One of the things I'm loving about this week with the Academy for Spiritual Formation is their practice around silence. After evening worship, we maintain silence until morning prayer. No talking in the halls; no talking in the rooms. Just silence.
This is a familiar practice to me from my days at the old Elat Chayyim -- before it was at Isabella Freedman, back when it was in the Catskills -- though there, at least in my memory, the rule was weekday evening silence in public spaces, not in the rooms. (I'm pretty sure I remember chattering with room-mates late into the night.) But we used to keep silence until the end of breakfast, so for those of us who woke early for morning prayer, the words and chants and melodies of shacharit would be the first sounds of the new day.
The experience of ending and beginning my day in prayerful silence has been putting me in mind of a post I wrote some years ago (2014) titled Prayer, privilege, parenthood. That post begins with a Hasidic teaching about the merits of keeping silence until one speaks the words of morning prayer, and then delves into questions of who has the luxury of that kind of lifestyle. (Spoiler alert: my conclusion is that those of us who are caregivers for others, e.g. aging parents or young children, don't tend to have that luxury -- and that it's therefore a problematic paradigm to lift up.)
As a parent (and especially as a solo parent) I chafe at the presumption that "real" spiritual life necessarily requires silence and spaciousness. This is part of why I so loved R' Danya Ruttenberg's Nurture the Wow: because she insists that parenting itself can be a spiritual practice. In general I'm interested in breaking down our perceived binary between spiritual and ordinary. For me, the real work is figuring out how to infuse our daily lives with connection to something greater than ourselves.
And that has to mean that the retreat model, or the model in which someone else is doing the caregiving so the "spiritual" person has the spaciousness to be spiritual, can't be the only valid path. I don't want to privilege the luxury of morning silence, or to suggest that it's the only valuable modality of spiritual life. It's not. And -- I'm still super-grateful that I get to experience this, and also that I get to experience this community's form of thrice-daily prayer. (More about that in another post: stay tuned.)
There are also periods of silence here each morning and afternoon, after the presenters offer our teachings. During those times of silence, retreatants are invited to meditate, to pray, to walk in the woods, to journal... one way or another, to use the silence as an opportunity for integrating what the presenters have shared. And when we reconvene for plenary sharing time, the retreatants' responses to the learning come wrapped in a container of silence. It's remarkable how that changes the ta'am, the feel, of the whole experience.
"Honor the silence as a gift," says the sign posted on the chapel door. The silence is a gift: an opportunity to listen to the still small voice within. And that's as true for the retreat leadership team as it is for the participants. Even for those of us who are creating and holding the container for this holy endeavor, going from prayer to silence to prayer is enriching and deepening. As I learned years ago from Rabbi Shefa Gold, the silence after the chant is an integral part of the chant. As I learned from the Slonimer rebbe (via Rabbi Elliot Ginsburg), the white space containing the letters of the Torah has a special kind of holiness because it holds the holiness of all the words within it. The silence that holds our prayer enriches our prayer, as our prayer enriches our silence.
I'm grateful for this week's gifts of silence.
I'm teaching this week at a training program for Christian clergy and laity doing the work of spiritual formation. Image: the sign outside the chapel door.