New England Retreats: Seeking the Silence
In the Absence of Words
I arrived at Gonzaga: Eastern Point Retreat House in Gloucester, Massachusetts, at low tide and sunset.
Behind the large house, a Jesuit-run spiritual center since 1958, kelp beds were aglow with the day’s last light.
Inside, the ocean smells gave way to those of dinner: pork, potatoes, and corn on the cob. About 30 other retreatants were already eating and talking — this with a certain urgency, because silence would soon descend for the remainder of the three-day weekend.
“Freed from small talk and other distractions, we can better hear that inner voice,” Father Jim Keegan told us during introductions to the weekend retreat. He explained where the library and bicycles were located, and suggested we spend time outdoors. “You’ll see No Trespassing signs around. Disregard them,” he said, to laughter.
Eastern Point offers two kinds of retreats: directed, where individual participants meet daily with a leader, and guided, during which group presentations are offered as aids to contemplation. My group of six was led by Father Rick Stanley, who urged us to draw closer to God through prayer as “an attentiveness, a listening.” We were of varying faiths — Protestant, Catholic, Jewish — but everyone hoped to gain understanding in the quiet. One man sought guidance on how to proceed with the adoption of a baby. A woman said she’d come out of a need to feel close to her deceased son. Several people mentioned a desire for time away from their daily lives to sort something out.
“There’s an unmasking that takes place in the silence,” said Rick Margolis, the man considering adoption. “You can be your true self here.”
By Saturday that silence had settled in, a penetrating quiet broken by the occasional cry of a gull. Some of us spent the hours in sunny nooks in the old stone mansion. Others headed out on walks around nearby Niles Pond or along the ocean rocks. On Brace Cove beach, I encountered the woman I’d sat next to at breakfast. We walked quietly together for a while before parting.
Nighttime at Eastern Point had its challenges. The absence of TV and Internet wasn’t a big deal, but to have so many people around and no one to talk to was a bit disconcerting. I wished I’d brought a book and maybe earplugs — at night, the house itself was less than quiet. Doors banged and pipes hummed beneath the sink in my clean but spartan room.
As for the silence, it varied over time — sometimes buoyant, sometimes heavy. On the last night, when we gathered to celebrate the Eucharist, the opening bars of a Russian folk tune came as a relief. The group burst into song, loudly enough to overcome the sound of rain drumming on the roof. After Communion, as we were heading for the dining room, the rain abruptly ceased and we made our way outdoors. A full rainbow arced the length of the ocean horizon.