A little bit of interesting trivia: There could be a sign on a bed at the White House that reads “Mike Eisenbath slept here.” No, not that White House. I’m talking about the Jesuit retreat center in St. Louis, Mo. While the home of the President of the United States has history and impressive décor on its side, my White House has a stunning view – especially at sunrise — from the bluffs overlooking the Mississippi River and onto southern Illinois farm fields of corn and wheat and soybeans. Lives have changed because of some powerful decisions and government activities at the D.C. White House; lives also have changed because of some powerful decisions and spiritual activities at the St. Louis White House.
My spiritual life is one that changed, veered in a new direction and deepened profoundly. My first four-day Ignatian retreat happened during a hot, stormy summer weekend at that center six years ago. Group retreats had captured my heart 20 years earlier when I attended the first of my baker’s dozen Teens Encounter Christ weekend. In 2005, I thought I would get to know some men in my new parish by helping to plan and then attend our church’s first offering of a Christ Renews His Parish retreat; at my discussion table that weekend, I met Jim and Larry, who would become two of my best friends. I was a part of the team for several CRHP retreats the next several years, some at my parish and some at others in the St. Louis area.
During that initial CRHP retreat, Larry began to discern a call to the permanent diaconate – a call to which he eventually said yes. I had been discerning the same idea for several years. Even though I ultimately realized God wasn’t beckoning me in that direction, I clearly understood He had a plan that seemed hazy to me. In the midst of the radical development of our prayer lives, Larry and I decided to spend a weekend in retreat at the White House. We knew little about the facility and its retreat activities, even less about Ignatian spirituality and the Spiritual Exercises. None of that was the source of my slight apprehension.
Oh, did I mention that it was a “silent” retreat? That dimension provided fuel for my ever-intensifying anxiety. Though I felt an attraction to the concept of silence – the prospect of peace sounded pretty good to a man suffering from major depression – my life always featured noise and commotion externally and internally. Music and talk radio in the car, TV always on at home, four kids and a couple of dogs, phones ringing everywhere, emails and text messages and books and magazines, my mind always filled with stuff …
What would I possibly do in the absence of noise? How could I shut the world out of my brain to focus solely on God? I had recently read “Dark Night of the Soul” by St. John of the Cross and “Interior Castle” by St. Teresa of Avila. Something about contemplative prayer lured me. But could I abide so much silence?
By the end of that weekend, I was captivated by what Matthew Kelly calls “the classroom of silence.” Larry and I returned to the White House for two more retreats. The last three, with friend Jim along as well, we have enjoyed silent retreats at Trappist monasteries – including five full days this August in Gethsemani, Ky. The silence isn’t always tranquil or comfortable but rather can bring turmoil to my soul. The lessons in the classroom can be challenging and harsh. In silence, alone with God, I become vulnerable. I have learned to yield to the teacher; the cloak of silence has become more like a security blanket than an oppressive suit of armor.
Though the retreats aren’t always the loftiest of my spiritual “mountaintop” experiences, there are things I want to take from the higher altitude into the valley of everyday life. Now in formation with the Secular Carmelites, contemplative prayer has become vital – indeed I spend much more time in all kinds of prayer. But I try to recreate some of the atmosphere of silence in the secular world despite that world’s general pandemonium.In silence there is no turbulent external noise. So I usually make my 30-minute commute to and from work without the radio or CD player. I might pray, I might sing, I might simply observe the people and landscape around me on the highway. I watch much less television; most notably, I rarely watch any news shows.
I have sought ways to regulate internal noise, all the babble in my brain. On a silent retreat, there is little if any need to rush; hence I try to slow the pace of my life. I walk more leisurely from one place to the next. I eat without hurry, which not only allows me to savor each bite but to actually eat less. I try to arrive at my destinations earlier than I have to actually be there. I consider what feels most important and what really doesn’t seem urgent or necessary, then prioritize my actions accordingly. And while I consider fewer subjects in moments of prayer and reflection, I ponder each more deeply.
“In the silence of the heart, God speaks,” Blessed Teresa of Calcutta said. “If you face God in prayer and silence, God will speak to you. Then you will know that you are nothing. It is only when you realize your nothingness, your emptiness, that God can fill you with Himself. Souls of prayer are souls of great silence.”
I have learned that in holy silence, there resides God.