002-2004) and a graduate of the Boston College School of Theology and Ministry. Originally from Wisconsin, her ministries have included accompaniment of the Spanish-speaking immigrant community, Muslim-Christian dialogue, social justice education, direct outreach to people who are homeless, congregation-based community organizing, and coordination of a community with adults with intellectual disabilities. She is based in Villa Maria, PA and will attend CTA’s conference next week in Nashville, TN.