…and know that I am God. (Ps. 46:11)
This has always been one of my favorite Scripture verses. I realize that God can speak to us in various ways: through the actions and words of others, in Scripture, and in the sacraments such as Reconciliation and the Holy Eucharist. But I have always found that when I allow myself the time to be alone and still in His quiet presence, it becomes a bit easier for me to hear and recognize His voice.
Our lives can be so busy much of the time, filled with the noise and distractions of daily living. This is especially true for parents striving to raise their children. Between the children’s school studies and activities, work and home life, the noise can surround and swallow us up, so much that we can’t hear our God speaking to us. For me, I have found the need to counteract this noise with times of solitude and silence. It seems that when I am alone, especially when I am out enjoying the beauty of God’s creation, the quiet and solitude help me to be more fully aware of the presence of God. I think this probably holds true for many of us.
Therefore, I try to make a retreat by myself at least once a year. For me, and our family, there is a special place where we have gone for many years. It is the Abbey of the Genesee, where the Trappist Monks live a life of quiet work and prayer. The Abbey is about an hour’s drive from our home, set in the beautiful valley of the Genesee River. The monks make their living by baking and selling monk’s bread. Their daily schedule is centered around their work and the Liturgy of the Hours, and they invite those on retreat to join them to enter into this prayerful routine. Those making a retreat keep the same rule of silence, allowing everyone to seek God in their own way.
I just returned last week from a short retreat at the Abbey where for two days I entered into the daily rhythm of this still, quiet place. While on retreat, I found that there are those moments when I especially sense God’s presence.
While much of the abbey grounds are farmland, there are paths through the woods and along the Genesee River. I always enjoy walking the grounds. On the way from the retreat house to the abbey, you pass through small grove of evergreen trees. On my first day there, I stopped in the grove, closed my eyes and just listened to the wind — you know, that whispering sound it makes as it rushes through the pine boughs. The sense of hearing is all you need to experience the beauty of God’s creation and, in turn, feel His presence envelop you.
As I mentioned, another part of being on retreat at the Abbey is the opportunity to take part in the Liturgy of the Hours with the monks. You join them in chanting the psalms at Lauds at the beginning of the new day, and other times throughout the day. I especially like Vespers, which comes near the end of the day, and Compline, which is the final prayer just before retiring for the night.
For Compline, all of the church lights are turned off, except for a single light which illumines the Salve icon of the Blessed Mother and Child. The glow of a flickering candle also reflects off the Tabernacle. The presiding priest sprinkles the faithful with holy water as we silently exit the church, to rest in the Lord through the night hours. It is such a beautiful, peaceful note on which to end the day.
The Abbey of the Genesee also holds special place in my heart because I took all five of our children on retreat there when they turned fifteen years old. It seemed like a good age to expose them to the idea of getting away from the busyness of daily life and relaxing in the presence of God. Here, they have the quiet, unstructured time and solitude to reflect on where they are at in their relationship with God and the path in life He has set before them. I wanted them to know and experience that such a place of solemn holiness does still exist in this busy world. That it is possible to rest in the company of God and to feel that peace that comes from solitude. I hope they still recall this, now that they are all grown and busy with their adult affairs, and that they might seek to return to the Abbey when they feel a need to “be still” and know the presence of our God in their lives.
So, perhaps you have a place such as the Abbey of the Genesee nearby where you live. If not, perhaps there is some other monastery or retreat center. I would encourage you to seek it out. Even if it is difficult to schedule this in your busy life, try to get away for at least a couple of days — perhaps even invite your teenage son or daughter to accompany you.
Dare to enter into the silence. Our loving God does not impose Himself on us. He does not try to overcome the noise in our lives by shouting above it. I believe He tends to speak in a hushed voice. We on our part need only to enter into the solitude, so that we can hear the words which He whispers to our soul.