When I booked my retreat weekend at Queenswood recently I was made aware that the first half hour of every mealtime was reserved for silence. This idea struck me at first as quite strange, yet the more I thought about it the more I began to wonder what eating in a roomful of silent people would be like. I knew I just had to try the silent mealtime – at least once – when I got there.
I can’t remember now (oh, how the days have flown by since I left!) if I tried the silent mealtime on Friday night or Saturday morning of my weekend, but whenever it was that I first experienced it I almost immediately became hooked on the experience. The reality was, I wasn’t at Queenswood to make friends. In fact, I didn’t even care if I spoke to a single person while I was there. I was there to think and mull and ponder and “just be” – and for that, silent mealtimes became truly golden for me. At one meal I became aware that the only sounds I could hear were the clink and clatter of cutlery against plates, yet there must have been fifteen people sitting – almost every one at their own table – in the room with me. It was amazing. There was no chatter or talking to keep my own thoughts at bay; silent meals actually added another level of comfort to my solo weekend and allowed more time and space for my thoughts to swirl and collect more easily.
Participating in silent mealtimes actually reminded me of spending Earth Hour in the dark last year. I had turned out the lights and spent the evening pursuing quiet activities by candlelight, and it ended up turning what would have been a regular evening into one a bit more special. Sitting in the dark slowed my usual evening chore-driven, hurried pace down to a more enjoyable, calm and reflective one. And so too, did this effect occur during the Queenswood silent mealtimes. The lights were also usually extinguished and we spent our meals in the dining hall lit only dimly and naturally by the sun. A thought bubbled up and made me aware that artificial light does stimulate us artificially, which is not always a good thing. (One only has to think of the 24-hour casinos in Vegas as proof of that point! I wonder how much less gambling would occur in those casinos between 10pm and 5am if their lights were more dim?)
In the end at Queenswood I started to attend every meal at the silent times. In fact, I came to love them so much in that short timeframe that on Sunday morning when a man and a woman broke the silence rule to whisper amongst themselves, I felt quite irked. Just what do they think they’re doing? I inwardly fumed to myself. I moved to the opposite side of the room but their chatting still invaded my thoughts. When the official half-hour of silence passed, another woman on retreat that had been sitting next to me got up to move behind me and made a noise of disgust. “Here, of all places!” she breathed heavily, but followed it with a more lovingkindness-inspired, “But I’m over it now.” And she smiled. I smiled too. After all, I couldn’t really fault the couple. I love to connect in speech with others too – just as much as I love to sit in silence.