Speechless Retreats Are On The Rise
By Victoria Schlesinger
When Jamie Wyatt asked God for guidance, she received a clear message: "Be still." Taking the inspiration to heart, the full-time mom from Atlanta began to study the virtues of quietness and later that year ventured on her first silent retreat. For two days she didn’t utter a word, as she prayed and meditated at a Catholic getaway in the woods.
Since then Wyatt, 51, who attends a Baptist Church where a choir, orchestra and hand bell troupe play at services, has taken four more similarly quiet weekends.
“It recharges my batteries,” Wyatt said, “and helps me to face what I left behind."
Increasingly, people like Wyatt are choosing to spend their precious few days of vacation in quietude, opting for spiritual relaxation rather than a beach or parties. A desire to turn down the noise and break free from harried lives is being satisfied in religious settings like Catholic and Buddhist monasteries.
“Whether you’re atheist or religious, to hear the human heart you need silence,” said Father Edward Farrell, director of the Sacred Heart Seminary of Detroit.
That is the theme of his upcoming book, “Journeys into Solitude: Reflections and Timeless Wisdom from Twenty Years of Silent Retreats.” “It’s rare that we take a moment to reflect,” Farrell said about the increasing secular yen for silence.
Another person who has found solace by not talking is Carla Jo Dakin, 52, an administrative law judge in California’s Central Valley who learned that she had advanced breast cancer in 2001. That year she attended her first 10-day silent retreat at Spirit Rock, a Buddhist meditation center in northern California, to contemplate her illness and its impact on her family.
“I’ve been teaching myself to let go of the fear. Meditation is a way to look at and face it,” Dakin said.
Anyone from high-powered business executives to the unemployed, from age 18 to 84, sign up for the quiet refuges, according to Spirit Rock’s registrar, Stacey Butcher, 41. She said visitors include Jews, Catholics, Buddhists and atheists. According to the board, enrollment has been steadily increasing over recent years.
Despite the broad range of participants and rising interest, going without speaking is not easy for everyone.
“It’s not a vacation or a resort. It can be challenging because a lot of thoughts and emotions come up," said Butcher. "Sometimes you feel superhappy and then feelings of anger or sadness come.”
To help deal with the barrage of troubling thoughts and emotions that might arise during a period of stillness, many places make a spiritual adviser available to retreaters. A chaplain is always on hand for visitors staying at the Abbey of Gethsemani, a Trappist monastery in Kentucky. “They’ll have a marriage problem or moral problem or want to go deeper into prayer,” said Brother Raphael Prendergast, speaking about visitors who meet with the abbey's chaplain for spiritual direction.
That was certainly true for Amanda Silver, 28, who has twice spent a week in silence at Elat Chayyim, a Jewish spiritual center in upstate New York, to escape her noisy life in Manhattan.
“Suddenly you’re acting as crazy and chaotic as everyone else, when you didn’t used to be like that,” she said.
Describing a familiar scene of modern stress, Silver said the wordless respites have changed her. “I was on the phone, doing something on the computer and writing a note at same time,” she said. “I caught myself and decided to direct all my attention to the person on the phone. In reality, I’m not doing anything really well.”
Many mental health practitioners think she’s on to something, pointing to studies showing that meditation is associated with lower anxiety and blood pressure and other physical health benefits.
"Calming the mind and focusing inward for a period has a calming effect,” said Dr. Henry Koenig, a professor of psychiatry at Duke University who specializes in the relationship between faith and health.
"It makes a lot of sense in a high-stress society that getting away and being quiet will calm you down," he said. "I think people would be a lot healthier if they did it more often.”
Wyatt couldn’t agree more. She was so inspired by the positive effect of her silent retreats, that she began organizing similar weekends for members of her church.
About 10 women went to her first 24-hour quiet getaway. Double that number joined her second, and many of the women are planning to attend the third.
“Silence is the best spiritual spa there is," Wyatt said.