I met Christine Valters Paintner through participating in one of her retreats, “Awakening the Creative Spirit”. Christine is a teacher, writer, and spiritual director, among other things, and refers to herself as the “online Abbess” of Abbey of the Arts, a website devoted to “transformative living through contemplative and expressive arts.” Through the Abbey of the Arts, Christine offers both live and online classes and retreats that invite participants into interior pilgrimage through creation, reflection, rest, and daily rhythms.
So, when I was planning a personal retreat of silence and solitude of my own (more on that next week!), I knew just who to contact with all of my questions! Christine’s answers were so helpful that I knew I wanted to ask her more and share those answers with you here. Christine’s answers will help you cultivate silence and solitude, whether on retreat or in your daily life.
What do silence and solitude have to do with spirituality and Christian tradition?
There is a long and rich tradition of seeking the gifts of silence within Christianity. One of the earliest is the desert monks who wrote extensively about hesychia, which is a deep inner stillness and silence. Hesychia isn’t just about finding a quiet place, but about cultivating a profound interior quiet. Much of their practice had to do with working with their thoughts, which if we are paying attention, can be relentlessly noisy. Through practice we can break through to moments of this silence within, which is also the place where God’s voice rises up most clearly.
What can taking a silent retreat do for our spirituality and well-being? How might going on a silent retreat be a form of pilgrimage?
A silent retreat is an interior pilgrimage. There is a wonderful brief poem by Kabir: “A Great Pilgrimage I felt in need of a great pilgrimage so I sat still for three days and God came to me.” We do not need to travel many miles to find the presence of God. In fact, sometimes travel can be a form of running away from ourselves. The real challenge is to sit with ourselves, and all that goes on within our mind and heart, and allow ourselves to dip down into the place of stillness. This is the greatest pilgrimage you can make.
What are some reasons someone might take a silent retreat?
Often people are drawn to a silent retreat during a period of discernment, when they want to listen beneath the noise of daily life with a deeper attentiveness.
What is the ideal environment for a silent retreat?
Certainly a quiet location is ideal, although with practice, the idea is that we might find silence and inner stillness in any kind of place. I find being out in nature, whether by the sea or in the forest, to be especially nourishing for moving into silence.
What is the ideal time frame for a silent retreat?
It really depends on how experienced someone is with silence. For a beginner, a weekend might be enough to start with. Although my own experience is that it takes at least a day, and sometimes more, to quiet down the inner noise. I love longer expanses of time, like 7-10 days, where you really can attend to the movements happening within you. Silence takes time to cultivate.
How should someone structure their days on a silent retreat?
Again, for someone just starting out, it can be helpful to attend a structured silence retreat, which are often offered at retreat centers and have meals and liturgies and designated times, often with spiritual direction accompaniment as well. This kind of companioning can be really vital to making it a fruitful experience. So much comes up in the silence, that it can be important to have someone to share it with, and to get some perspective when the inner voices are especially loud.
On the other hand, my favorite kind of silent retreat is to rent a cottage by myself and listen to my body’s own rhythms. There are so few spaces in life where we can eat when we are hungry, sleep when we are tired, move when we need the invigoration. There is something powerful about a retreat that allows us to tune into these more primal rhythms of our bodies.
What new practices might you suggest exploring during the retreat?
I especially recommend any kind of creative practice when on a silent retreat. Bring some collage materials – magazines, scissors, glue sticks, and paper. Then at the end of each day create a simple collage out of the silence you experienced that day. Or bring a camera, and go for long contemplative walks, where you aren’t trying to get anywhere, but simply open to receiving whatever gifts are presented to you. Art is a beautiful way to express our inner movements and prayer.
What should you take with you on a silent retreat?
As little as possible. Part of preparing for your retreat is a time of reflecting on what is most essential. I would suggest a journal and some art supplies. A book of meditations or poetry can be beneficial at times, but be cautious about reading as a distraction.
What should you not take with you?
I recommend not bringing a whole pile of books and then filling the silence with words. If you can leave behind electronic devices that are distracting, and disconnecting from the internet. Taking a technology Sabbath can be very restorative and a good reminder that the world won’t fall apart if we stop checking our email for a few days. When I am on retreat, I like to set up an autoresponder which explains what I am doing and why it will take me a few days to reply. I often include a short poem in the hope that the person receiving it might be inspired to one day seek the gift of silence themselves.
I imagine there is likely some resistance present once the silent retreat begins. Any words of advice for those times?
In Benedictine tradition, one of the most important principles is stability. This can refer to an outward practice of staying in one physical place. But, perhaps even more vital, is the inward disposition of not running away from struggles. Most of our resistance to silence comes from knowing that there are layers and layers of old habits and thought patterns we don’t want to face. Perhaps our inner critic is especially fierce in the silence.
The greatest gift is to stay with it, to keep breathing as an anchor for your attention, and to simply observe your thoughts without judgment. This means not following them down the trail they want to take you, and not berating yourself for having these thoughts. The purpose of this time is to simply notice what happens inside of you. This constant barrage of commentary is happening all the time, we just often don’t notice it in the rush and chatter of daily life. A retreat gives us a chance to be with it, and ourselves, with compassion. In this softening and attention, the inner noise slowly gives way.
Oftentimes the transition from a silent retreat back into everyday life might feel abrupt. What do you suggest someone in this situation keep in mind during this transition?
I recommend great gentleness. If at all possible, don’t go from a silent retreat straight back to work. Give yourself a day in between when you can transition.
Also be gentle with others in your life and share your experience somewhat cautiously. For those who haven’t been experiencing the depths in the way you have, it may be hard for them to receive and understand your experience. Meeting with a spiritual companion or soul friend after the retreat to share and name what happened is especially important as a way of honoring it.
I also suggest having some small practice from your retreat that you bring back to daily life with you. The purpose of a retreat is to transform the whole of your life. Maybe it is sitting in silence for a few minutes each day. Perhaps it is a journaling practice.
How can we look back and evaluate any transformation during our experiences in silence and solitude?
The key question to ask is: “Have I grown in compassion for myself and others?” This is the hallmark of an authentic spiritual experience, one where we encountered the divine Source of all.
What are some ways to bring the silence and solitude experienced on retreat into our everyday lives? And for those who aren’t able to take a silent retreat at this time: is there a way to practice mini silent retreats at home?
Absolutely! Even a practice of five minutes of silence each day can be transformative and get us in touch with the depth dimension of life. Paying attention to the breath is a powerful way of anchoring our attention. Bring your awareness to the present moment. Anything you can do in daily life to bring the quality of silence and stillness in, will reward you many times over.
If you have a couple of hours on a weekend morning, consider sitting in silence for a longer period of time. Then perhaps some journaling and a long, slow walk, just being aware of the gifts of creation around you.
Any other words of advice, encouragement, or invitation?
Remember that this is a lifelong journey and all contemplative paths counsel a form of “beginner’s mind.” We are always growing and deepening and when we slide away from our practice, the key is to gently bring ourselves back and begin again.
I want to know: Have you ever been on a silent retreat? What was the hardest part? What new insight did you receive?
Christine Valters Paintner, PhD, is the online Abbess at Abbey of the Arts, a virtual monastery and community for contemplative practice and creative expression. She is the author of 7 books on art and monasticism, including her latest, Eyes of the Heart: Photography as a Christian Contemplative Practice (Ave Maria Press). Christine currently lives out her commitment as a monk in the world with her husband in Galway, Ireland.