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Epiphany at the Villa: How a serene retreat of silence turned into a terrifying encounter with God

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At Villa De Matel, the nuns' main ministry is a silent retreat center called “Ruah Elohim,” or "Breath of God." Silence, they say, is God’s first language, and if we are to hear from the Spirit, first we have to stop talking. YouTube.com
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In honor of Mother's Day last Sunday, I elected to spend a day with some unusual mothers last week. It was a day of silence, actually, which, again is different for mothers. My mom friends and I are chatty, and why shouldn't we be? There is always so much going on, so much to do, so much to plan, it seems like we mothers can hardly catch our breath.

But these mothers I visited have no lack of quiet time, and they exude peace. Their calm, serene expressions and easy, kind smiles suggest that they know something I do not.

When I first came to Houston, I was a part of the Vineyard Church, and our worship leader at the time told me about a magical place south of downtown called Villa De Matel.

It's a Catholic convent that houses the Sisters of Charity of the Incarnate Word — 60 or so aging nuns who have dedicated their lives to prayer and hospitality, and whose main ministry is a silent retreat center called "Ruah Elohim,"or "Breath of God."

The Ruah Center invites road-weary spiritual seekers into its peaceful rooms and offers them the opportunity to spend time — some extended, some not — in pure silence. Silence, they say, is God's first language, and if we are to hear from the Spirit, we first have to stop talking.

Drowning out the noise

For the last 11 years I've done a lot of talking. In fact, I've talked about going to see the nuns. I've joked about it, I've threatened it, but I've never actually done it.

During those eleven years I was building a tidy life and career for myself inside the evangelical church, and I never got to a point where I felt I needed something so radical as to spend a day in silence with nuns.

 I've talked about going to see the nuns. I've joked about it, I've threatened it, but I've never actually done it. 

I was doing just fine, thank you, living the life of a professional Christian, doing, saying and being what I felt I needed to do and say and be to fit into that life.

Giving out, pouring out, rushing around — living the life of service I believed God was calling me to.

As I walked the halls of the Villa for the first time last week, I was deeply tired.

My tidy life has taken some decidedly un-tidy turns, and frankly, I've been wondering if I haven't somehow drifted dangerously from the path I believed God called me to nearly 10 years ago when I first brought my music to the church.

I'm physically and emotionally tired, but I'm spiritually tired too. Somewhere along this path where I've been giving out — musically, spiritually and emotionally — I've failed to learn how to "take in."

A thin place

When I arrived at the Villa I immediately knew it was a special place — what some people call a thin place, a place where heaven and earth brush against each other like rustling curtains in a sea breeze. The scent of jasmine and gardenia hung heavy in the air, bird song rang through the trees and the silence was deafening.

Laura was assigned to be my spiritual director for the day — I had made my appointment with her over the phone — and when I arrived she led me on a tour of the grounds.

She showed me where the Sisters eat, pray and rest and indicated that there were certain places I was not permitted to go, simply because the Villa is the Sisters' "Mother House," their home.

 I was nervous — I'm not sure I know how to be silent. To be honest, I'm a bit of a nervous talker. 

I understood. I wouldn't much like it either if strangers wandered around my house all day. I vowed to stay out of their way.

She also graciously showed me where I could go, which included the entire multi-acre forested property, as well as the Sisters private cemetery where generations of Holy Mothers are buried.

Throughout the building I encountered posted signs reminding me to maintain silence, even in the dining hall. I was nervous — I'm not sure I know how to be silent. To be honest, I'm a bit of a nervous talker. But I was coming here for help, so I vowed to follow that rule, too.

Before Laura turned me loose for my three hours of silence, she took some time to get to know me, and inquired as to what brought me to the Villa. Her melodic voice, and relaxed manner immediately put me at ease.

The truest truth

She lit a candle and we began our session together with, you guessed it, silence. She showed me a diagram of a house with four rooms — emotional, physical, spiritual, mental — and invited me to close my eyes and walk through those rooms in my own house.

I immediately remembered something I'd read about a Spanish mystic and author called St. Theresa of Avila. In her most famous work, El Castillo Interior, she details a vision she received from God in which the spiritual journey is likened to a walk through a castle with many rooms, the last room symbolizing mystical unity with God through prayer.

After our minute of silence Laura asked me to summarize my last ten years in one sentence.

 After our minute of silence Laura asked me to summarize my last ten years in one sentence. 

No problem. After a moment of weighing my words I said, "I traded terrifying intimacy with God, for a socially acceptable marriage with the Church."

Boom. I'm not sure where that came from, but it was true. It was the truest truth I've allowed myself to speak in some time.

"You've given God just a part of yourself," Laura said. "And he wants more. He wants all of you."

The question is, was I willing to give that much? After I spent 20 minutes attempting to pray a "centering prayer," a style of prayer Laura bravely tried to teach me, I ventured out into the woods.

As a native New Yorker, nature if not my usual go-to. For anything. But I found myself drawn into the woods and as I sat on a bench and closed my eyes, I felt the breeze lift the papers from my lap, lift my hair up off my shoulders, fill my lungs with oxygen and my nose with the clean smell of fresh cut grass.

And I felt it. Nearness. Immediacy. Intimacy. And it was a little terrifying. It was as if God was saying, "Here I am. I am always here, always available, always interested."

Later, as I sat on another bench in the neatly kept cemetery, I had an epiphany.

For ten years I've been praying for protection. I've been through a lot of loss, a lot of shock and heartbreak, and I've learned to protect myself from it — or so I thought — by squeezing my eyes tightly shut and begging God to protect me.

Sitting on that bench, I realized I'd been asking God to protect me not only from life, but also from Him.

And just like that, this idea of giving God more of myself seemed less terrifying. It was as if I realized that the re-charging I was so desperately in need of was right there waiting for me all the time. Like a roaring aurora just behind my line of sight — something great and beautiful and massive — available to me at all times, if I only just turn my head to look.

To find it, all I had to do was sit, close my eyes and breathe.

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