When I turned fifty I did a ten-day silent retreat at the Benedictine monastery at Snowmass, Colorado, an immersion in a Christian form of meditation called Centering Prayer. The retreat was hard. At 5:15 a.m., under a black bowl of stars, I trekked a quarter mile up an icy hill banked by snow, huffing from the altitude, shivering from the cold, for the first of three sits. For 3½ hours total each day, I sat on my prayer cushion struggling to turn from my distracted, distracting mind back to my intention—a practice that took immense effort. The buzz from so little oxygen at 8800 feet kept me awake all night. I hiked the mile between the retreat house and the monastery for services twice a day. The computer I’d snuck in against the leaders’ advice, the dozen books I’d hauled from Minnesota, and even my journal languished in the closet as I struggled to get enough rest.
Showing up took my every ounce of energy.
Alongside the menu for every (scrumptious, vegetarian) meal, the cooks posted a few words of inspiration—a jotting that carried disproportional weight given the immensity of silence. About day five someone scrawled, “Rest in the silence.”
Rest?! Sure, the energy I was expending was different from an ordinary workday, but still, it took my all to stay present, to meet divine stillness, to release my nagging thoughts. When in the following sit I experimented with resting, a wave of nausea sent me sprawling on the floor. Real rest was so foreign to my anatomy, I couldn’t stomach it.
When I returned to Snowmass a few weeks ago after a three-year hiatus, I entered the retreat hoping to rest in the silence. Is it possible to set down my frantic internal voices? Can I really lean back into stillness, trusting it to hold me? Nausea briefly washed over me, and then I sat.
Yes, in fleeting moments it is possible.
Then, halfway through this second retreat during a rare stretch of sleep, I had this dream: My dear camel, who feels a sweet attachment to me, is ready to retire. I release him into a green-enclosed pasture. He cavorts; he frolics; he races in circles. He’s gleeful and free.
Poor beast of burden! I’ve been asking far too much of him. Turns out silent prayer is a fence within which both he and I can lay down our baggage. We can pause our trudge across the desert long enough to play. In that meadow, at least, my good camel can retire.
Today, back at home, reeling from my to-do list, juggling job and parenting, trying my darnedest to keep the house clean, I’m holding onto this awareness. Resting in silence isn’t like a good night’s sleep or a beach vacation. It’s more like jumping down a dark well with no bottom, turning, falling, until my body realizes with no place to crash there’s also no up or down, no gravity, only the joyous freedom of being held. Because my body remembers, and my inner camel, I can return there in flashing instants.
May we all know this rest.
–Elizabeth Jarrett Andrew