April 2, 2004
Squeaky Shoes on Silent Retreat
by David A. Zimmerman
I have a hard time keeping my mouth shut, but I can usually get the job done if I have a compelling reason to stay quiet. I can't speak for the rest of my body, however.
Get your mind out of the gutter. I'm thinking of my feet in particular--or, more precisely, my shoes, which seem to have a voice of their own. That's not typically a problem: I spend most of my days among the same group of people, and it's often to our mutual advantage that they can hear me coming. I can't tell you how many times my squeaky shoes have saved me from a head-on crash with my company's director of production and fulfillment, for example.
But there are times when a loud walk is counterproductive, even self-defeating--for example, when you're supposedly on a silent retreat. I made the mistake of wearing my squeaky shoes during my recent visit to the Cenacle retreat center, where I spent my day working through exercises in the book Forgetting Ourselves on Purpose: Vocation and the Ethics of Ambition.
I did my best to work around my noisy soles. I took my shoes off while I was in my room, and when I was in common areas I moved slowly, deliberately. Whenever possible, I walked on carpet.
Unfortunately some tongues refuse to keep silent. In this situation, my squeaky shoes were in good company; they joined a chorus of unusually verbose deacons-in-training. They chatted in the halls, they laughed at each other's deacon jokes, they debated theology. With all the squeaking and all the squawking, my "silent retreat" could hardly be considered silent.
Ah, ambient noise, how you vex me! I came to the retreat center in order to escape, to forget about everyone and everything while I learned to forget about myself. But the unceasing squeaking kept me constantly aware of my own presence, and the conversations that penetrated the paper-thin walls kept me constantly aware of the presence of others. The absurdity of my "silent" retreat was most apparent as I ate my lunch in the "silent" dining room, staring across the table at other "silent" retreatants, listening to them scrape their forks across their plates, hearing every chew and swallow. Let me tell you something: there are some sounds you never forget, no matter how hard you try.
And yet my retreat was surprisingly illuminating. Despite the noise generated by myself and others, I did indeed learn about the aspects of my life that distract me from the business of being who God made me to be, doing what God made me to do.
I suppose that's the way of all personal growth: it happens in real time in an active world. Any commitment to silence is at the mercy of all nearby noisemakers, and it would be tragic to forget ourselves so effectively that we lose track of who we are and where God has placed us.
So I'll keep the shoes and bless the deacons, and someday I'll take another retreat--though next time I'm bringing my slippers.
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