Staying Quiet§

writer: russell j.t. dyer; posted: February 25, 2007; revised: April 23, 2018; readers in past month: 623

Jesuit Spirituality Center
Grand Coteau, Louisiana

When I first came to Italy, I wasn’t sure why I came here. I just knew I needed to be here and to leave the U.S. I’ve known it for a long time. I was vague as to how long I would stay. Relatives and friends from the U.S. asked me after a couple of months when I was returning. The only accurate response that I could give was When I’m finished. Of course, they didn’t understand what that meant and would ask me in return, When you’re finished what? To this I could only say, I don’t know, but I’ll know when I’m finished.

It’s now over nineteen months since the hurricane set me free, and sixteen months since I first arrived in Italy. Of course, I haven’t always been here and have taken a few trips back to the U.S. to visit. Nevertheless, a considerable amount of time has passed since I started my time in the desert, as I used to like to call it. I’m still not finished, but I feel much of what I instinctively meant to accomplish has been done. It’s not time for me to return to the U.S. yet, but my project is in the completion stage. These stages are not measured by time, though. This final stage could last another two years for all I know. The point is that after the first two or three months when relatives were harrassing me to return, I was barely in the beginning stage. I was too weak and hurt then to return.

When I had a more religious life, years ago I used to go to Grand Coteau, Louisiana once a year for a five-day retreat at the Jesuit seminary. It was a wonder experience and process. With this program, a private directed retreat, one would maintain absolute silence for the whole retreat, except for one hour a day when one would meet with a retreat director to discuss the previous day of prayer and meditation, and to be given directions for the next day. I discovered in doing these retreats that five days wasn’t long enough. The first three days were wasted just trying to get my brain to shut up. The endless chatter of the mind is distracting when trying to listen to one’s heart and soul and to God. It wasn’t until the fourth day that one found inner peace and could accomplish anything spiritually. Leaving after the fifth day was always distressing in that I knew that I was just making headway, although I didn’t know what lay ahead if I stayed or how long that would be. I used to dream of going back one time and doing a thirty-day retreat. Of course, I knew that that wouldn’t be enough either.

Well, here I am in my desert doing a self-directed retreat of sorts. I’m not lost in prayer and I’m not silent all the time. But I am alone in many ways. I do talk less and spend much of my time alone at home. The process is not as concentrated or as intense as a true retreat can be, but it is working. I am long past the initial three days of trying to get my brain to be quiet. And I’ve gone beyond the fourth and fifth days when I start to hear my heart. I really don’t know how far I’ve come, but I know I’ve gone many retreat days now. I know the sound of my own voice, perhaps for the first time in my life. I don’t feel like I’m finished, but I feel like I’m safe now. Ending now would be bothersome for me, but not tragic. I’ve toyed with the idea of maybe leaving at the end of the year, but having a deadline to leave seems to ruin the intervening days. I guess at this point I’m willing to predict that I might leave at the end of the year, but I have no plans.

When I used to have religious friends, some of them used to tell me that one should try to continue the retreat after returning home. To some extent that seemed absurd. I had no idea what that would look like. Others agreed with my skepticism and would say that one couldn’t continue the retreat once home, but one could continue along the path that was started on the retreat and that one shouldn’t forget what was accomplished and learned while on retreat. That, I think is more feasible and I now understand that method much better now. When I was in New Orleans in January, I found myself walking instead of driving or looking for a ride to stores and coffee shops. It’s a minor thing, but it’s part of who I am here. When I first went back to the U.S. in October last year, I found myself listening to others talk more and I was talking far less than I did in the past. I’ve always been a good listener, but now I’m good at being quiet, too. Oh, sometimes I still chatter away on the phone or in person when I’m excited about something or lonely. But my mind is not a buzz with confusion as much as it was in the past. When people start saying things which previously would upset or disturb me, I now just sit back in my mind and listen to them and try to understand them. They’re not pushing into my head and crowding me out. They are where they should be and I am where I should be. Even their abuses don’t ruin my day or my life. I’m becoming free of my inner chaos and free of the control of others over me, over my wellbeing and my happiness. Maybe that’s what I came here to learn, to accomplish.

Putting a religious and poetic spin on it: I came to the desert crying out for the Lord, and in His mercy, He did not answer me but instead He left me alone for months after months so that I may know my own voice, so that I can distinguish my voice from others.