The second important thing in creating JOY is SILENCE.
I had planned to make a 24-hours silent retreat at Madonna House in Roanoke, Virginia on a poustinia, as they call it, a trip to the desert. This day, however, began with several family demands on my time, and bad weather notwithstanding, I had to cancel.
In search of direction
I had recently retired. It was not expected. My plans had always been to work for as long as I could. “Retire? Why?” I would ask myself whenever someone mentioned it. It seemed to me that it meant throwing-in the towel. One of my brothers was fond of saying, “I am looking forward to the big R.” Most of the people who I knew the big “R” meant free time to play, travel, read, socialize, pamper oneself, in short, act young again free of responsibility, but with money.
I have been blessed with many opportunities to travel throughout the world with my work. Granted that most of my travels were to war- torn places, to the poorest areas to aid the sick, and the internally displaced by civil wars. In the process, however, I had my share of hobnobbing with the rich, the powerful, the glamorous people, and the elite in terms of education, wealth, and intellect. I used to pride myself in my ability to feel at home with all these groups, but I felt most at awe and intrigued with the simple villagers of the dry Sahelian hinterlands of West Africa than with any other group, but this is another story.
Retirement with a purpose
The idea of my retirement began to serenade me in fall 2011. In fact it was a melody so sublime that I did not recognize it for what it was. I kept listening hard to discern what it could be. Perhaps it was something supernatural, something unexpectedly delicious. I planned this poustinia to spend a day listening to God. I wanted Him to tell me what was this retirement all about and what did he want me to do. I did not want to play guessing game with God. I told several people of my intention to do the poustinia and why, and asked them to pray for me.
Figuring out God’s plan for me
For several months I had developed a habit of beginning each year or a season by drawing a line on a blank page of my journal. Two columns with the headings:
Irma’s plans for Irma
God’s plans for Irma.
At the end of the designated time period, Irma’s plans for Irma column would be full of things to do while God’s plans for Irma column would be blank. At the end of that designated time period I would look back and see what actually took place in my life, and I would fill-in God’s column with those things. After a while, I added a third column, with the heading: What is taking place in Irma’s life. Most the time the more mundane things that I had written in my column appeared in God’s column (things that actually took place), and often than not, looking at the big picture in retrospect, my life was taking a different direction looking at the God’s column from the things in my own column. The reason that I was doing this was because I really wanted to know what God’s plans were for me. I really wanted to do God’s will, and how do you know what God’s will is? According to Mother Angelica founder of EWTN, if it has happened or it is happening than it is God’s will—the simplest answer to this question that I have ever heard. It suited me just fine.
If things had progressed according to my column I would still, perhaps, be out there teaching, consulting, researching, writing and administering. Since the time when I began to compare my column to God’s I felt that doors were gently closing for me in my place of employment and in my field in general. But with each closing of a door there was a gentle breeze that left me refreshed and taking me elsewhere. I was happy even to the point of jubilation. So, on December 7th 2012, I gave my last lecture. I had been preparing my students for this very special lecture, but as God would have it, I ended up spending much of my time re-explaining some of the basic points to do with their final research papers. At the end, I said only a quarter of what I had planned, and looking back my last lecture turned out even better than of what I had planned. My students received from me the information that they needed plus a little more. To the end, it was all about them and not about me.
Learning to listen
My husband is a very quiet man who likes to talk. This may seem as an oxymoron, but not really. He has a quiet demeanor. He is not like the type to initiate a conversation, but once you get him started it is hard to get him to stop. At home, his best talking time is when he first gets up in the morning, while sipping his cup of coffee. I am not a morning person. I like to have my cup of coffee in silence. But, I’ve learned to sit quietly nursing my hot cup of coffee while giving him all the attention that I can. I hardly talk. I just continue to give him the bodily feedback that I was listening. I offer this time with my husband to God. This is new! For the longest time I would fake the attention while in my head I planned the activities of my own day. Often, he would catch me when I would ask him a question which he had five minutes early discussed. He would get angry and say, “I might as well shut up. I just told you that.” Sheepishly, I would mumble an “I am sorry” or get into my defensive mode. We act like this with God and expect Him to answer our prayers and for Him to let us know what He has in mind for us. Like with my husband, or anyone else, we need to make a concerted effort to listen to God. He thirsts for our love and attention.
Poustinia derailed and reclaimed!
So, it was in this spirit that I scheduled the poustinia. When I called Madonna House and began apologizing left and right, Beth one of the consecrated women said, “Sweetheart, leave it to God. It is all right.” In fact, I had decided that already, so I was apologizing more to her than to God. First of all I am a mother and wife. Both roles are very important to God, and yet, I knew that God did not wish for me to spend that day as usual. So, I immediately took care of the two semi-emergencies of my daughters, did the errand that my husband said needed to be done immediately, and then I declared to my daughters,
“I am going to my bedroom for my retreat. Unless there is something very, very important happening don’t disturb me. Also I do not want to hear radio, television or other chatter.”
They looked at me befuddled, but just nodded their heads. I did not use the telephone or the internet that day. I spent the 24-hour day as I would had at the Madonna House. I read and meditated on scripture. I did mental prayer, prayed the Divine Office, prayed the rosary and read other religious articles in the style of ‘lectio divina,’ and fasted. I wrote in my journal, drew and enumerated my column and God’s column and even sang quietly in thanksgiving to God. I went to the kitchen around 4 pm and prepared supper and set the table for my family and returned to my room. At about 6 pm, my husband came home from work, and met me in the bedroom, and began to tell me the news of his day. I gently said to him, “I am making my retreat here. I cannot speak to you until tomorrow.” He gave me an amusing, but understanding look and left.
A night of listening
I did not sleep that night. I was neither restless nor tired. I kept musing on God’s creation, his love, generosity, wisdom, patience, and mercy. I heard God on the closing of the doors as my daughters got up to go to kitchen and bathroom; I heard God in the scratching of our cat at the door; I heard God on the rhythmic breath of my husband lying next to me; I heard God in the howling of a dog outside; my room and heart was full of God. I thought that I would die of too much of God’s presence in me and around me. I got up with the first light of dawn and there He was in all His Glory.
What of my poustinia?
I took a day off to go to the desert. We need to do this as often as we can, and this going to the desert needs to take place every day. We need to carve out a small space every day to be in silence and be attentively listening to God. Disconnect from the noise of the world often, and at every opportunity. As a Secular Discalced Carmelite, I do this every day.
What have I learned and experienced?
God did not and has not told me, as He has spoken to many holy men and women, specifically what His plans are for me. What I know is this:
Learning God’s language
Conversing with God is like conversing with those who you love, but we need to learn to speak His language—SILENCE. Like the example of listening to my husband, we need to be attuned to God, and make ourselves available to Him. We need to desire the communication and we need to work on it.
More on SILENCE next time
 Madonna House Apostolate is a family of Christian lay men, women, and priests striving to incarnate the teaching of Jesus by forming a community of love. It is a Public Association of the Christian faith within the Roman Catholic Church. (www.madonnahouse.org).
 Russian for desert
 Mental prayer is a form of prayer recommended in the Catholic Church whereby one loves God through dialogue; meditating on God’s word and contemplating on His face. It is a time of SILENCE focused on God. Mental Prayer is the preferred prayer form of the Order of Discalced Carmelites (Priests, Nuns and Seculars).
 Divine Office - Liturgy of the Hours, Work of God or Canonical hours, often referred to as the Breviary. It is the official set of prayers “making the hours of each day and sanctifying the day with prayer”. It is recited daily by Catholic clergy, and all religious, and recommended for all the laity.
 The Rosary is a Catholic Church prayer form with the purpose to help keep in memory certain principal events or mysteries (the joyful, the sorrowful, the glorious and the luminous) in the history of our salvation.
 Lectio Divina is a Latin expression that refers to a method of prayer resumption of Judaic model developed by the Fathers of the Church. It involves spiritual reading exercise (lectio) based on text from the Bible, the Psalms or works of Christian authors, running to reflection (meditatio) and continues with conversation with God (oratio) ending with listening to God (contemplatio-silent listening).
 According to St. Teresa of Avila with a “very resolute determination”, in other words, to persevere until reaching the end. The Way of Perfection, St. Teresa of Avila, ICS Publications, Washington, DC, ISBN:0-935216-70-7