Tips to Benefit from a Silent Retreat

A silent retreat once a year is recommended for anyone who wishes to get closer to God or to understand him better. We cannot love someone who we do not know or understand. However, not everyone has the privilege of attending a silent retreat. In such a case, entering into a momentary period or day of silence could be helpful for us. If we do this once a month, even for an hour or two, our relationship with God and others will improve markedly.

Whether we go away to a Christian retreat centre or conduct a mini one at home, here are some ways to ensure that it bears fruit.

1. Silence is Not About You

Silence is about what God is doing and not what you are doing.  God does not need you or me to do his mighty deeds. Silence reminds us of this. Although our modern culture likes noise and there is often noise everywhere – from music blasting in the shopping malls or in our earbuds, we always have noisy distractions around us.

However God has shown us that he is in the silence. Remember that Prophet Elijah went looking for God in the wind and in mighty natural occurrences 1 Kings 19: 11-13. However, he ended up finding God in the silence of a gentle wind. We know too that the incarnation of Christ happened in the silence of the night (Wisdom 18: 14-16). A silent observation of nature is sufficient to show us that we are truly little in this universe. God does not need us to keep the universe going. Yet God has created us and elevated us. Not because we deserve it but because of his unconditional love for us. Psalm 8: 4-6

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2. Restore Yourself: Address Inner Fragmentation

There are too many things pulling us in many directions today. Too many options is not a good thing. It may paralyze us in our decision making and can make us discontent with decisions we have to make. We now have generalized FOMO: fear of missing out and FOBO: fear of a better option. We wish to minimize the risk of decision making to a level of perfection which is often not possible. All these elements can drive our anxiety way up, fragment our peace and ultimately affect our mental health.

Silence can help us return to what is important. Use your silent retreat to pick up all the fragments of yourself and refocus. Try to do your retreat where you have access to the Blessed Sacrament. Focus all your senses on him and sit there in the silence. Christ will talk to you. If you struggle with focusing, sit there and read the gospel of St. John slowly, pausing to listen inwardly at what God is telling you back. If you struggle with that too, then write in a journal what you believe God intends for you through that Gospel, then take that to Spiritual Direction with a Priest or a wise, and holy friend. Spend time contemplating how God is gazing at you with a love that loves you unconditionally.

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3. Turn off Devices – Regain Control

We all have some form of addiction to our phones these days. Use your silent retreat to ensure that you are the one controlling these gadgets and not the other way round. If you have found that you have become a slave to your gadget, put your phone on airplane mode during your silent retreat. You will not die if you do not check your phone for a moment or for five days. Leave an  automatic response , or “away message” on your email or your Apps if possible and focus on your silent retreat. This is an opportunity to regain control over your life and to press reset after months and months of being controlled by the desire to be on the phone – even when it is not important. These actions will help to restore your healthy dominion over creation as God intends (Genesis 1: 26-28 ).

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4. Listen Better

We often end our prayer once we have finished our list of requests. However, prayer should be a conversation CCC 2653. We should speak and then listen to God speak back to us. This means that silence should be incorporated into all our prayers, no matter how brief. This is, at least, an acknowledgement that we are in conversation with another person. Imagine how you feel when you are “conversing” with someone but they do all the talking and don’t let you have a word in. Now work on ensuring that you are not that person during your prayer with God. Your silent retreat is a perfect opportunity to practice listening.

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5. Pray Better

Prayer is an inner attitude (Pope Benedict XVI). The attitude consists of the theological virtues of faith, hope and love (Fr. Jacques Philippe). Work on any of these virtues and you will find that your prayer will improve. Spend your time in silence making Acts of Faith, Hope and Charity. Plan to incorporate these Aspirations into your daily life. Another attitude of prayer to work on is humility. Ask for humility as often as you can. If you are daring, say the Litany of Humility.

Pray slowly, particularly those common prayers of the Church that we get used to and rarely contemplate deeply e.g. the Mass, the Our Father, Hail Mary and Glory Be. Use your retreat to enter a slow motion prayer mode, chewing on every word and digesting the meaning and intent behind them. Be sure to also give thanks as often as possible for concrete good things in your life. None were originally from you but from God. Name them and give thanks as often as you remember them.

Pray, not only for your intentions but also for those of others – those who have asked you as well as those who didn’t ask. These include those who are negative toward you or those with whom you find difficulty living a life of charity.

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6. Contemplate Nature: Stop to Smell the Roses – Literarily

In your silence, observe how you breathe and the complexity of your body. How it responds to your intake and exhalation of air. Look closely at the plants and flowers around you. See the details in the leaves. Watch the birds. See the details in their wings. As yourself, how and why did God make this creature in this manner? What was he telling me by making this creature or what was he giving us by making this creature? Contemplate the depth of God’s wisdom and power.

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7. Go Back to the Basics – Aim for a Simpler Life

In the silence of your retreat, think about how much you have and how often, too many possessions, cause distress. When we have twenty pairs of shoes, we are unlikely to feel happy about the one we pick to attend this or that event. Whereas with only one pair per season, we really only have one choice and the shoe will be the least of our worries when we step out (hence less self-centered thoughts). Use your silence to re-evaluate how much you have and how you can help others benefit from some of your possessions. Determine what is superfluous or extra and give these away. 

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8. Contemplate and Appreciate that You Are a Masterpiece

There is only one of you in this world. Even if you are an identical twin, God has given you, your unique personality. This means that God, as an artist that he is, looks upon you and is proud of his work. Imagine if you made several one-of-kind artworks. You would proudly discuss each one, underlining its uniqueness and how you came about it and your intent behind it, etc. Contemplate this truth and see how God sees you. See the love he has for you, the plans he hopes you accomplish. Let this lead you to converse with him about his plans for you and how you may accomplish them for his glory. Each one of us has been made with unique features and experiences to give glory to God from our unique existence. (John 9: 1-4).

Examine your skills and talents, especially the ones you have naturally – things you are good at with little effort – as well as skills you have learned, your background etc and start to weave together the portrait of how God wants you to serve today and idea of what that might mean tomorrow. Sometimes, this could be as simple as being the best you can be at the milieu he has placed you in for today. Talk to him in prayer and ask him for guidance. After that prayer, trust in God and live your life according to the gospel and God will be pleased. 

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9. Develop Your Friendship with Christ  – Use Your Imagination

Jesus is a person. He took on flesh so that he can be at our level. This makes friendship with him easier. Imagine if you tried to be friends with God in his total majesty. We would be terrified. Thankfully, through Christ, we can call Jesus our friend. Remember, that because of his humanity, Christ has feelings and like any human  (and good) friend, he wishes to engage with you.

Therefore, in your silence, talk to Jesus as a friend. Use your imagination to see him there with you because he is really there. Your imagination was given for this and not only for yourself. Watch out that the devil may try to use your imagination to distract you. Stay focused and talk to Jesus who you now see with you. Ask him questions and wait for a response. If he is silent, then make prayer requests in faith, he will answer you.

Other ways to build your friendship with Jesus is to say an aspiration to him using scripture. Examples include the prayer of the Centurion: “Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof, but only say the word and my Soul shall be healed.” Mathew 8: 8.  Or the words of the Tax Collector, Lord Jesus, Son of God, have mercy on me as a sinner.” Luke 18:13.

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10. Educate Your Desire

Do you want a specific type of car, house, spouse? Then ask the Lord for them in prayer. However, remember, as one wise Priest said: “not everything interesting is in your interest.” Therefore contemplate how you may be more spiritually mature in your desire. In your silence, think about the possibility that some of these desires will not happen as you wish. If so, what will be your reaction? Write out your desires in your silence and go through them in conversation with Christ. Work on detaching from them. Ask God for them but also reiterate the line in the prayer he taught us “May Your Will be done” oh Lord (Luke 22: 41-43).  God’s will is perfect even when it doesn’t look like it.  To educate your desire in this manner is also an act of trust in the perfect will of God. 

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11. Check the Quality of Your Charity

In your silence, try to see whether you have been charitable to everyone around you. One of the ways to assess your charity is to first determine if you are left-brained or right-brained. The so-called left-brained, according to neuroscience, are those whose framework of life tends to focus on the “how.” These are technical people. They wish to plan and check off their checklists. A life of prayer is about the plan that they have set up: Go to Mass, do my Rosary etc. The right-brained, however, are focused on the end goal. Their emphasis is on building relationships and bonds with others. A right-brained is ok with driving on a bad road to go and spend ten hours with her grandma. A left-brained person may avoid spending time with grandma because the road is bad and may instead make a phone call to grandma and/or spend time researching how to fix the road.

The reality is that both frameworks are complementary. They can learn from one another, and improve by God’s grace, so that none might boast as having it all, Ephesians 2: 8-10. The left-brained can learn how to love better from the right-brained and to put people first. The right-brained can learn from the left-brained how to take care of the means of doing things so that she can reach more people in her acts of love. 

In the silence, assess your charity and think of those you can learn from. Make a concrete resolution of one or two virtues to work on to improve your charity.

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12. Give Back

One wise Priest once said that “our life is God’s gift to us. What we do with our life is our gift back to God.” In the silence, ask yourself: what am I going to give to God with my life? This is an opportunity to contemplate what vocation you have been called to.

It is important to note here that we all have a vocation to be Christian by virtue of our baptism. This is a general vocation. However, there is also a specific vocation to be a wife, a father, a nun, a Priest etc. The particular vocation can be contemplated in the silence. Ask God what he has called you to be in the particular sense. Contemplate all your gifts and observe all the patterns of your life to date. Once you have clarity, pray about it and begin to pursue it with trust in God. If you do not have clarity, do not stress, just focus on your general vocation to live out a good Christian life and a particular vocation, if any, will be revealed to you at God’s time through further prayer and the help of a good Spiritual Director/mentor.

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13. Strengthen Your Will

The evil one doesn’t want you to be on a silent retreat. Therefore many temptations will come against you. The wifi will look very attractive, you will initially feel bored perhaps or find it difficult to settle into silence. You will have bad and painful memories rise to the surface. If these  come to mind, note them and make a brief plan to deal with them either through therapy or/and through the Sacrament of Confession. Once noted, move on to focusing on your silent retreat.

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14. Resolution

Make a resolution at the beginning and end of your retreat. At the beginning, set a goal of what you would like to focus on during the retreat and let the above tips be a guide. At the end of the retreat, after receiving insight through prayer, make a simple but concrete resolution. For instance, plan to speak to Jesus more in the morning by saying a Morning Offering prayer daily once you wake. You may also make a decision to reduce your possessions or a plan to focus only on today, worrying less about tomorrow because you wish to improve your faith in God. These are all beautiful resolutions.

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