I had scheduled a three-night retreat at the monastery. I needed this retreat. It was to be a really good silent retreat. I would take no book except for a Bible. I would have no plans, instead letting the Holy Spirit lead me however it would. (Somehow, I failed to see the contradiction in planning to have no plans.)
When I walked into the guest house and was greeted by Tim, an elderly stranger using a walker, I returned his greeting with only enough warmth to avoid rudeness and withdrew unto myself to maintain my promised silence.
“Do you suppose,” I asked Sister Maureen when she arrived to show me my room, “that Tim would mind if I had my lunch alone?”
“I’m sure he realizes you’re here for a retreat.” And so she casually explained to Tim that I’d be taking my lunch in the upstairs sitting room.
Shortly after, I brought my plates downstairs. I had eaten rather quickly and unmeditatively. Sister was chatting with Tim at the kitchen table. (She normally would have been having a silent lunch with the other sisters.) I had the good sense to feel somewhat abashed and, frankly, ready to atone for my coldness.
I made a point to be more available for friendly conversation. I learned that Tim had a doctorate in the classical languages, including two years studying at Oxford, and had taught at Cornell University. He even recited for me the opening lines of the Aeneid—in Latin, of course. Though retired and afflicted with Parkinson’s disease, Tim was nonetheless engaged in activities to stimulate his mind. He had a little keyboard and was plunking out a tune he composed. At home, he also ran his own press for block printing.
On the last evening, I prepared and served him a light supper consisting of soup and two perfectly timed soft-boiled eggs. I stuck around to help Tim prepare for bed, or I should say for sleep, since he slept upright in a chair. It was difficult enough for him to get out of a chair, let alone a bed. Throughout minimal preparations, Tim maintained a gentle smile and spoke in a soft voice. I quietly watched him as he would pause in his movement, looking straight ahead. He explained that he had to concentrate on moving his legs, focusing on keeping his balance before he lifted one foot and left the other on the ground. I made sure that the necessary lights stayed on so he could see his way to the restroom during the night.
Today there was a note from Tim in my mail. I opened the envelope and burst into tears. It was a thank-you letter, written in letters so tiny that I needed a magnifying glass to read it.
“This,” I said to myself, “is what the Kingdom of God is like: the tiny mustard seed, the bit of yeast in a vat of flour.” Truly the Kingdom is in these small attentions to one another. Our God does not ask for, or expect, spectacular deeds from us. No, God wants us to show kindness toward one another, sincerely bestowed and graciously received.
My retreat taught me that there is a time to speak and a time for silence. I learned that silence is not simply the absence of speech or sound, nor is it for our own personal edification as we, in attempted holiness, clutch the Lord God to our solitary bosom. Silence can be an attentive listening to another person so as to anticipate his needs, saving him the need of asking for help.
Retreat gone awry? No. In spite of myself and my high-flown plans, I had let God have his way, and that made all the difference.