Monday, April 14, 2008

silence and noise

I visit a little retreat center in a wooded area about an hour from my home at least once a year to reorient myself. It's called Pacem in Terris which is Latin for Peace on Earth. People frequently misunderstand what this means to me. They assume that it's a get-away to relax, and that's not entirely inaccurate. But the truth is, these retreats are much more than that. It's so difficult to find words to speak about an experience that is silent. Christianne posted recently about God calling her to silence, and she conveys so beautifully the reality of this discipline. These days away are not always peaceful. In fact, the noise in my mind can be louder than anything the external world can produce.

The real value of these retreats is that the silence and simplicity of the environment strips away the usual distractions that keep me away from myself and, more importantly, God. Within minutes of arriving, a million skittering voices rise up in me that sound something like this:
  • "I wonder if there are any bears or serial killers in these woods?"
  • "Is it too early to dig into the food basket?"
  • "I should have said 'to hell with the rules' and brought along my itunes."
  • "Rats! I have to pee already and I hate using that stupid outhouse."
  • "Is it too early to go to bed?"
  • "I wonder how long it would take someone to find my body if I was mauled by a bear or a serial killer?"
  • "Hey, I never noticed that the sound of rain falling on dead leaves sounds exactly like the sound of a fire crackling."
  • "Why can't these hermitages have wireless access? What's so bad about a little internet fix now and then? And while I'm at it, would it kill them to pump in a little electricity and running water? Do they have something against indoor toilets? Rats! Now I really have to pee!"
  • "Oh my goodness, I've only been here for ten minutes. I'm going to fry every neuron in my head by the time I get out of here!"
You get the idea. Really godly stuff.

The first time I went on one of these retreats these voices were deeply disturbing to me. Now I have come to expect them. That's the reason I always plan on at least two days. It takes a minimum of six hours (more like a whole day) for these voices to burn themselves out so I can begin to hear something else.

The things I find in my mind and heart are not always so flattering, I'll tell you that much. I find impatience, fear, boredom, selfishness, name it. I find all of the clutter and chaos that has been taking up space in my life. This is what I have to offer to God. This is the entire task of my time at Pacem. I lift up these thoughts and urges and sensations and desires to Jesus and I listen. I do this over and over and over again. And then I sleep. (This is hard work!)

The voice of God is always surprising to me. He speaks in quiet little whispers like a kitten breathing in my ear. It's no wonder I have such a hard time hearing him most of the time. It's surprising to me that such a great big God would speak with such a tender voice. But he does. This is why it has become so important to me to go away periodically to clear out an internal space. And this is why it has become so important to cultivate all the little silences in my days and nights. God lives there. He whispers to me in the quiet if I'll take the time to offer up my noise so I can hear him.

With that, I'll leave you with a few more photos from my stay. Love to you all...


  1. mmm . . . i love that photo at the end with the trees and the darkening blue sky.

    terri, this is all so precious. i love how real you keep it and how sincerely you share the cycles you have to go through each and every time.

    my favorite part, though, was the part about God's voice whispering like a kitten's breath in your ear. i so relate to that.

  2. so glad you took time for this ... i have never done anything like that (total aloneness w/out technology) --- but I can see how it would allow for some serious contemplation. be well! thanks for sharing this.

  3. So can i watch some hockey or football if i ever go there?

    So glad you get to empty out that head of yours once in awhile. not only do you hear God there but when you get back it seems you hear others better as well.

    Not that you didn't "hear" before, but you seem more in-tuned.

    Does that make sense?

  4. mia: :)

    christianne: i like that photo too. the starkness of some of these images was really important for me to convey.

    oh, and your post really helped to shape what i had to say here. i know i'm sounding like a broken record, but it's interesting that so many of us are going through very similar things...makes me wonder if God might not be kitten-whispering the same things to many of us.

    tara: haiti knows a lot about simplicity, but solitude is a little trickier to come by. and THAT would be a real challenge. (those constantly barking dogs never quit!) i know you have a lot on your mind these days. hope you can find some time away to regroup in your heart.

    dave: i hear that my love. and no, you won't be able to score any sports fixes there. your voices will sound like this:

    "i wonder if the gophers won?"

    "what does God have against ESPN anyway?"

    "would it really be awful if i hiked into town to check scores?"

    "is it too early to dig into the food basket?...oh my goodness, they forgot to pack meat and potatoes!"

    "i miss terri."

    love you honey.

  5. I love your list of your random stream of consciousness going through your head...I can relate.
    and I love all the pics!!

  6. terri, i'm so glad my post helped form some of your thoughts. i, too, am amazed at what we all seem to be learning at the same time in this place. weird! we serve a weird God. :)

    oh, your and dave's banter here in the comments is just so cute. made me smile. made me laugh. made me go, 'awwww!'

  7. so cool momma... i might have to check out a hermitage here soon! ha... i have a lot to process...
    thanks for being so real mom. it's inspiring...

  8. jen: if only you knew how toned down that my random stream of consciousness contains whole sentences: right. and i'm loving this camera and experimenting with it.

    christianne: weird is putting it mildly. and i had so much fun taking a stab at dave's random thoughts. he said i nailed it. :)

    danny: no texting and no guitar...can you handle it? i think you can.

  9. Sounds like I need a whole summer at that place. How do I make reservations?

  10. i like all the photos..amd yoru words....i feel many questions these days Terri, mostly teh urge of change, of moving on..i look forward to it and yet, i hesitate....i know thsi is what life really blessed and i feel guilty that i feel so many wants and wishes still

    duh! am i making sense? but really, your words strucks a chord in me

  11. i loved your description of clearing out all your thoughts so there is space for something else, to hear the voice of your god.
    sacred space and time.

  12. Terri, I found your blog from Johnny Sharp, a friend. Have you read "An Invitation to Solitude and Silence" by Ruth Haley Barton or attended any of The Transforming Center's retreats? Everything you wrote reminded me of things I have been learning from my own retreats and Ruth's writings. If you haven't read them, you should check it out. I agree, it takes a while for the voices to STOP! I get jittery too. To be honest, I think some of it is that I am actually terrified of what I will face when my soul finally does settle down and I clearly hear from God. MAybe I am afraid to face what all is in my heart. Just being honest. Don't know if you can relate at all. I am beginning a sabbatical next week and will be writing about my story of the last two years, which may take me a few weeks of entries. :) You may find it interesting.

    I was encouraged by your post.

  13. My first several minutes would be:

    "Is there enough cheese?"
    "Can I really make the cheese last all day?"
    "Who cut the cheese?"
    "Were his hands clean?"
    "Cheese is so good."
    "Let's go to the moon, Gromit!"
    "Cheese glorious cheese."

    Seriously, thanks for this, Terri. It's like we all get at least a glimpse of the benefits of such a retreat.

    While we using computers and indoor plumbing.

  14. nathan: i'll make the arrangements for just have to show up. seriously though, there probably are places like this near you. it's time well-spent. (hope you're feeling better dear.)

    li: if this struck a chord, maybe it's time for you to just listen to the music it's playing. you made all kinds of sense to me. wish you were closer so we could sit down over some tea and talk about that shift going on in you. i guess i'll trust you to greater hands. bless you li.

    thank you bella. you're a good listener. you know all about sacred space and time. love to you friend.

    jan: welcome! any friend of johnny's is a friend of mine. i haven't read that particular resource, but i've read a ton on those disciplines. i'll have to check it out. i can relate to everything you said. fear is something i've come to expect...who knows what we'll find when we really begin to open ourselves in this way. thanks again for stopping in.

    johnny: funny! (oh, and the cheese is undisturbed in its original wax wrapping so no worries about unwashed hands...and is there ever really enough of it?)

  15. terri, wow. first of all, i love the candle pic. and how you describe God's voice. i don't have a kitten, and i'd probably be allergic to its breath, but still love the image. your honesty here compels me to be honest, too.

    i hear in these words something i know i feel--the push and pull of silence. i want it, but i don't. or lately, i want it on my terms. i want to go somewhere silent and sit in it, not find my words for others stolen away like i feel they've been lately.

    love you. thanks for these thoughts.

  16. It strikes me there's such a difference between the silence I might be in for a day or 2 or more when I am simply at home alone and the kind of inner silence you were reaching for there.

  17. Loved the running commentary. I went for a retreat last month and when I arrived I saw a basket of chocolate chip cookies. I couldn’t stop thinking about them and worrying that they would be gone before the break! Yep. Really insightful stuff going on in my head.

  18. i'm laughing outloud chloe

    dang these blogs anyway!~
    putting our internal dialogue out there for all to see.
    jolly good fun indeed.

    i'm not going to that hermit place
    no way man
    they'll make me stay there
    even if i want to go
    yeah terri said that's not true
    but right
    just see what happens when i get in my car
    the nuns and priests they'll be sprinkling my car
    or on their knees getting dust in their eyes

    sorry that wasn't very reverent.

    my husband loves pacem
    i'm sure i would too
    (that's a lie)
    but i want to believe i could enjoy it else something is wrong with me

  19. sarah: if honesty compels honesty we are all very soon going to be ruined for our little white lies. :) it is a push and pull, isn't it? and wanting it on my own terms...i get that big time. but you feel like a quiet soul to me. go for it, even if you bring your own terms with you. God has a way of coaxing our terms out of our clutching bleeding fists if our terms are killing us.

    imelda: oh, there's no comparisons. you really must go away to some other place so the pull of the ordinary can lose its grip on you and the silence can seep into you like water. so glad to have you here.

    chloe: hey, i think i've had that same obsession a time or two. wouldn't it be funny if you were in a group of people and all of a sudden everyone's internal dialogue popped up in a bubble over everyone's head? what a blast that would be. or not.

    di: seriously, i almost wet myself when i read your comment. that visual of the priests and nuns wrestling you out of your car...and calling it "that hermit place" flippin' funny!

    there's nothing wrong with you. (at least nothing that a little mud wrestling with a monastic won't cure.) love you.

  20. The photos with the candles burning reminds me of your softness....your pure and honest

    I wonder why we always scurry here and there...trying to do and be all that we were "meant to be"....

    for all we ever need to be is quiet...
    and yes, in that stillness the answers 'just appear'.

    Sweet you, I'm with every your heart...hugging you tight...and when life gets too hard...
    i'll tickle you with a bright orange feather...
    together we will giggle into the silence.

    love you xx

  21. Terri this is a beautiful and funny post. Those thoughts made me laugh because that serial killer thing sounds so much like something i would say.

    Except when i go away like that one of my first thoughts is, "dang i wish i had a cheeseburger." Going into the third day i start saying to myself, "dang i am getting outta here, i am GOING TO GET A CHEESEBURGER!"

    "Sorry Jesus but if the devil tempted me to turn a stone into bread i would have not said Satan get behind me." I would have said, bread, what do you mean bread? Oh hayle no, Imma bout to whip up a whopper!"

    That comment about the voice of God being like a kittens breath made me cry. That is so beautiful.

  22. Di
    I am cracking up at that whole comment. So funny. Especially,
    "i am sure i would too. That is a lie."
    if you want "God" on your own terms, welcome to the "I want my cake and eat it too club!" By the way i am the founder, CEO, and chairman of the board!"
    That was a very interesting statement you made here about coming to God on our own terms and "He has a way of coaxing our terms out of our clutching and bleeding fists if our terms are killing us." That is such a hope filled statement, and i know that side of God all too well, pisses me off too. Tell God to mind His own business, Lord i apologize for that statement.

  23. Terri, Jesus knows that it is a psychological disorder that drives me to say all those irreverent comments.I am on medication for this. And Jesus told me to tell you to stop arguing with me about it. And to stop misleading the public by making them think i am not crazy.

    God said if you didn't stop it He would send a plague of roaches to invade your house.
    Don't mess with me i practice voodoo, and i will send a family of rednecks to your door. Just wait until Christmas rolls around and you get a visit from the caroling rednecks, the hillbillys from hell on your door step. Be afraid, be very afraid.

  24. I haven't done a silent retreat like this for years and years. I remember thinking that I was going to go crazy from my own internal chatter and boredom. And mine was only for a few hours! The worst part was not knowing how much time had passed and when our facilitator would blow her whistle to call us all back. The best part? The butterfly that landed on my finger and let me look at it up close. Maybe it's time for me to seek out more such silent moments...

  25. Hi! I've just found your wonderful blog and loved this post. I think the great thing about a silent retreat is that we get to be more aware of all the habitual mind chatter when we reenter our regular lives. Maybe the chatter keeps us preoccupied so we can't get into too much trouble! Don't know but do feel God is in the silence and that we have to be still to hear those whispers!! Thanks so much for this reminder, Terri!

  26. linni: "we will giggle into the silence"...i love the way you play with words and the genuine love that you display when you do. you have a generous and spacious heart. i love it when i see that you have dropped in.

    tammy: oh my goodness, where do i begin? you slay me girl. you'll throw out these really tender observations and then you shift into this silly, hilarious banter. thanks for keeping it real. is God coaxing something out of your clutching, bleeding hands out of his deep love for you?

    oh, and you're not crazy...i don't care what you say.

    jennifer: welcome! i know exactly what you mean. and those moments when the butterfly comes...those are the moments that keep me coming back over and over again. just like kitten breathe.

    cathyb: hey, another new voice! so glad to have you here. you're so right about the chatter. if we can begin to notice it in a different way in our everyday lives that's a good start. because God really is in the spaces between the chatter, in the pauses, in the silence. peace to you.

  27. Terri
    Of course God is prying things out of my hands are you kidding? Dr. Pepper, Cheeseburgers, and....wo.....well, did i have to mention cheeseburgers? Can't keep it too real.

  28. Oh yay. I thought my comment never posted --- so I was coming to give it another try and now I see it DID post.

    I appreciate your posts and you are great at raw honesty. I am working to care less about how people respond to my honesty and you are a great inspiration.

    be well!

    (troy and i are in Florida for four days - not exactly solitude -- but romance is pretty good too!) (I think maybe I would be too chicken to go be totally alone without technology for a few days === I like the idea but have never ever done anything close.)

  29. terri, i so get what you mean about the noise in your head. they are relentless, those stream of thoughts that skitter after you like a thousand hungry mice & you're holding the cheese. no wait, you are the cheese & they just want to eat you up.

    i'm not sure why, but i keep turning to that passage [in 1 kings, i think] where elijah has just fled from the wrath of ahab & jezebel and goes & hides out in a cave. God asks elijah what the heck he's up to then tells him the presence of the Lord is about to pass by.

    then comes the wind that rips up even the mountains. [nope, that wasn't God]

    then there's an earthquake. [nah, not God either]

    then there's a raging fire but [you know where i'm going, don't you??] that's not Yahweh either.

    and after the fire comes a gentle whisper. and that's God.

    it's a beautiful illustration & i think it's used a lot in a pretty and pithy kind of way, but i think i'm just beginning to understand that i miss that gentle whisper more often than i get it. that the head-noise you talk about is so stinking pervasive.

    maybe part of the reason he's so quiet so we have to direct all our attention & energies toward him to hear him.

    and more beautiful photos, geez. i love what you see through your lens. makes me want to take huge lungs full of air & swallow the stillness your images evoke.

    peace to you sister. and love, always.

  30. tammy: oh do i ever know what you mean!

    tara: i think it's a little easier for me. i don't get as much flack when i tell the truth as you do. my readers are like big down comforters that wrap around you and keep you warm when you're cold. you have a few readers who are into throwing ice water in your face (in the holiest possible way, mind you.) i might be a little more hesitant if i had a few of those. hope florida is good to you...

    kirsten: that's one of my all-time favorite stories in the old testament. the still small voice of God. so unexpected.

    i don't have the slightest idea why he speaks this may be right about this requiring us to hunker down and really pay attention. if you want my best guess, i would say that God raising his voice would scare the crap out of me and i'd run in the other direction. i think this might be the only volume i could tolerate, even though it causes its own set of problems.

    thanks for appreciating the images...that means tons coming from you with your razor sharp visual sense. love you.

  31. Loved your post Terri.

    I think people often make small talk because they interpret silence as emptiness, and it embarrassing us to have the emptiness of our lives exposed. So we fill the void with noise,creating an illusion of fullness.

    I wonder if the brain is addicted to ceaseless chatter for the same reason. We fear emptiness, so we create stories giving ourselves the illusion of fullness -- or at least a distraction from emptiness.

    The trouble is,it's harder to hear God amidst our perpetual internal chatter than it is to talk to a friend ten feet away at a heavy metal rock concert. We only hear God in the void.

    Thanks for sharing how you've learned to carve out spaces in which your brain-chatter "burns out."

    And Terri, listen to me... you HAVE to submit that last tree photo should somewhere -- some art journal, or photography journal, or something! What an amazing, beauty, haunting, photo. It powerful reconnects me with something...not sure what. I put some background music on and stared at it for 15 minutes!

  32. great insights as usual Greg, and this part really struck me....

    The trouble is, it's harder to hear God amidst our perpetual internal chatter than it is to talk to a friend ten feet away at a heavy metal rock concert. We only hear God in the void.

    and applying that to the Drop Down Through pattern....about getting to the void, past all the inner chatter, to hear God. I hadn't thought of it that way.

    that is an interesting and actually really helpful way for me to think about that part of the pattern

  33. Great post... I could use a little silence one of these days. Before I had my daughter I would take long walks in the woods and find a place to sit and just listen. It's not so easy nowadays! Your post reminded me of a short film I saw a few years ago. Have you ever heard of the "noomas" featuring short teachings by Rob Bell? Anyway, there is one called "NOise" and in it he talks about all the distractions in our lives and how in ancient Hebrew, God's voice was said to be found in "sheer silence". If you're interested, you can find a short clip of the film at I think it's number 09 or something... just scroll through the noomas til you find it. Your post brought it back to my mind. :)

  34. terri! this is amazing. i've wanted to go on a silent retreat for awhile now...but there's something very real and scary about being silent for me...i loved this post.

    you're so flippin' amazing. i hope you know that.

  35. greg: glad to have provided a contemplative moment for you. i'd love it if you would let us in on what your brain chatter sounds like. that would be some fun. and thanks for your thoughts about silence and emptiness. i've actually been trying to me more intentional about the use of silence in my conversations and it's pretty powerful. if you stop trying to fill every moment with sound you allow feelings to rise to the surface.

    di: wow, i never would have connected those ideas, but you may be right.

    holly: i have heard of the noomas. i meant to check them out when i was reading one of bell's books that mentioned them but i never got around to it. thanks for the reminder. and it's uber-hard to find a little silent time away when you have little kids. i hope you find some creative ways to make that happen.

    ms. fab: it is scary, but that's part of what makes it valuable. you get to face it and push past the fear to the pool of silence under it where jesus is swimming.

    and you're flippin' amazing too.

  36. well, my favorite part is about you thinking of bears and serial killers. that's hilarious. Glad you were able to download all that to the Big Guy, and get that still, small voice in return. You seem more present when you get back, more centered perhaps. I'll have to try it sometime - but really that is what my garden does for me if I let it (my random voices say, how can weeds grow that fast? why do those stupid kids have to walk by my house 19 times a day? why can't I kill that freakin bamboo from hell - did it grow up through the earth from China? is that a wasp or a bee? Is is still off limits to use pesticides? did that delphinium die again? I hate racoons, they eat all the birdfood, where's my lemonade...)Ok, so maybe I do need to get away from here.

  37. oh marcell, thanks for that peek into your brain chatter. it makes me love you even more.

    all of this started in a garden...i'm sure there's more buried there than dog bones if we'll stay awake.

  38. Bamboo from hell ha ha that got a laugh outta me. I went to china once, yep and so far i am still not back..........lights are on nobody is home. Maybe i OD'ed on tofu, i kept wondering why all my chatter started speaking chinese.

    I am sick of eating weeds and plants terri. God created grass for a be smoked.

  39. Greg - Terri's tree picture reminds me of your Jesus 'place'. Is that maybe what it evokes?
    Poet's pen - you are right, grass is for smokin', which is why we are diggin all ours up. I can't resist temptation, and you know Jesus said if your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out and only wood chips for this gardener.

  40. pentimento
    Ha Ha i am busting out laughing.

  41. so marcell, are you going to have a bon fire with that contraband? ;)

  42. Thank you for this reminder to listen for the whispers.

  43. I love that you shared those thoughts because those are the types of thoughts that skip through my brain whenever I attempt silence. I'm glad I'm not alone in having to work toward godliness even in something like prayer with God.

  44. mary ann: you're very welcome. thank YOU for the reminder to DO.

    heather: oh, you're not alone. this is pretty much the way it is as far as i can tell. if you try to get your brain to shut up the random voices only turn up the volume. it's really only when you let them be what they are and keep turning to God again and again in the midst of the chatter that they begin to quiet down a little.

  45. Your last picture is AMAZING!

  46. Just trying to help the comment number reach 50 ... doing my part and saying hello at the same time. Hope things are getting warmer and that spring is arriving and bringing with it HOPE ... and other good things.

  47. My friend,

    You blow me away...

    God as a kitten breathing in our ear....

    This thought brings tears

    An intimate
    tender God

    that speaks in the
    sweet silence

    Yes.... This sounds
    right to me.

    Thank you for making my day
    for waking me up,

    Love and the kiss of soft light to you dearest friend,


  48. tara: thanks, i'm all about the numbers. ;) oh, and it's 42 flippin' degrees. spring is waiting for tess and jen to come home.

    maithri: maybe we can wake one another up in this world that is lulling everyone to sleep. love to you my lovely poet friend.