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The hospitality of silence

Karie Charlton finds new depths to hospitality during a silent retreat.

photograph of dirt pathway between trees

Photo by Kyle Glenn on Unsplash

Hospitality is often mistaken for noise. It starts with a warm greeting, but then often leads to uncomfortable small talk and general comments about the weather… ugh. Even worse: icebreaker games. I am baffled by “two truths and a lie” where you must trick strangers into thinking you are more interesting than you actually are just to start a retreat that was supposed to be relaxing. No thank you.

The Ignatius House in Sandy Springs, Georgia, welcomes guests like me to unplug and listen to the silence. Welcome. I’m glad you’re here. Here is your room key and journal. If you need anything, write it on the notebook on the credenza and someone will respond. This is the snack area. This door will be open when the kitchen is ready to serve your meals. The library and bookstore have self-check-out, instructions are on that counter. Your room is down that hall. Thank you.

No small talk, no wasted words, no mindless chatter. I felt invited to simply be me. I found the retreat schedule on my bed and reading materials labeled with my room number on the desk. Inside the journal was the information she gave me with a few extra details, and invitation to turn off my devices and instructions to go to the parking lot to make phone calls if necessary. The next pages were poems, prayers, daily examen, and invitation to listen to God in silence (1 Kings 19:11-13), and a detailed trail map. The rest of the pages were blank for my use. Outside my window I could hear the birds singing their welcome song.

I went to the snack room and made myself a cup of coffee. Instructions were clearly printed, and a tray held clean cups and another bin labeled dirty cups was nearby. It was neat and tidy and so were the instructions. No need to ask where the trash was, did they recycle, where should I put my dirty cup. Everything was laid out in a way that made me feel at ease and, surprisingly, at home. I found a cozy spot in the library to drink my coffee, enjoy the view, the bird songs, and my book. I didn’t hear much else except for the occasional welcome given to the other arriving guests.

Food is hospitality, especially when it is delicious and safe. The staff was on hand to refill the buffet and answer any questions, but there wasn’t much to ask. Everything was clearly labeled, and the label included words like vegan, vegetarian, gluten free. Full words, not symbols to decode. It was clear that we were being cared for.

Eating in silence eliminated small talk and allowed all of us who signed up for this retreat to eat at our own pace, not feeling rushed to chew before answering questions. I tasted and enjoyed the food. I lingered over my coffee. I didn’t experience indigestion. Clean-up was easy, too, with bins for trays, silverware, cups, bowls and plates. The kitchen crew worked in silence as the radio played instrumental hymn tunes to muffle the noises of prepping, cleaning and chewing. Eye contact and smiles said thank you, and you’re welcome.

I stood in the sheer silence wrapped in my favorite sweatshirt and listened to God whisper my name.

Silent hospitality takes more effort than noisy hospitality, but its worth it. The staff thought through all the details and anticipated guest questions to lay out the experience in a way that no questions had to be asked. But I never felt like a bother either. They were ready to serve if needed. I appreciated their attention to details. I felt safe, cared for, and loved. Silence can communicate so much love.

Like Elijah in 1 Kings 19, I retreated from a noisy and messy ministry not knowing what to do next. I had never been on a silent retreat before, but I was desperate to find peace and discernment and a new plan. I didn’t get the clarity I thought I wanted. I did find an opportunity to find compassion for myself. I let the angels of hospitality take care of me. I ate good food, drank water and took a nap. And after a short walk in the woods, I stood in the sheer silence wrapped in my favorite sweatshirt and listened to God whisper my name.

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