Sounds of silence – reflections on a retreat

Driving up the dirt road to the Brahma Kumaris Spiritual Learning Centre at the Mornington Peninsula in Victoria, I begin to feel quite apprehensive. I am not sure what to expect, or what will be expected of me at my very first Silent Retreat. I do not want to enter this particular experience as an outsider; I want to feel part of, and engaged with, the essence of what the next 24 hours will be all about – silence and peace.

I am very interested in participating in multifaith rituals and sacraments. Approximately six faith traditions are represented in our group of 20. It isn’t long before we are privileged to be a part of Shabbat. Our Jewish brother explains everything set out on the table – candles, bread and (non-alcoholic) wine.

First, we light the candles for the light of knowledge and understanding. We share the wine as we welcome joy into our lives and finally we break bread together to signify the sustenance needed for life. This symbolic and powerful act of community illustrates the similarities between Shabbat and Communion while guiding our group to begin this silent retreat with suitable reverence and hospitality.

After dinner we gather in the conference room upstairs, which has a large olive tree on a small stage. We are each given a few leaves from this tree of peace.

We have been asked to bring a small icon from our faith or spiritual tradition and we share these meaningful stories in small groups. Each of us is then asked to stand, come forward, and light a thin taper. This act signifies our entrance into the silence.

Each of us has brought a prayer or a poem to share at an appropriate moment. We maintain our silence whilst one person reads their special offering aloud. One really touches my soul. I am struck by the incredible skill and beauty of a Baha’i rendition of a holy song.
We are all given a small card with a special quotation about peace on it.

We move quietly about the room and, as a bell rings, we stop and swap our peace cards with the person in front of us, and then look deeply into their face. We do this about six times as the music plays. I am uncomfortable the first few times; it is a bit unnerving having another person really looking deeply at you, not saying anything.

By the end, I have accepted it for what it is – a powerful form of communication in which neither person wants anything from the other.

We return to earth – to ground level downstairs for the next session – still in silence. We are introduced to Uncle Lionel Lauch, a Gunditjumara elder who will be our guide. Uncle Lionel takes us outside to the beautiful grounds of the Brahma Kumaris Spiritual Learning Centre.

Uncle Lionel shares insights from history, ecology and anthropology as we tour around the magnificent bushlands. He explains which plants and trees are best used for food, medicine, weaving and spears. A highlight is when we return indoors and see a large black canvas. Uncle Lionel invites us to contribute to his next artwork. Our painted handprints are carefully placed around a circle representing Mother Earth (pictured).

Our last session is filled with small acts of symbolism, built around Vietnamese Zen Buddhist Monk Thich Nhat Hanh’s notion of creating a peace treaty with oneself: “These treaties commit us to practice reconciliation and communication with loved ones, friends, colleagues and other people with whom we live and work. They are concrete commitments to transform our lives.”

If we feel inclined to live by these words, we are invited to make a promise to ourselves: “Dear Self, I promise to practice and live my daily life in a way that will not touch or water the seed of violence within me.”

We are given a small pile of sunflower seeds. We then turn to the person sitting next to us and drop some of our own peace seeds into that person’s hand. Whatever seeds we have left, we stow away for planting later or, as some people did, eat them; literally sowing the seeds of peace inside themselves. During this process, we naturally and slowly start to come out of our self-imposed silence.

We are almost like children coming out of a dream – a very gentle and peaceful one. Our final group session becomes a celebration of what we have accomplished together in silence.

By April Robinson
April Robinson is an interfaith network developer for the Commission for Mission.

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