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Friday, 19 November 2010

The Sound of Silence

Some of you living in the UK have been watching ‘The Big Silence’.  (If you have not, or could not, you can ‘tube it up’ in 12 x 15 minute episodes at or see ). 

This BBC programme followed on from the hugely successful ‘The Monastery’ in which 5 unlikely men agreed to spend 30 days living and working in a Benedictine Monastery south of London.  In the new programme, 5 men and women, spend a week on a silent retreat at the Jesuit-run St Beuno’s in North Wales and then have to integrate that experience into their ordinary lives.  (Some of you may recognise in the programme Fr Brendan Callaghan who was one of the priests at Gordon’s funeral). 

Long-standing readers might recall that my own vocation journey began initially at Worth Abbey and then continued through Jesuit silent retreats first of 3 days, then 8 days, then finally 30 days.  And I have mentioned before that, long after I have abandoned many other aspects of Jesuit life, I have retained my commitment to an annual silent retreat.  So in September, I took advantage of my UK trip to head to the same St Beuno’s in North Wales and cut myself off from all distractions for a week. 

I do this in part because one of the main activities of our Jesuit Institute is to offer silent retreats, and to train people in how to direct someone on a silent retreat: not to use the product myself would be a bit poor.  But I also do it because it is a complete gift to myself.  I am just as busy, professionally and socially, in Johannesburg as I ever was in London, New York or Rhino Camp.  So making sure that within my year there is some opportunity to pause and reflect is very important.  It is also the only week of the year when I sleep 10 hours a night, don’t drink alcohol, go for long walks and have baths rather than showers: restoration for the body as well as the soul! 

St Beuno’s, some of you will have seen, is in a stunning location, overlooking the Clwyd Valley and the North Wales Coast with views, on a clear day, across to Snowdonia in one direction and the two cathedrals of Liverpool in the other.  And, unusually, I actually had a number of clear days!  The last time I was there on retreat was 3 years ago just as I was leaving the Jesuits.  So it was especially moving to be back there happy in my life as a non-Jesuit and yet once again part of the wider family.  What happened in the Retreat is between me, God and my retreat director.  But it was a good experience of confirmation and peace – what in technical Jesuit terms is called ‘consolation’.  There was at least one very practical outcome: I returned to South Africa and committed to stay here at least until the end of 2012. 

Meanwhile, if the TV programme is tempting you to spend some time in silence yourself and you fear that you could not do it – I hope you are reassured to know that even a chatterbox like me can go on retreat and enjoy it!

You might even be tempted to do a retreat in guaranteed sunshine here in South Africa.  We offer mostly 8 day retreats – although a colleague of mine does 3-day taster weekends.  At the other end of the scale we have just started a 30-day retreat which is being attended by men and women, clerical and lay, Catholic and non-Catholic.  That last part might surprise you since retreats seem like such a Catholic activity.  But part of the success of our retreats and training programme here is that it is entirely ecumenical.  The group about to graduate as ‘spiritual directors’ (after a 3-year part-time programme) consists of Catholics, Methodists and Anglicans (including a male priest, a woman priest and a bishop).  In fact the 30-day retreat is being hosted in a new retreat house run by Afrikaaner Methodists.  The days in which Catholics were seen as ‘the Roman Menace’ are another part of South African history consigned to the past.

Teaching people in a religious context to appreciate silence is hard enough.  Even harder is persuading busy school principals or business leaders that it is something for which they should set aside time.  But, following the Ignatian tradition of working outside traditional Church structures, that is just what we have been trying to do.  I have written before about the 3-year leadership development programme we are running with rural school principals.  What we are trying to do in 3 years with the principals, we are attempting at least to start in 2 days with business leaders. 

We have developed a Leadership course that challenges business people to be truly authentic leaders by first of all understanding their own meaning and purpose.  The course was triggered by a survey with the SA Institute of Directors that showed that only 14% of directors felt that the decisions they made in Board Meetings were consistent with their own personal values.  For some these might be humanitarian or more generally spiritual; but in a very religious country such as South Africa, a good number of business leaders would articulate their own deepest values in religious language.  However framed, is there a way that people can appropriately connect their deepest values with their professional lives in a secular multi-faith environment? 

The course gives helps people to understand their own core values and deepest desires and also to see their blind spots and limiting beliefs.  Whilst all of that sounds quite generic, the reason it works and has credibility is that it effectively draws on the 400-year-old Jesuit tradition of ‘discernment’ though in a way that makes it accessible to people of all faiths and none.  In fact in one recent presentation of the course we had Catholics, Pentecostals, Anglicans, Muslims, agnostics, atheists, a Jew and a Hindu.  I felt that we were definitely doing something truly Jesuit at the moment on Friday lunchtime when we were sitting in the best business school in town, talking about the value of listening to our hearts, and the 2 Muslims popped out of the course to attend Friday prayers. 

We have just run the course at Wits, the other business school, who have also signed us up to offer it to their MBA students next year.  So far, we have offered it to over 60 people (including a group of Masters students from the US) and the response has been extraordinary.  It is a grace to be able to help people in such a fundamental and personal way. 

The success of this might be a purely South African phenomenon.  But I suspect it is not.  The world over people need to rediscover the value of silence and reflection not as a way of escaping from ‘busy-ness’ but in order to make themselves more effective when they are busy.  Or as one of my school principals put it: if I am given 6 hours to cut down a tree, I should spend 5 hours quietly sharpening the axe!

Talking of sharpening axes, my razor blades are resting while my Mo-vember moustache grows apace.  The similarity between me and Sammy Davis Junior has been remarked on, even by my elderly actress friend Joan Brickhill.  Since she was a great friend of Shirley MacLaine that means there are only 3 degrees of separation between me and my hero!  But while the moustache is taking great shape the fund-raising – for the Trinity health clinic to provide HIV tests and anti-retro-viral medicines for homeless men – is not.  But you still have 10 more days in November to contribute.  And if I don’t meet my fund-raising goal I might just have to keep the moustache, something which I suspect will not be met with silence… To donate:

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