The Case for Silence

Michael O’Brien ‘23

Editor in Chief 

Awkward pauses in a conversation with someone you’ve just met, the quiet passive aggression of a silent treatment, the discomfort of not being able to respond to a question in class; silence takes on a brutal presence in lots of scenarios. Especially as college students with highly charged social batteries, silence is not something that many of us want to lean into, especially in our limited free time. However, before the start of this semester, I decided to sign up for the Spiritual Exercises, a five day silent retreat at the Joyce Contemplative Center, and it ended up being one of the best couple of days of my life. 

Rooted in the month-long version of the retreat that many Jesuits embark on, the Spiritual Exercises gives Holy Cross students the chance to pray, reflect, read, or spend large periods of free time with whatever else they find to be spiritually fulfilling; as long as talking isn’t involved. Besides a half hour block of the day in which you get to speak with your spiritual advisor about whatever’s on your mind, retreatants are otherwise silent.

I went on two retreats in high school that involved lots of dialogue with fellow classmates that were both fantastic, so it made the idea of a silent retreat seem almost illogical; how were we supposed to express personal moments of awe and wonder if we had so few opportunities to share them with others? While I’m somebody who finds nearly as much joy in sharing something I’ve discovered passion for with other people compared with the action itself, I quickly realized that this was the point of the retreat. Even though dialogue is an incredibly important tool of life, when we are silent, it allows us to focus on what really matters to us instead of the sometimes performative sharing of what may matter more to others.

Allow me to elaborate. While on retreat, here were some moments I found to be deeply profound in silence that I most likely would have not picked up on in nearly any other setting: a landscaper taking care of the grounds, discovering a red barn on my daily walk along the retreat center’s nature trail, seeing a snowman that I didn’t build on that same walk, and thumbing through a magazine as a way to take a break from reading a novel. These events probably wouldn’t matter to relay to someone else without context, but through moments of inward conversation and contemplation, ostensibly insignificant events took on gravity that I could’ve never imagined. 

I felt like I kept experiencing “coincidences” between my past and what I was seeing in the present on this retreat the more and more I started to pick up on little moments that I would not have otherwise in a non-silent place, but my spiritual advisor, Fr. Tim O’Brien, reminded me about the important distinction between “coincidences” and “graces.” Things that I was seeing weren’t just there randomly; I firmly believe that God calls out to us every single day, but we aren’t always listening. In silence, I helped train my ears to hear this call more.

While the retreat itself was an absolute treasure to me, one of the best parts about it was taking everything I had experienced over the course of five days and bringing these practices back with me. Although the nature of college life inherently hasn’t allowed for the same level of reflection that I experienced on the retreat, I’ve found that the retreat had a similar effect on my fellow retreat participants as well. Shortly after arriving back, I got together with five of my senior classmates who were on retreat, some of whom I had never met before the retreat, and we shared stories of our experiences while getting to know each other better. 

If these details sound like something you’d be interested in, the next offering of the Exercises at the JCC will take place from March 3rd-8th. 

Featured image courtesy of Holy Cross’ website

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