In the silence of the heart

This article appears in the Notes from the Field feature series. View the full series.
The lovely scenery I spent my contemplation enjoying. (Brenna Neimanis)

New York, N.Y. — Notes from the Field includes reports from young women volunteering in ministries of Catholic sisters. A partnership with Catholic Volunteer Network, the project began in the summer of 2015 This is our third round of bloggers: Brenna Neimanis is a Good Shepherd Volunteer at a juvenile justice residential detention facility serving adolescent girls in Brooklyn, N.Y., and Kerry DiNardo is a Notre Dame Mission Volunteer AmeriCorps member serving at a Cristo Rey school in Boston.


Anyone who has spent any amount of time with me knows that I like noise.

I like to talk, sing and make noise, and it is seemingly impossible for me to do anything without some type of music playing. My roommates even asked me the other day, "Brenna, when was the last time you got ready or did anything at all without playing music?" I could not give them a definite answer.

The weekend of May 14, all of the East Coast Good Shepherd volunteers spent their time at a retreat center in New Jersey. This particular retreat happened to be a Silent Spirituality Retreat, which could also be referred to as my worst nightmare.

When I told my co-workers and loved ones that I would be spending the weekend at a silent retreat, they all laughed at me. I love music, I love stimulation, and I love being able to talk out just about every thought I have. (I'm so sorry, roommates.) It probably goes without saying that the idea of an entire weekend dedicated to the absence of all of these things would be daunting for a person like me.

I went into the experience skeptical but with an open mind. I heard that people often had profound experiences while on silent retreats, but I was unsure of what it would bring for me. And to be honest, the idea of being alone with myself for so long was pretty intimidating.  

For the most part, the retreat started off smoothly. I slipped up a few times, instinctively starting the first day with a "Good morn — whoops!" Then there was another instance when a spider friend decided to spend some time on my knee while I sat quietly on a blanket outside. Shrieking, jumping to my feet and dancing around was not exactly silent and probably distracting to those around me, but what was I to do?

The journal I've been keeping throughout my volunteer year. (Brenna Neimanis)

My overall goal for the weekend was to be vulnerable and not to let myself become distracted by easy things that I could fill my time with. I wanted to intentionally sit alone within my own mind and with God for the first time in a while. As simple as that sounds, the thought of this was really uncomfortable and pretty frightening for me, but I knew I needed to dedicate myself to it.

Part of what I wanted to accomplish in this year of service was taking intentional time in silence to be with myself and to hear from God, which is exactly what this retreat was focused on. But somehow it took me until this retreat and someone forcing me to be quiet to actually do it. Why? Why am I so scared of silence? It sounds like the easiest, most basic thing in the world, yet I become anxious just thinking about having to sit with myself like that.

I just really do not enjoy spending that much time alone and in my own head, hence my constant need for music or some sort of stimuli to focus my mind on. But as I sat in my first hour or so of silence and after I had kicked a few songs out of my head, I started to recognize some defense mechanisms.

I realized that I often hide behind things like music. I use the excuse that I don't need silence because music is spiritual for me and speaks to me — which it really is and does, but that's kind of a cop-out. It is much easier for me to sink into music and fit my emotions into lyrics than to be still and quiet and face the reality of where I truly am. I try to find myself in someone else's words instead of exploring my own and being honest with myself and with God.

After sitting with that thought for a time, I focused and meditated on my own reality, found some of my own words, and heard more truth that I had feared hearing.

Beautiful stained glass in the retreat center chapel, where I spent a lot of my time during the Silent Spirituality Retreat. (Brenna Neimanis)

As I thought about my life and my year of service thus far, I began to realize that I have been far more complacent than I would really like to admit to myself, let alone anyone else. Being a Good Shepherd volunteer, by nature, is supposed to be challenging and uncomfortable. But in all honesty, I have just been breezing through it in a lot of ways.

Don't get me wrong, there are some really challenging parts of this program, but at times, I have just taken the ease I have felt, patted myself on the back for not being as high-maintenance as I thought I was, and carried on, proud, not looking to challenge myself further.

This is a truth I did not want to hear, and this is exactly why I was unnerved about a weekend in silent contemplation. That realization makes me want to cry and/or scold myself for my pride and for wasting my own time. I know that my year of service was not supposed to be me, near tears, crawling on my hands and knees to the finish line, but this is an opportunity for some serious growth and change that I apparently had pushed aside.

So with this set of newly manifested truth and my reading material (7: An Experimental Mutiny Against Excess by Jen Hatmaker) on the forefront of my mind, I did some searching for a more concrete way of thinking about this issue and for steps to address it in some way.

Hatmaker is an author and beautiful soul who never ceases to make me cry while I read her thoughts and reflections. As I combed through page after page of her struggle, her war against pride, entitlement and excess interwoven with the love and compassion of our Savior and the justice he calls us to, my head and my heart were overwhelmed yet comforted.

I felt more understood, and the rest of my weekend and the next week were a mixture of, "I am so dearly loved and worthy and valuable and don't have to earn an ounce of his love," and, "But if I understand that God loves and values me, why he does, and the sacrifice made on my behalf, I sure as heck better be loving others radically and working my tail off to grow in that love and as a seeker of justice."

Apparently that is where a weekend of silence leaves me. I am humbled, convicted, affirmed, a little broken, and refocused. I still have questions, I still love my noise and music, but I'm realizing how necessary it is to be quiet and really listen once in a while, and I will continue to practice that discipline while sorting through my new perspective.

I encourage you all to take some time this week to sit in silence, free from distraction, and ask God about yourself.

My materials for the Silent Spirituality Retreat, including "7: An Experimental Mutiny Against Excess." (Brenna Neimanis)

[Brenna Neimanis is a Good Shepherd volunteer at a juvenile justice residential detention facility that serves adolescent girls in New York City.]