What is Heard in the Silence


A_FionaOn the second night of my retreat, I freaked out.

I was in a beautiful converted farm on the top of the hill, looking out over the North Sea five miles to the east. I joined in the community rhythm of Celtic prayer four times a day and sat down with them for meals together at the big table.

I’d come here because I was eager for the quiet, for the stillness. Life has been incredibly full for the last few months—not in a bad way, but I was feeling the need to pause and simply draw breath, especially with the child in me demanding more space from my lungs each day.

But by the evening of day two I was trying to stifle the sobs erupting out of me in case the residents in the next room heard my embarrassing histrionics. All I wanted in that moment was to go home. I had brought myself to this beautiful isolated place, with no wifi and a network connection that was so rubbish that even my phone calls home to my husband weren’t getting through.

Without the familiar comforts and routine of my home, my community, my work, I felt lonely and lost.

That first day I’d stood in the community’s library and my heart had skipped a beat at the wealth of wisdom contained in the pages within that room. I wanted to extract all I could in my short time there, my “be efficient” mindset kicking in. Instead I walked out with one slim book on prayer by Henri Nouwen, and as I sat alone in the reclaimed walled garden that day, I read his opening words with relief: “Praying is no easy matter.”

Prayer is hard. To open my eyes to the glory of God and his goodness all around me. To turn the focus inward and look honestly and humbly at my own soul. To let go, to allow Spirit to do what I am unable to do in my own strength.

No wonder the stillness was causing a mild panic attack.

I read on in that slim book and found these words:

But still more difficult than getting rid of that surrounding din is the achievement of inner silence, a silence of the heart which goes beyond every woman. It seems that a person who is caught up in all that noise has lost touch which her own inner self. The questions which are asked from within go unanswered. The unsure feelings are not cleaned up and the tangled desires are not straightened out, the confusing emotions are not understood. All that remains is a chaotic tumble of feelings which have never had a chance to be cured because the woman constantly lets herself be distracted by a world demanding all her attention.” – Henri Nouwen (gender terms changed to the feminine).

I’m not used to being alone. Or at least, I’m not used to being alone without a long to-do list and a playlist of my favourite tunes to fill the space around me. I’ve not been in the habit of sitting long in silence either. I’m a wannabe-contemplative with a terribly short attention span.

But then I take myself off on an impulsive retreat to the north of England and find myself suddenly, unavoidably, in stillness and solitude. And I manage to resist the urge to find something to do, to be more efficient, more useful. It is then my vision begins to clear, as the Spirit starts to wash away the dust and dirt I hadn’t recognised was there.

I wish I could tell you I came home and was suddenly as devout as St Teresa of Avila or St Brigit of Ireland. The noise of my days back home quickly fills my head, and the to-do lists and packed schedule ensure that I never allow myself to really be alone. But now I crave it.

I see myself clearer in the solitude, the Spirit holding up a mirror to my soul—and I see a woman who is both deeply broken and profoundly beautiful. And in that deep sacred silence, I am able to accept both parts of myself, stop denying either one exists. I stop fighting, myself and God, I stop struggling and rest still for a moment.

Be still, I hear the whisper, and know that I am God.

And in that place, my fists slowly unclench and with open hands I am able at last to begin to pray.

Fiona Koefoed-Jespersen
Fiona lives in London with her Danish husband and her two young children. She is determinedly seeking the sacred in the ordinary, learning to see that even the most mundane moments of her day can be spiritual if she wakes up to the Divine in those places. She is in training to become a Spiritual Director, and baking is her favourite spiritual practice. You can follow her through her blog at fionalynne.com.
Fiona Koefoed-Jespersen
Fiona Koefoed-Jespersen

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