Silent, but Not Empty
One of the first comments someone made to me when the silence was over was: “Lizzie, you should write a book.”
I first heard about Loyola Marymount University’s Silent Retreat back in March while I was in Lethem, Guyana. One of the senior girls on our immersion trip told me all about the five day four night retreat offered every year through Campus Ministry one afternoon in the Jesuits’ residence. The title explains it all, the whole point of the retreat is that you are silent without technology for five days. I was intrigued; this sounded right up my introverted, “personal and intellectual growth” focused alley.
Fast forward to September, I started my junior year off strong with high hopes, endless ambitions, and a few concrete goals. Number one: sign up for Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults. Number two: get all A’s. And number three? Apply for Silent Retreat, even though I knew that they only let a few juniors go every year. So that is exactly what I did. On Monday, September 17th, I signed up for RCIA and on Friday, September 21st, I applied for Silent Retreat. While RCIA will be a class throughout the rest of the academic year, my next steps regarding Silent Retreat were an interview and a lot of waiting. A lot of it.
I met Father Marc Reeves and had my interview on Monday, September 24th. After a few weeks of crying to my friends about stresses (bible study) and dramas (boys), realizing that my second concrete goal of getting all A’s was going to be much more difficult than originally anticipated, and the usual “coming back to school” craziness, the thought of Silent Retreat literally made me start crying to Father Marc about how burnt out I already was. In September. But what was supposed to be a 20 minute interview ended up being an hour, which is honestly the way it usually goes for me. I like to tell and listen to stories.
Then, on Friday, October 12th, I was in Jessica’s red prius (shortly after I got some confidential information that I will definitely write about in March) when I got a second email from one of our Campus Ministers, Kelly Nelson. “Silent Retreat: You have been accepted”. Cue excitement. Suddenly there were so many reasons to celebrate.
Anyway, fast forward an entire semester of high highs and low lows, it was Friday, December 14th. My little brother’s 18th birthday and the official last day of the Fall 2018 semester. I packed my bag, put on my Guyana bracelet, said some goodbyes, wrote down a prayer to St. Jude, called my mom, met up with my carpool, stopped at the c-store, and started driving to Oceanside. I was on my way.
The car ride was fun, but not entirely what I expected. There were three others in the car, Celine, Sam, and Miles. I know Sam and Miles from my Ignacio Companions Leadership Formation class from this last semester, but I did not know Celine at all. We kept joking around about how we had to get all of our words out before the silence, but since we were all so exhausted from finals, Miles and Celine fell asleep, Sam jammed out to music and drove, and I looked out the window, wrote various reflections on junior year, and put Spotify on shuffle. St. Cecilia’s by Animal Flag came on, a song that was originally in my “Tastebreakers” playlist by Spotify, but it quickly became part of my main rotation.
We got to Oceanside around 5 PM. Or to be more specific, Mission San Luis Rey Retreat Center. Our home for the next few days.
I am definitely more of a shy person, despite what is popular belief often times, so I was not uncomfortable when we first arrived, but I was very aware of the amount of people who I did not know and the amount of people who seemed to know everyone but me. I quickly realized that I was the only junior, the only woman in a sorority, and what felt like the only person who was not in a service organization. I was comforted by the fact that I would not feel pressured to talk to anyone the entire weekend.
Luckily, a girl from my high school, Erica, started hanging out with me immediately. So I did not completely feel like a fish out of water. Not completely.
We were only at the retreat center about 10 minutes before we were ushered into a meeting space for a ~45 minute orientation, given our battery powered alarm clocks, dinner, a presentation about “entering into silence” by Father Marc, meetings with our directors, and an evening mass.
At dinner I sat with a girl named Olivia and another IC leader named Samantha. While I was comforted by the amount of IC leaders I was around, I kept wondering what I got myself into.
The entering into silence presentation was nice. Father Marc read a lot of scripture from John, Mark, Isaiah, and the Psalms. It was mainly focused on what we were looking for, what we want, invitations to grace, and the idea of how we are precious in God’s sight. Father Marc is a really great speaker, needless to say. I did not anticipate Silent Retreat being so scripture heavy right out the gate, but I was comforted. It felt like home.
After the presentation, we met with our Spiritual Directors and their other directees. This is when I really started to feel God. My Spiritual Director was Father Walsh, who I had already met during a meet and greet a few weeks before, and I knew that my friends and fellow IC leaders Blake, Jared, and Miles were also assigned to him, but I did not realize that it was just the four of us. Basically, the four of us being together felt special because there was a moment during our IC class earlier in the semester when, for the first time, we were not assigned to pair up with our co-leader for the reflection exercise. Instead, we were told to get in groups of 3-4 to do the reflection, and my group was me, Blake, Jared, and Miles. Lucky for me, I had the opportunity to get to know Jared more during the IC participant interview process, I had bonded with Miles in Samii’s apartment, and Blake and I always sat next to each other during class (he was also a First Year Retreat director, along with two people I love more than most). I knew these guys, I felt comfortable with them, and I had already told them how much I disliked Fall 2018. I really felt like God was looking out for me.
After our quick meeting and giving up our phones, we went to mass and entered into our silence. To my surprise, Chris De Silva was at Silent Retreat, too. He is Campus Ministry’s Music Director, was on my trip to Guyana in March, and gave me the idea to stay on campus for Easter break to go to the Triduum instead of going home. He had made a lot of little impacts on me over the course of a year. Not only is LMU super lucky to have him, Silent Retreat was about to be blessed by his musical talent.
After mass, I journaled a bit and then I went to bed.
The next three days, I was on the same schedule, which went as follows: breakfast at 8 AM, morning prayer at 9 AM, spiritual direction at 9:30 AM, lunch at 12 PM, mass at 5 PM, dinner at 6 PM, and evening prayer at 8PM. Simple, easy, straightforward.
On Saturday morning, I woke up at 7 AM to the sound of my alarm clock and took a shower, but noticed immediately how quiet and dark it was, so I became hyper-aware of everyone else’s actions. But guess what? I could tell from the lack of noise around me that no one else was awake. After getting completely ready for the morning and anxiously questioning whether or not I changed my watch for daylight savings, at 8 AM the church bells went off. I counted the rings. It was not 8 AM, it was 7 AM, which meant I got up at 6 AM, which also meant that I was ready for the day an hour before I had anything to do, so I started journaling. (Full transparency, I wrote in my journal that I was not even sure if I trusted the clock tower. That is how my anxiety manifests itself. I did not trust something that has never wronged me. I swear God laughs at me.)
I started journaling on how I should trust obvious signs (like clock towers), reflected on the scriptures from the night before, and walked to a study room in the center of the retreat center courtyard to get some coffee. Then I had breakfast, morning prayer, and my first spiritual direction meeting.
Saturday was a very journal heavy day for me, I spent most of my energy writing about the various events of my week leading up to silent retreat. After writing nine pages of “this made me feel great, this did not make me feel great, I feel this way about this, but this way about that”, taking a three hour nap, and writing four more pages of discussing my intentions for the rest of the retreat, I felt great. I felt ready for a new beginning after releasing a bit of tension from my heart. The three focuses I wanted to think about moving forward were being patient with myself and others, reflecting on why I am going through RCIA, and reflecting on my various commitments during the school year. Then, I wrote down three more things that I wanted to get more direction with: how to genuinely put God first and making faith your #1 priority, ways I can be a better friend, and how I wanted to make my blog something I was really proud of again. I do not want to go into too much detail about my thirteen page journal entry, but I figured I will include five quotes so my mental state and content can be assessed more accurately. As in these are things I actually wrote down.
“I found a space heater that I put right next to the couch so now I am cozy and warm. Are you kidding?? This is the best. I am so happy.”
“Do not get me wrong, I do feel absolutely insane. I have felt insane this entire semester.”
“Very innocent right? WRONG!”
“I FEEL THROUGH A CHAIR! But it was beautiful.”
“I do not want to convert to Catholicism and not be Catholic. That is simply NOT the vibe.”
Basically, Saturday was not, let’s say, transformative, but facing the negative energy I carried with me all semester felt like an important step to make in order to heal and move forward. And that is what I did. I moved forward.
I woke up on Sunday with a different goal: read The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything by James Martin, SJ. So that is exactly what I did. I woke up at the right time, showered, got ready, started reading, had breakfast, kept reading, went to morning prayer, had spiritual direction, and continued reading.
Basically, I had been wanting to read this book for a while, but Father Walsh recommended it to me during our meet and greet before the retreat. So during our spiritual direction, I started geeking out to Father Walsh about how connected to this book I was already feeling. I was relating to Father Martin and St. Ignatius and was consistently getting reminded why I am getting confirmed, which was so much more than I was expecting. I started sensing God’s amazing grace on the first page. There are a lot of words/phrases that I try to avoid in life, but one thing that I really try to avoid is saying “I do not care” because it lacks empathy and I simply do not like the way it sounds. Anyway, one the first page of this book, Father Martin writes “And you should care (or, more politely, you’ll be interested to know..)” and this prompted me to immediately write down in my journal that I do not “not care” about anything, I simply am “less interested in some things”. Cue a sense of peace and that special feeling that we all get sometimes when we think “the journey I am about to embark on is going to be really special”.
On Saturday I journaled exactly three pages. I wrote about bees, a misinformed comment that one of my professors made this last semester about God, reflected on the scripture readings again, and a few other things. Again, between my meals, prayers, and a nap, pretty much all I did was read The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything. Whether it was outside in the gardens, on the couch by the heater, or in my room, I was constantly reading and highlighting all my favorite parts.
I woke up on Monday and immediately wrote five lines in my journal about three things: Jessica’s birthday, how I kept having weird dreams, and how I was going to finish the book since I only had ~115 pages left. Eventually, after breakfast, morning prayer, the best spiritual direction I have ever had, and lunch, I finished it. This is what I wrote: “[1:25 PM] I just finished the book, so obviously it is journal time. I understand why I feel so called to Catholicism. it is because it believes in and embodies so many things that I value.”
Let me explain. If you think that the bulk of my blog post was over since I am talking about the last first day, I am sorry, but this is where it starts.
Before I begin, I need to say something important. I really do not believe that my language is accurate when it comes to explaining (in depth) anything I experience and the feelings I have in my heart. If you take away anything from this reflection, please know that I rarely feel like I have the words to accurately describe the way I feel about anything, let alone God or faith. The amount of contentment, serendipity, and genuine love that I have felt in my life since becoming Christian again and going through the process of confirmation is unmatched, by anything I have experienced ever and probably will experience in the course of my time on Earth. I believe in God and His love for all of us so deeply that I no longer comprehend the feelings I had when I did not believe in Him. I feel so far on the other end of the spectrum that when someone tells me they do not believe in God, I do not entirely know how to react. Even as someone who used to be an Atheist. When someone tells me they do not believe in Him, I almost rejoice with the sense of excitement I get when I think about the possibility that they could come to believe in their life; that they could embark on a similar adventure to the one that I started during bible study my senior year of high school. I am often unsure about many things. I question a lot, tend to be malleable in my opinions and go back and forth when I try to make up my mind. But I am 100% confidence that God is real and that He loves us fiercy and recklessly. I talk about my faith and my faith journey openly in person, but I rarely post about it online, so writing about it with the separation that the screen between us creates will be interesting. I feel like I am about to put an ocean through a straw.
I just stared at my word doc for 10 minutes. I do not know where to start.
One of my goals this summer was to discern about the idea of converting to Catholicism. I had been thinking about it for a few months and had gotten positive feedback from my friends, but I was still nervous about it. In a weird way, in order to do this, I knew I would have to distance myself from the Catholic people in my life that I love endlessly because I spent the second half of spring semester worried about whether or not I was thinking about doing this for myself or for them. Did I believe in it or did I want to be more like the people I admired? Did I feel drawn to it or did I just have a transformative experience on my IC trip? Did I really want it or did I feel pressured to do it once I started talking about the idea of it? All of these were questions I asked myself often.
I spent a lot of my summer removed from faith, but in a weird way. My Christianity was still one of the most important things in my life, I still loved God and I never questioned anything regarding my belief system, but I was not going to mass even though I could have easily, I was not hanging out with anyone who was as open about their faith as I am, and I was making decisions that I knew did not totally align with my belief system (aka I knew I was being challenged in some ways, but I would deliberately ignore God and His signs because of my stubbornness). I remember very clearly listening to worship music often, thinking about faith while at work, and having deep talks about God with certain friends, but for a majority of summer I do not think my outward priorities and who I felt I was inside aligned. It was strange, but the deep longing I felt for Greek Light, mass, and small group and the sheer amount of energy I spent missing my friends and how my life used to be kept assuring me that not only is life better surrounded by the people you love, it is also better when you can unapologetically talk about God with the people you would do anything for.
I do not want to explain every single moment where I felt affirmed and pushed towards converting because that is mainly between me and God (plus it would take too long), but just know that I did come into junior year confident that it was the right decision. After I started junior year I realized that I was more so thinking about thinking about not doing it. My heart was already set on being Catholic.
But I started questioning it again after I realized how secretive I am about converting in certain contexts and how uncomfortable I feel about talking about that part of my faith journey. Telling my family was so strangely hard for me that I barely even did it, I told my mom in person, I told my dad during a fight, and my brothers found out by watching an interview I did with the school newspaper. When I talk to certain people about it I feel empowered, but with others I feel small. I figured it was something I should either feel entirely excited about or consider putting it off for another year since I am only a junior, I would have another opportunity to go through RCIA next year. My hesitations were never enough to push me to make decisions, but I carried them with me and they only added to the heaviness that was my fall semester. I was perpetually exhausted, constantly feeling lost, and like I was messing up no matter what I was doing. I lost a lot of trust for the people I love, distanced myself from people out of insecurity, and felt a lack of motivation. Life felt disappointing and impossible.
Until Silent Retreat. I truly believe that the world around us is largely constructed by our own thoughts, perspectives, and attitudes, which is one reason why I was continuously so upset with myself this fall. I knew that I had the power to change my view of the world, but I still felt powerless to do so. The meaning that we give to our life experiences is all up to us, it is very glass half empty or glass half full. Life around us will always happen as it does, it continues forward whether we like it or not. Yes, we are out of control a lot of the time, but we also have unlimited choices that we can make regarding what we make out of life. And for that reason, I always try to remain grateful regardless of what is going on in my life. And I am grateful. Pretty much always. Like the most amazing gift that never ends, beauty keeps blossoming into my life and I attribute it all to God. The more grateful I am to Him, the more gifts I find myself blessed with. And the more gifts I am blessed with, the more grateful I become. It becomes a cycle in which gratitude begins to respirate from within. In The Color Purple, Alice Walker says, “I think it pisses God off if you walk by the color purple in a field somewhere and do not notice it. People think pleasing God is all God cares about. But any fool living in the world can see God’s always trying to please us back.” And I subscribe to that idea deeply.
And I just really feel like God took the opportunity of Silent Retreat to affirm my faith through this book. The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything answered so many of my questions, made me laugh, pushed me to reflect, and gave words to the thoughts I have never written down or said before. Not only did I feel like I got to know James Martin, but I feel like I got to know St. Ignatius, which only got me more and more excited about going to a Jesuit school named after him and having the opportunity to go to Spain this spring break for a St. Ignatius inspired pilgrimage (surprise, this is my confidential information). The deepest parts of me believe that God’s timing is not only intentional, but it can be as close to perfect as we can understand. I was admittedly disappointed when I found out I got the summer trip when it came to IC placements, I was really hoping to be assigned to a spring break trip and I would have preferred winter over summer. But over time I grew to learn that while Cambodia still feels like a challenge sometimes, it is been the most beautiful learning opportunity and I have already felt so much growth from it even though it is four and a half months away. And not only that, since I am going on Cambodia, I had the opportunity to go to Silent Retreat to discern about RCIA, I will get to go to Spain before confirmation, and Cambodia post-conformation, only three weeks later. On my first IC trip is when I initially felt drawn to Catholicism and on my second I will be a confirmed Catholic. I smile every time I think about it. I do not know how I got so lucky.
A topic that the book brings up a lot is finding God in all things, which is something I kinda struggled with about a month ago. I try to do that, but sometimes, I feel frustrated when I do. I am one of those people who look for signs often and one day in November I felt like I got a sign about a crush I have, but I was annoyed because sometimes I do not want a sign that I should act, I want to sit back and let the other person act. But at the same time, I rather have those feelings and have the occasional annoying moment or moment of frustration than live a life where God is absent from literally anything. Most of the time, God is not clear or explicit, so we should be content with the information that God does give us. When I eat meals, I want to be with God. When I walk around campus, I want to be with God. When I get married, I want to be with God. Finding God in all things is important because it is the way life is and it is so fulfilling. I went into Silent Retreat as a type of person who does not really see God in nature, but I left seeing Him in every single blade of grass and every animal I encountered. Basically, I genuinely believe that when you are a spiritual person, everything is apart of your spiritual life. it is really easy to find God when you know where to look (everywhere). God has opened up my eyes in the most beautiful way to show me who He is and fill my heart up with His love. God leads me in love to those around me and always reminds me that He can bring my chaos back into order.
The Jesuit Guide reminded me that life is a journey of the spirit, no part of life cannot be transformed by God’s love, and finding God and being found by God are the same thing. I do not and I never have to or need to change for God to love me because He already does and I know that for so many reasons, but also because God wants us in heaven with Him. He did not want it without us. I was reminded that faith is a gift from God, it is not something that anyone “just has”.
At the end of the day, I mourn the time I spent distancing myself from my Catholic friends this summer because the more a soul loves, the more it longs, the more it hopes, and the more it finds. I missed out on giving and receiving so much love this summer because I was scared of being influenced when I simply felt pushed by God. However, I now understand that the way you think about your friends can also help you strengthen and deepen your relationship with God and friendship is one of the most under-appreciated parts of spiritual life. Doing life is great, but doing life with friendships rooted in faith? Unreal.
I know God, I do not just know about him. Usually when I tell people that I am going through confirmation, we end up discussing the idea that doing it when you are older is better because you have a deeper understanding of who you are, what you want, and what you believe in, which I agree with. I can sum my faith journey in one sentence: “The most grateful pilgrim is the one who has finished the longest journey.” My faith is deep because I know how dark life is without it, I have seen the contrast. With God in my life, I have stopped doing thoughtless things to people, I always try to be loving and intentional and I make sure that all my deepest desires bring joy to myself and the world. Nothing compares to this.
After I wrote a bit about the book, I kept journaling. My heart felt so full that I simply wanted to spill it out over the pages. I even journaled through my usual naptime.
I wrote a lot. 15 pages. More than I wrote in the entirety of Saturday. I spilled my heart out about being so happy for all the students going on IC Guyana this year, ways in which I can be more intentional with the time I spend with my friends, some goals regarding my blog (including writing the start to a few blog posts I want to write), and so much more. On November 19th, I wrote a list of 26 in my journal of things that were bothering me that I thought I would reflect on during Silent Retreat, so I went through the list and wrote a few sentences on each one, but it ended up being so beautiful because so many of the things that bothered me a month ago do not bother me anymore. I love all the moments where you look inside yourself and see growth and going through that list made me have 26 moments of “wow, growing up is not so bad”.
All and all, Monday was the greatest day of all of them. God gave me so much peace and clarity. Not going to lie, there are many moments where I feel breathless in awe and wonder for the work He does in our lives, but the feelings I had on that December day were unreal. God is worthy of all the praise I could ever bring.
I woke up on Tuesday grateful for the last few days and the things I had uncovered about myself. That morning I had breakfast, a reflection in the morning with Father Walsh, Blake, Jared, and Miles, and a very memorable mass. Every person had the opportunity to say something they were grateful for or something they were going to take away from the long weekend. I said that above everything, I was grateful for God’s love and confirmation class, because Sacred Heart Chapel is exactly where I need to be on Sunday nights.
After mass, we ended our silence and had lunch. Blake told me that he had never seen someone write so much and that he maybe wrote 20 words down the whole retreat. This only reminded me that we all glorify God in different ways, we all have a purpose, and every single unique quality that we all have are essential to ourselves and the world. We should be grateful for everything that we have been gifted and try to live out our faith.
If you looked at me this semester and said “she seems different”, I agree. I am really hoping that next semester will be better. I want to feel more like myself again, more positive, more loving, and more open-minded. I want to make God my absolute #1 again and make my faith visible again. Faith, at the end of the day, is about giving God one thing: yourself. And that is what I plan on doing again.
I really like that quote by Abdur Rahman, “God and I have become like two giant fat people living in a tiny boat. We keep bumping into each other and laughing”. I feel like that perfectly embodies my faith on a day-to-day basis. On Christmas Day I checked the time in the afternoon and it was 3:16PM; I smiled to myself and thanked God for the reminder of His intentionality.
At the end of the day, all I have to say is that we should always find God in all things (even when it frustrates us) and that yes, I probably will write a book one day. No matter how much I write, I always have more words.
So, thank you to Silent Retreat for feeling like I was taking a breather or a long walk for my mind and body. Even though I did a reading during mass one night and I thought I was going to have a heart attack because reading out loud makes me nervous, I felt the breeze wash away any unwanted toxicity, giving me not only a refreshed soul, but a rejuvenated heart. I will never forget how magical it felt to say nothing, but feel a strong sense of community with the beautiful people around me. Singing with everyone during our prayers and masses was the epitome of serendipity. I will never forget eating meals with only music, but knowing I was not alone. I will always have a deep appreciation for the silence. I was silent, but not empty. My heart is full.
Life is only full of good things. Thank you, Jesus. :)