Seriously, I can’t shut up. “Loquacious” would be putting it nicely. “Needy, overwhelming persistence” would probably be more accurate. Hell, it’s why I’m a journalist: because I can’t keep myself from expressing every single utterly useless thought that slips into my head. Although I can fend off the urge to communicate for a few hours—sometimes by reading, or by thinking about my own twisted thoughts—this usually is followed up by an explosion of wordiness, wherein the first person I run into has to sit and listen to me excitedly rant about Darth Bane, Garth Brooks, Oppenheimer, or whatever the hell else I’m currently obsessing over.
Which is why I decided to force myself into complete silence for four days. While I know people who have tried this, all of them were reserved, wise, “speak when spoken to” folk. I’m more of a “speak until told to shut up” kinda guy. Their easeful experience likely won’t translate for me. But if I’m going to even slightly curb this strung-out depravity, I’ll have to take extreme measures. So I hopped on a highway bus and headed to a House of Prayer in New Jersey, alongside all the other broken heroes on a last-chance power drive.
Last spring, I stumbled across this particular retreat on a Catholic website, and after calling up the nuns who run the program, I learn that there’s a lot of flexibility. What you do each day is entirely up to you, and there is no set schedule for each day, other than mealtimes. Start and end dates are up to each person: some people stay just a day, others stay an entire week. And other than Sunday Mass, attending religious services is optional.
The main selling point of all this is that it facilitates a quiet and peaceful environment that allows people to tap into their spirituality and connect with God, which I find appealing, since the never-ending noise of NYC pisses me off on a daily basis. The nuns take care of the meals (which are awesome), and they make sure you have everything you need, such as spiritual guidance, reading material, writing utensils, toiletries, towels, etc. The only thing I needed to bring was some clothes and a small amount of cash, which mostly went toward the food. To fully embrace the silence, it’s highly suggested that people turn off all electronic devices for the entire retreat, though that’s optional, too.
So last summer, I did it. These are my thoughts, which, largely, at the time, I managed not to put into words.
About an hour after leaving Manhattan, I arrive at the House of Prayer in Watchung, N.J., ready to begin my descent into silence. The building sits on a beautiful hilly campus of a ritzy Catholic high school.
After all the retreat attendees arrive, there is a brief meeting, which lasts about 20 minutes, wherein we all introduce ourselves, offer prayer intentions, and discuss what we hope to get out of the experience. I’m the only male and the only person under 45 years old on this trip. The handful of middle-aged and elderly women that are also on this retreat are mostly retired, though one is still an active schoolteacher. We chatted only briefly, so it was tough to gauge their personalities. But judging from their constant smiles, sweater-knitting proficiency, and proclivities for hot tea, they seem to be a peaceful bunch.
And then, we begin our silence. One of the nuns points to a fortress atop the hill and tells us it’s an elite private Catholic high school for girls only.
Since we’re in silence now, I’m not going to ask if it’s a boarding school. But I see few cars around, so I assume that’s the case. And I can’t help but thinking of a devout girl I dated right after graduating high school, and how walling off curious and developing teens is going to build sexual frustration, which could lead to interesting summer releases.
Why the hell, you’re thinking about fooling around with a woman? Already? Seriously, dude? Ten minutes into silence, and they merely mentioned smart, devout, Catholic girls, and you jump to sex like that? You filthy, filthy perv. And they’re talking about TEENS, you dirty bastard!
Whatever, man. I’m gonna mentally hum some Ramones to drown you out. “Now I wanna sniff some glue / Now I wanna have something to do ...”
This is how I often talk to myself—a heated debate between two people who seem to hate each other—which could make for a long retreat. Once, after a breakup, I thought I was hearing the voice of God telling me to join the seminary. But the counselor I was seeing at the time, who happened to also be a Baptist minister, told me that God would probably not refer to me as “a pansy-ass douche.”
On this retreat, I’m gonna be all alone with one of the weirdest and meanest people I know.
To circumvent my mind eating my self-esteem, I spend most of my time during the retreat reading or walking around the area and looking at pretty birds. The library here has a great selection of religious texts; somehow, Malcolm Gladwell and Who Moved My Cheese? slipped in, too.
I look across the campus while reading Thomas Merton. Though I feel far away from society here, there’s a Sears popping through the brush in the distance. Literally all I can see is trees, a road, and Sears. There’s a box store on the edge of town.
For a few hours, the silence feels really amazing. I have no sense of time, and nothing bothering me. I’m just thinking about another man’s arguments.
The first day goes so smooth that by the time the nuns come to tell me supper is ready, I’d been sitting there for nearly four hours. I haven’t felt this way since I was a kid, and my mom would tell me and my friends to stop playing football because it was time to eat. The tyranny of time has momentarily released its grip. Hell, yeah.
Not having electronic access reduces impulsivity. Typically, about a dozen times a day, I get a “burning” question in my head that I immediately need to solve via Wikipedia or Google. But if I just ignore these notions, they go away. By the time I’m able to look up X-Pac’s WCW name and the career trajectory of the girl who picked daises in that nuclear-apocalyptic presidential ad, I don’t really care what the answers are any more, anyway.
But here, it’s still hard to not blurt out questions. Like:
- What the hell is this bread-like substance I’m consuming? It’s so goooood!
- How long has that Sears been here?
- Where should I put this dish?
- Did there used to be more development around the Sears?
- What type of birds like the bird feeder most?
- Do earnings on books by the Pope get taxed?
- Is Sears the township’s largest employer?
Not all internal queries require me to hold back impulsive blurting. I think of other questions I’d keep to myself anyway. But since I’m not able to talk to anyone, I think about them much longer than normal.
For example: why are the bottoms of shoes so intricate? No one sees them but you. I can’t visualize the bottoms of anyone else’s shoes, even if I’ve seen them wear the shoes many times. But I can recall the bottoms of about 80 percent of shoes I’ve ever owned.
And what the hell is gum? It’s hard, but becomes soft and malleable when you put it in your mouth. It has a lot of taste, but you don’t eat it. It remains sticky for so long. It serves no point, really. Yet it is perfect for athletes playing baseball, satisfactory in basketball, and unthinkable in football. After it loses its flavor, you can bring some of it back by dipping it in water. That may not be true. But still—it’s incredible. It may be the closest thing we have to real-life Flubber.
I go back to reading philosophy.
The people I know who went on silent retreats tell me it gets easier with time. That may be the case for a quiet person at ease with themselves. But not for me.
Each day gets more difficult. The first day is easiest. But the longer I’m silent, the more I want to talk about the bird species flying around here, the campus’s impressive landscaping, the religious order of the sisters here, and the football prowess of nearby Catholic academies.
Mostly, I want to get going on a topic that isn’t religion or sex. Being regularly obsessed with these topics anyhow, the fixation jumps to hyperdrive speed when there’re less external stimuli to divert attention.
I become preoccupied with Catholic confession. It’s so powerful—it just wipes all your sins away, instantly. In fact, the best time to die is right after confession, because you don’t have any sins on your soul. This theoretically ensures a straight shot to heaven, or, at the very least, a dramatic reduction in purgatorial anguish. So wouldn’t it be truly merciful of God if He had someone put a bullet in your head immediately after you said your confessional penance? And it’s not like having someone commit all these murders would create some sort of evil antichrist figure. If anything, shouldn’t the person be somewhat of a saint for sending everyone straight to God? After all, isn’t that the job of the clergy, to lead people to heaven?
If that’s not the case, and murdering scores of people to send them straight to God is a mortal sin worthy of hellfire, then wouldn’t that in itself be a sacrifice? The “murderer” is potentially jeopardizing his eternal well-being in order to save everyone else. Sounds pretty selfless to me. Almost like a savior, in a way.
These are some of the religious thoughts I have throughout the retreat. I’ll spare you the sexual stuff.
The hardest part of complete silence comes when I’d be silent anyhow, which is at night. During the day, I read, exercise, sit transfixed on finches and cardinals flapping around, and contemplate the Sears business model. At night, there’s nothing at all but my thoughts.
It might sound antisocial, but I miss email, Facebook, and Netflix at night more than human interaction during the day. When my mind is unbearable at night, I watch Sharknado-like movies, read conspiracy garbage, and listen to Insane Clown Posse, since low culture makes me giggle while reducing concentration. But now I cannot escape religious doubt. And I cannot escape thinking that I’m only Catholic in the sociological sense that I followed what I was bred into, but failed to totally buy in once I went on my own. Which leads to conditioned guilt.
Insomnia hurts so much more when you have no distraction. I embrace no sleep in my daily life, because that’s when I consume the strangest media while not being totally conscious enough to properly dissect it, which makes it more fun. But now I just pray and think, and wonder if I’m supposed to have a revelation. Am I supposed to realize I am responsible for the “culture of death,” since I strongly desire electronic anesthesia to numb me?
As I go on to further agonize over romance and religion, I thank God I turned off my phone, because if I started sexting a past hookup, the guilt would linger for years if I jerked off in a nunnery.
After being silent for several days I expected my first conversation to be a momentous occasion. But instead, what transpired was:
Me: Where is the closest bus stop back to New York?
Nun: I think it’s by the Sears. Let me check the map for sure.
Me: Thanks. [Resumes eating peanut-butter sandwich in existential dread.]
The trip was pretty much as advertised, and I’d definitely recommend it to others. The people were incredibly kind, I experienced silence in a whole new way, and I enjoyed escaping noise and engaging in metacognition. I expected to have difficulty not talking to other people, but I found out that I actually enjoy solitude and keeping a distance from other humans. However, I struggled without electronics more than anticipated. When the retreat was over, I was much more eager to check my email than I was to talk to other people.
Several months have passed since I went on this retreat, and I haven’t noticed any significant changes in my spirituality. One minor effect of the retreat, however, is that I have continued to read Merton and other mystics, and I now make a roughly seven-percent greater effort at praying each night than before.
From a non-spiritual standpoint, I also now tend to engage in less trivial banter at the workspace I use. Rather than gossip with the other freelancers there, I regularly stare into a wall and contemplate my existence while snacking on apples in between meals. This behavior may be bad for my professional network, but it has allowed me to really think through some old X-Files plots. Plus, just as I appreciate escaping the noise of the city, everyone at the workspace probably likes it when they no longer hear my voice.
Ross Benes has written for the Wall Street Journal, Esquire, Quartz, and Slate. His upcoming book about indirect relationships between sex, economics, politics, and religion will be published by Sourcebooks next spring. Follow him on Twitter @RossBenes.