Austria Adventures: What I learned while not talking

MICHELLE FORTUNATO
AUSTRIA CORRESPONDENT

This past weekend, I had the opportunity to go on a silent retreat.

When I first saw the signs advertising the retreat back in October, my thoughts were something along the lines of, “I can’t think of anything less exciting. Why would I want to … be silent?”

And then people started talking about having signed up for it, and the people who were going were all quality people whom I liked a lot. But still … I wouldn’t be able to talk to them.

But after a fast-paced semester of traveling almost every weekend and most recently a 10 day trip to Rome and Assisi (Rome is crazy by the way!), I was pretty ready to not talk.

The silent retreat was about 45 minutes away, in the Austrian mountains somewhere. It was led by Sr. Eliana Day, TOR, and the Rev. Seraphim Beshoner.

Our options of things to do were to read, write, pray or go on a walk. Another option was to drink tea and look out the window.

Day gave us a list of questions to help us reflect on our semester. I used them to journal 24 pages. I also had a two-hour holy hour, prayed a rosary in Latin, visited the Basilica next to the retreat house and went on two walks. I drank tea and looked out the window.

Here are some of the things that happened in the silence.

At lunch on Saturday, I sat with my good friend Jenny, which I immediately knew was going to be problematic as far as being silent was concerned. About halfway through the meal, the Gregorian chant that had been playing softly in the background segued into a song that was only bells. Just bells, for five or so minutes. Jenny laughed the entire time while the bells played.

At the end of the meal, Jenny collected our dishes to stack them up for our servers. One of the things we had eaten was mashed potatoes topped with fried onions. I looked down at the food remaining on my plate and decided that the best thing to do would be to spell out Jenny’s name in fried onions.

I did this, working hard to shape the letters just right, and even decorated the edges of my plate with carrots. I handed my plate across the table to Jenny, waiting excitedly for her to notice my artwork. She saw the carrots, smiled slightly, then saw her name and burst out laughing. We did not talk, but we definitely were not silent.

At dinner that night, I had a different experience. During the meal, I really wanted water, but it was too far away for me to reach. I could have gotten someone’s attention and pointed to it, or even stood up and gotten it myself, but I decided that being silent should most properly include not only not talking, but having no voice whatsoever. I resolved to wait and hope that someone would offer me water.

No one did, and it made me think about the importance of being attentive to the needs of others, especially those who are less likely to be heard.  How many times has it happened that someone near me has had a need, but I am paying too much attention to myself to notice the needs of anyone else? Probably way more frequently than I even know.

There was a night in Lourdes that I was with a pilgrim—a woman from Haiti who was in a wheelchair—as well as a few other volunteers. The woman from Haiti spoke very little English, but she expressed that she wanted to go to the Rosary Procession. The other volunteers thought she wanted to watch it from the roof, but I knew she wanted to actually participate in the procession.

Yet I said nothing as the others led us up to the rooftop. Why didn’t I say anything? I had a voice. It is so important to speak up when you know that something isn’t right. As the signs say on the D.C. metros, if you see something, say something.

On Sunday, we celebrated the Solemnity of Christ the King at the little chapel in the retreat house. Beshoner rocked a bright red and orange chasuble that made him look like of a giant burst of sunshine. After Mass, we returned to Gaming and ate brunch at the Kartause. You know what they say—if you don’t eat Mensa waffles, is it even Sunday?

Quick tangent—it is so good to intentionally create ways to make Sundays special. We are all familiar with the concept of fasting and sacrificing on Fridays; we can also participate in the life of the Church by feasting on Sundays. This semester, I have been celebrating Sundays by drinking hot chocolate coffee. I really recommend this!

This week, Gaming got its first real snowfall. What a treat! The Kartause is decorated with Christmas lights, garlands and multiple Christmas trees. Members of the local Gaming community have started setting up for the annual advent market, which by next week will have totally taken over the Kartause. It is so exciting.

This weekend, I get to go to Lithuania for mission. Our team will hang out with university students there for a few days. I will talk about sacrifice and love, which are my favorite things to talk about. I have been excited for this for a long time.

Praise God for all the good things!

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