By MARIA CRESSLER, Commentary | Published October 20, 2020
As an Italian extrovert, the oldest of five children, and raised in a household with my grandparents, I was never alone. I shared a bedroom most of my life and literally went from my parent’s home into my own when I married right out of college. Sixteen months later I became a mother and, again, I was never alone.
Nothing intimidated me more than silence. You might think I would crave it coming from the chaotic but wonderful “noise” of an Italian American household; however, the extrovert in me was totally intimidated by silence and solitude.
So, when I encountered an Ignatian silent retreat for the first time in my 30’s as a young mother and youth minister, it literally changed my life. Something profound shifted in me and set me on a journey with my God in a new and beautiful way.
Up until this point, all other retreat experiences I knew involved sharing (and I am sure you can imagine how welcoming that can be for an extrovert!). Yet on this spiritual retreat, the only conversations I had were within me, with my creator. I learned something that altered my daily life and has never left me: the necessary ingredient for the spiritual life is silence. Not only at an annual retreat, but every day, every week, every month, we need to make room for silence.
I found a sign years ago that sums up this profound truth: “silent” and “listen” have the same letters, just rearranged. We can’t listen without being silent. That is why we mute devices, TVs and radios when we are straining to hear something being drowned out. That is why when we want children to listen to our voice, we shush them. That is why we take a break when too much noise is in our heads: fear, grief, or a never-ending to-do list.
The truth is, there are so many voices that surround and beckon us, the only way we can discern the unique cadence of God’s voice is in the silence. Ignatius of Loyola discovered this himself nearly 500 years ago. He withdrew to spend time in silent prayer, and he encountered God. From his experience he penned the Spiritual Exercises to help us methodically discern which voices within are from God and which are from the “enemy.” When we can hear God, we hear who God created us to truly be.
Father Niel Jarreau, SJ, a beloved Jesuit at Ignatius House for many years, told me I should rename the retreats as “Listening Retreats” instead of “Silent Retreats” for that is really what happens when one is here.
What I realized so many years ago is that I suffered from a common fear: that if we stop and listen, we will hear emptiness. For me, what I heard so profoundly on my first silent retreat was how loved I was. I was loved not because I was a good wife, mother, daughter, sister, youth minister, or any other role I was trying to live with gusto (exhausting me and often making me bitter). Instead, I heard the still, soft voice of love–the voice that tells each of us, “I love you just the way you are.” The voice told me, “You have nothing to prove. Just, let me love you. And filled with my love, you can love those I’ve called you to serve.”
I fell in love with God anew and that silence changed my life and my well-being forever.