Sunday, January 26, 2014

Silent Retreats and Painting

Fragile 5     29x29"  Oil/cold wax on panel © 2014 Janice Mason Steeves

This early morning, I'm sitting in front of my wood stove that has been burning non-stop this winter, as I look out onto a fresh blanket of snow in the woods behind my house.  More snow is swirling through the branches and there's the promise of more to come.

It brings a profound silence that sound-absorbent layer of snow. I'm thinking about the power of silence and the Silent Retreat I did last weekend at Loyola House, the Jesuit Centre in Guelph, Ontario.  There were nearly 50 others in the retreat.  We had pleasantly cozy single rooms with carpeted floors, a desk,   a sink and a big comfortable chair.  We didn't speak at all for the weekend, not in hallways, by the fireplace in the lounge or at meals.  Having the limitation of silence made time expand. The retreat centre holds a sense of the sacred, and there is something deeply profound about sharing that space with others in silence.  The social conventions are gone-smiling and nodding at people in passing,  engaging others in conversation, making small talk.  Silence allows space in life.

In 2010, the BBC produced a film entitled The Big Silence.  Five volunteers were invited on a journey into silence, led by Father Christopher Jamison at Worth Abbey in Sussex.  They then went on to St. Beuno's abbey in North Wales for an 8-day silent retreat.  Fr. Jamison's starting point is simple: "Many of the world's religions believe that there is one simple path that leads us toward God.  This same path takes us to the very centre of who we are. It has been at the core of the Catholic mystical tradition for centuries.  But outside religious settings, it has almost disappeared.  It's called Silence."  As a Benedictine monk he is steeped in the Catholic mystical tradition of the contemplative life, but he is convinced that everyone can benefit from sustained, regular periods of silence. “When we enter into periods of silence, we start to see things with greater clarity. We come to know ourselves, and come in touch with that deepest part of ourselves. That is our soul”  The film follows the lives of the five retreatants before and after the retreat.  The whole 12-part series can be seen on youtube.

I have done several silent home retreats  over the years, where I stay home for a week, shutting off all forms of communication and spend the time painting, meditating, or writing. To read about one of them, click here.  Being with others in a silent retreat at a Jesuit centre, had a different quality to it which encouraged deeper contemplation.

My weekend retreat was led by 81-year-old Bill Clarke, S.J., a Jesuit priest and a lovely gentle man who humanized bible stories, inviting us to go into them and meditate there.  Other than four sessions with Bill during the weekend, our time was our own, to walk on the six hundred acres of land or to sit by the fire or in our rooms. Computers and cell phones were not permitted.

I spent my time walking, meditating and writing in my journal. Many ideas for my work and my life came to me when I allowed that quiet space for them to enter. I came home feeling nourished by the silence.

"All artists dream of a silence which they must enter, as some creatures return to the sea to spawn"
Iris Murdoch


  1. A beautiful and powerful post, Janice. Each new piece of your series is an emotion.

    1. Thank you Sylvia. What a wonderful thing to say.