As I was dropped off at Ards Friary my mother in law laughed heartily at the idea of me not speaking for a week. Such a concept was alien to her as she hears her daughter and I chat away unceasingly. She laughed as I pulled the zip across my lips and pretended to start my silence early.
I watched the black Volvo drive off and I realized that here I was in the middle of nowhere, 20 miles from the nearest cash machine, no telephone, (“if you have your phone with you, you shall spend the week texting,” chirped in Mrs Q) and no car.
I was alone in a desert.
Monday evening at 8pm we had our first talk. Fr. Kilian Byrne, leader of the only Foyer of Charity in Ireland, is one of those smiling wee priests that makes you feel at home even before you speak to him.
“We are called here to meet the Lamb of God,” he said before adding, “During the retreat we will walk with Mary at all time.”
So far so good. I could handle the Lamb of God bit and I had no problem walking with Mary. Then came the coup de grace—“Silence shall be total. There is no talking at any point between now and the end of the retreat of Saturday evening. If you have any questions don’t ask them. Keep them for after the retreat as most of your questions shall be dealt with as we go along.”
Already, after only a few hours I was losing contact with the world. Barack Obama and David Cameron were holding discussions on whether or not to take the world to war and I was sitting in silence in Donegal oblivious to the whole thing.
Over the weekend Obama had spent the time deliberating on whether or not to send US forces to Syria. He announced on Monday that he still had not made up his mind.
On the same day Mike Tyson admitted that he was dying from alcoholism; he was drinking himself to death.
Both these pieces of news passed me by as I entered the world of silence.
Why are we so afraid of silence?
When I was telling friends that I was going to try five days silence almost every one of them said, “Oh, I couldn’t do that.” What is it that the noise of the world stops us from hearing?
By 11pm Monday I was settling into the situation quite nicely.
Tuesday morning was a bit awkward. Sitting at a breakfast table with a man at either side of me who I had never met before and I could not even say hello.
Like myself, these two men were in search of the Lamb. This was the Feast of St Monica as we were told at Mass and during the day we had three talks each of which lasted an hour.
I enjoyed them; each one gave us something to think about and brought up questions of what we believed as Catholics and why we believed what we did.
In the afternoon I went bird watching with my miniature telescope and I got my first sighting of a friend I was to see every day that week. A ‘common gull’ has made the small bay just down from Ards Friary his hunting ground for small fish and whatever else he feeds on.
I sat quietly watching as the seagull silently moved across the water, dipping his head in every now and then and coming up with something small and juicy in his mouth.
Over in London, David Cameron was recalling parliament to have a pow-wow on the possibility of sending a few thousand unemployed lads from Manchester and Birmingham to their deaths in Syria because he didn’t want to let his buddy Barack down.
“Mr Cameron returned to Downing Street on Tuesday to continue talks with international leaders to find a proportionate response which will deter Syria from using toxic agents.
He said the world cannot stand idly by in the face of the crisis, as Britain's armed forces draw up contingency plans for military action.
The recall of Parliament was announced as US defence secretary Chuck Hagel said his country was ready to go in its response to the weapons atrocity.”
ITN news shrewdly connected the two events without explicitly saying that Cameron was doing Obama’s bidding; the whole question was left open.
By Wednesday morning the silence was becoming deeper. All those annoying little voices chattering on about work, money and the lack of it were beginning to quieten. An established pattern was emerging at the table. My anonymous friends had learnt that I took butter with everything while they preferred flora. The one on the left always poured the tea whilst I became the table clearer.
We were getting along fine but then I made my first mistake. I started lunch before grace was said and had to stand up as Fr Kilian began the prayer. Thankfully I don’t think he noticed but I still felt embarrassed.
The overall pattern of the retreat was beginning to emerge. We were being given sound Catholic teaching on the ‘Plan of Salvation.’
The Plan of Salvation is the most basic and fundamental teaching of what the Catholic faith is about and if you don’t understand this plan then all the other details of our faith’s teaching don’t really add up.
Very simply put, the Plan of Salvation says that God created the universe and all that was in it. When he created Adam and Eve they were made perfect but they sinned and “The Fall” came about. Man was now separated from God and in the fullness of time Jesus came to redeem us from Adam’s sin and overcome the effects of the Fall.
Up at Ards Friary, I was standing at the beginning of the Atlantic Ocean. Three thousand miles away Barack’s plan of salvation for the people of Syria was beginning to take shape. Unlike Jesus, Barack has no intention of doing the fighting himself. He, as President of the United States, is too important for that.
The talks were heating up. Contacts were being made with France and other allies as well as Britain. Then Putin threw the cat among the pigeons, “Produce your evidence,” the Russian leader said in relation to all the talk about Assad having used chemical weapons.
Putin can’t let Assad fall because if the people can bring down one tin pot dictator what is to prevent them doing the same in Russia; a man has the right to protect himself.
Thursday was a great day for the Irish people. For the first time we saw real evidence that Britain has totally lost all ideas of itself as a world power. The once great British nation voted to keep its nose out of Syrian affairs.
Reality has finally struck home; Britain is broke and can no longer even pretend to be a world power. It cannot even go in to Syria as the rearguard for the Americans.
In the quiet of Donegal, I was unaware of all these great events. On Thursday evening we were treated to a wonderful talk on a woman called Margaret Clitherow, a marvellous English saint who died for her love of the Mass. She was martyred on the 25th March 1586, which happened to be Good Friday.
Then we heard a talk about “Ireland’s Loyalty to the Mass,” a book by a Capuchin friar. Listening to what our forefathers went through to get to Mass in the Penal times showed how important the Mass once was in this land. It sounded like a wonderful and inspiring book.
On Friday Seamus Heaney died and we heard nothing about it. The pressure began to come off Assad in Syria as Obama announced that he would take the whole issue to Congress and let them vote on it.
We are beginning to see the effects of secularism on the international stage. Secularism basically teaches that it is every man and women for themselves and to heck with everyone else; if the Syrians want to kill one another then let them, it is nothing to do with us.
In secularism every country looks after Number One and lets everyone else go there. There is no concern for “The Other” even if he is being killed unjustly.
On the retreat Fr Kilian spent Friday explaining the Eucharist to us. It’s a strange story when you hear it.
Jesus wanted to save people who had not even been born yet, sinners who treated him with the utmost contempt, and he was not going to ask anyone else to do the dirty work for him.
Jesus was going to lay down his own life for people whom he humanly could not possible ever know and people who hated him.
Ask Cameron or Obama to do that!
Saturday we came into the last day. The seagull and I had built up quite a routine by now; I went down to the shore with my miniature telescope and he appeared out of nowhere to do a bit of fishing. He performed for an hour while I sat and meditated upon things I was hearing that are too wonderful to understand.
This is something that I was really learning about our Catholic religion; we have to make an act of faith and believe these things before they can make sense. This is sort of back to front thinking as regards our world, but it seems to work.
It was also on Saturday that I learnt a great lesson from Jean Vanier, a Canadian born man who has helped hundreds of thousands of people with learning problems.
Vanier said, “People want a Jesus who will make things right, not a Jesus who becomes our friend, loves us and dwells in us.”
In other words Vanier was saying that we want someone to make life easy for us while instead what Jesus really does is walk with us in our problems, not take them away.
On Saturday evening after the final talk we were allowed to speak. At last I could ask my table friends who they were. One was a priest in England and the other an ordinary man from Co Mayo.
News of Seamus Heaney’s death began to trickle in. Then we learnt about the near shave as far as war with Syria was concerned.
After we all settled on Saturday night I went down to the chapel to reflect for a while on what I had heard.
I was to go to hear Seamus Heaney speak in Magherafelt in the next week or so but now I shall never hear him. David Cameron and Barack Obama wanted to send lads to Syria to die and do their dirty work—Jesus did his own dying himself, and it was on our behalf.
And I learnt that there is nothing to fear in silence; it is a ghost that disappears in the night. With the silence comes a deep stillness and this stillness helps to free our soul to hear the Word of God speak in our heart.
Fr Kilian Byrne passed on to us what he had heard and come to believe; Jesus is the Son of God and when he decided to act he did so without the slightest hesitation.
I compared this to the dithering of Cameron and Obama.
And I reflected that a week ago I was looking forward to hearing Seamus Heaney and reporting for this paper on his talk. Now the Nobel Laureate knows all the answers that poetry can never supply.
On Sunday, the black Volvo pulled into the car park and I greeted Mrs Q with a kiss; it was good to see her. When she asked me how it went I said that it was ‘alright.’
But really I needed more time to reflect.
As I write this on Sunday evening I realise that I inhabited two worlds this week; a world of war and hatred and a world of peace and serenity.
A cynic would say that the world of peace and serenity is a false illusion that has no basis in reality.
After this week of silence and reflection I would have to say that I don’t believe that any more. The world of war and hatred speaks to my fear and mistrust.
The world of peace and serenity, where the Lamb is the centre of our lives, speaks to something much deeper inside of me, it touches a part of me that I seldom take the time to listen too, let alone visit.
And in that place, the secret recesses of my being that we can only get in touch with through silence, we meet the Otherness of our being and it is beautiful.
Perhaps it would have served Cameron and Obama better if they had come to Donegal with me for the week; we could even have taken Assad, I’m sure Jesus would even have room for him.
I wonder would they have found the Lamb.