This is going to be short, sweet, and a little scathing.
I was coordinating a retreat for graduating students during the weekend and it was partly frustrating. The retreat venue was a marketplace of retreatants – too crowded and noisy. There was little sense of silence in the place as 4 separate groups bargained for space at the lobby, dining halls, chapel, etc. It was a mix of college students, adult charismatic groups, and grade school kids. Charismatic singing could be picked up from the same one building where everybody was halled in. Right at the doorstep to the chapel were carpenters varnishing and repainting old vestment cabinets. As one or two groups were leaving after an overnight stay, replacement groups were arriving and waiting at the lobby while the “linen boys” hurried up in cleaning the just-emptied rooms and quarters. Someone at the front desk played rather loudly a religious instrumental but it was no match to the noise; it seems to have added to the noise. At the lobby were a couple of cigarette butt cans, practically giving signal to smokers to go ahead with the smoke-blowing. Flashes from cameras tried to defy the weather-imposed, dark cloud-subdued mood of the place. A few feet from the building and near the solitary bamboo huts were parked buses and jeepneys and drivers had to warm up its engines hours before departure back to the city noise.
It was frustrating because in a way, it defeated our whole intention to travel for an hour and a half to distance from the clutters and chatters of the campus and for students to take stock of their lives and future. Ask every ordinary Filipino Catholic, including regular parish priests when is the best time for prayerful silence and spiritual retreat will surely top the survey, no matter how limited this view on silence is.
It was not that other groups did not deserve to be there. They had the same intention for some spiritual respite. It was how the sense of silence was curtailed by mindlessly filling up the place. It was a managerial decision to accommodate as many people as possible and such decision seems to be more reflective of a mindless regard for the value of silence. I brought up the issue of crowd and noise with the team and we seem to have agreed on a common hunch – the retreat center is becoming more income-conscious, if not trying to be nice to all requesters at the expense of silence.
While silence is more of an internal disposition, it is also an acute appreciation of the stillness of trees, stones, hallways, restrooms, dining tables, kiosks, and human beings. A retreat center is supposed to facilitate a pilgrim into this stillness.
There is no need to be specific because the point is how sacred silence is violated as a human tendency even in religious places. And the thing to note is there are many retreat houses out there who may or may not be succumbing to the agenda of financial viability.
Again, as a reminder, “salvation is about silence,” says my coach, a movement into eternal silence.