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Single Mother Flocks To Silent Retreat For Peace, Clarity


I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Just ahead, this evening marks the start of Passover. We'll talk with one of our favorite rabbis about the holiday that celebrates freedom and a new life. He'll give us a Passover primer in a few minutes.

But first, we open up the pages of the Washington Post magazine, which we do just about every week to find interesting stories about the way we live now. This week, there's a feature about taking time to do something that many of us never do and may not even know how to do: be silent.

Writer Rachel Manteuffel found a place where silence is not only welcomed, it's encouraged. She spent a week at Virginia's Holy Cross Abbey, a spiritual retreat center where for half of each day, monks and visitors take part in what's called the great silence. Rachel Manteuffel is here to talk more about this. Also with us is one of the abbey visitors she wrote about Felita Boldin from Burke, Virginia. Welcome to you both. Thank you so much for joining us.

Ms. RACHEL MANTEUFFEL (Writer): Thanks, Michel.

Ms. FELITA BOLDIN: Thank you.

MARTIN: Now, Rachel, set the scene for us. The monks are practicing a century's old tradition. And why do they call it the great silence?

Ms. MANTEUFFEL: It's a spiritual practice. So it's - the greatness of it is that you can leave this world behind, sort of, and allow God to come closer to you.

MARTIN: And what part of the day how is the great silence observed as a part of each day or is it tell us about it.

Ms. MANTEUFFEL: Yeah. It's the nighttime. So it's from the last service of the evening to sunrise the next morning. And there actually is a service, we're talking around 3:00 in the morning when the monks wake up, but they don't say any words that they come up with. They can read. They can quote other people, but they can't express their thoughts at the moment.

MARTIN: And why did you seek this experience out?

Ms. MANTEUFFEL: I just thought it was a brilliant opportunity. I don't know where else you could exactly unplug this way. It's very quiet and everybody else there is sort of looking for the quiet and the silence. And I just I didn't know what would happen. I had heard from other people in monasteries that some people just can't take it. They need musak all the time or something in the background to be able to not listen to their own heads, I guess.

MARTIN: Felita, why did you seek out this silence? You were not raised in this tradition.

Ms. BOLDIN: No, I wasn't raised in the tradition, but I am pretty open-minded to trying different things that allow spiritual growth. And so for me I thought it was a great opportunity for that as well as after being in the D.C. area, you kind of get congested with all the noise, kind of like with the traffic. And so after a while, you need to just take a minute away so you can hear your own self think.

I moved here from Alabama where things are a lot slower. And you do have that quiet time. And for me this was just an awesome experience to spiritually grow in a different way.

MARTIN: Rachel quoted you in the piece as saying, I've been in D.C. three years, I just needed a minute to get out of the hamster wheel. And the piece points are that you're a single mom, you have a high-pressure job in a high-pressure agency, the Department of Homeland Security. You noticed you'd gotten 10-year-old son on the hamster wheel, too basketball, football, swim team.

But what do you think that enforced silence did for you that you could not have done for yourself? I mean, other people, religiously observant people enforce a form of slowdown every Saturday, for example, by just unplugging. Unplugging the appliances, not answering the phone, turning off the devices. Why do you think you just couldn't do that for yourself?

Ms. BOLDIN: It gave me a greater appreciation of God in his natural environment. If you ever go to the Shenandoah Valley, you see the green and the cows. And in my mind, it was kind of like something I have seen written the green pastures. You know, he maketh me to lie down in the green pastures. Even when you detach in a community, there are cars driving around. You hear the TV, music, still, you're not completely away to really focus on what's going on inside of you. And just even appreciate the things that are all around you that you may be missing because of all the noise and the distractions that are happening.

It was so profound to me. I went to one of the 3:30 vigils, and they can only read, as Rachel said, from the Bible something quoted. And what they read...

MARTIN: You mean 3:30 a.m.

Ms. BOLDIN: 3:30 a.m.

MARTIN: A.m. I just to emphasize it wasn't just, you know, high tea time, 3:30 a.m. Okay. And?

Ms. BOLDIN: What they were reading was about Mary and Martha. And I was just so tickled that in that silent environment, the words that they spoke were about being able to take time and sit at the feet of Jesus, as well as the one who was running around trying to get everything right. And to me that was just a strong validation moment that I was in the right place at the right time.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We're talking about "The Silent Treatment," a piece in this week's Washington Post magazine about a silent retreat that was attended by Felita Boldin, who's with us, and Rachel Manteuffel, who wrote about it for this week's Washington Post magazine.

Tell me about one of the there was a particular moment of insight that came to you you actually took the time to speak with and, I don't know, what would you say, seek guidance from one of the monks at the retreat, Father Mark. And you talked about some of the pressing issues in your life. What did he say to you, if you don't mind sharing that?

Ms. BOLDIN: First, I have to kind of set the context. I go in, and as you've already highlighted, I'm not from the Catholic faith. So, there's Father Mark, who's like 91 years old. He's a monk. I'm thinking there is no way he's going to be able to relate to me.

MARTIN: And you're African-American. You were raised in the black church charismatic, a lot of music.

Ms. BOLDIN: Absolutely.

MARTIN: And a single mom, as we mentioned.

Ms. BOLDIN: So there was no way he was going to be able to tell me anything about custody battles or single parentness and just the whole nine yards, the drama, in a way, that goes along with it. So I walk in and I proceed to kind of unwind, thinking really, he's not going to be able to tell me anything. He then within five minutes cut to the chase. He explained a story to me about a monk or a man that wanted to become a monk. And he said when it comes to matters of the heart, he said sometimes you have to use the court system.

I was kind of shocked. I thought he was going to say pray and forgive, go fast. He said sometimes you have to use the court system. So at that point, he also said, you have to be human, but let God be God. The things you can handle, you handle, and then let him handle the bigger things. And I think that that was the perfect environment and it also opened my mind that you can receive wisdom and insight from a multitude of environments and people. And, you know, it just afforded me, again, the opportunity to just grow spiritually.

MARTIN: For those who aren't aware, it's a particular piece of scripture that talks about Mary and Martha, one of the sisters challenging the other for sitting at the feet of Jesus and receiving the teachings and said, why aren't you helping me get ready for the dinner? And Jesus says, this is more important.

Ms. BOLDIN: Right.

MARTIN: Have a minute. Sit down.

Ms. BOLDIN: So, Mary is...

MARTIN: Let the dishes wait. She didn't really say let the dishes wait, but it's kind of the same idea.

Ms. BOLDIN: Rachel, what about you? You did mention that you kind of had the urge to tweet about the experience while you were there.

(Soundbite of laughter)


MARTIN: Write about it on Facebook. You did resist, I hope.

Ms. MANTEUFFEL: Actually, no, I sent a couple text messages that just said, I'm on a silent retreat, ha ha.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. MANTEUFFEL: And I also kept checking every few minutes to see if there was Wi-Fi because I knew there wasn't Wi-Fi, but I would just, like, search for it. I have no idea what that was about. I mean, it was about my inability to let go of all of that. And sort of it's not a very faraway place, you know. It's about an hour away. And so, you know, of course I'll get cell phone reception, of course there's Wi-Fi. I can find civilization if I really need it. And it was cut off, which I'm very grateful for.

MARTIN: What do you think at the end of the day you drew from that experience, besides the fact that it really was an enforced silence? Well, kind of sort of. You cheated a little bit.


MARTIN: You texted quietly, we thought.

Ms. MANTEUFFEL: I texted quietly. And I interviewed people, so it was not all that silent for me. But my favorite part about what happened was I went there all sort of self-conscious and thinking, I'm not going to fit in here and what are these people going to think of me? And all the stuff in my head just sort of spilling out. And by the end of it, I was so able to quiet and so able to quiet my inner I don't want to say demons - but just the voice in my head going, well, you should be doing this. That I was able to focus on the other people there, Felita and Michael and the monks.

And I think I tried to capture that in the story that it started out being very me, me, me, me. What am I doing here? I have to write this story. And it turned into who are these people? And that was beautiful.

MARTIN: What do you think the broader lesson is? And is there something that is this something you think you could incorporate into your daily life or your routine life? Or do you think this really is something where you need to be removed in order to do?

Ms. MANTEUFFEL: I hope I can incorporate it into my daily life, but I think part of it is not getting Wi-Fi and being with cows and being with the monks who have dedicated their lives to this and have been where you are, and the other people who were there. It's not about being alone in silence. It's about being a silent community.

MARTIN: Rachel Manteuffel is a contributing writer to the Washington Post magazine. If you want to read her piece in its entirety, and we hope you will, we'll have a link at our Web site. Just go to NPR.org, click on Programs, then on TELL ME MORE. The piece is entitled "The Silent Treatment." And she was here with us in our Washington, D.C. studio, along with Felita Boldin, who shared the great silence with her at the abbey. And they were both here with us in our Washington, D.C. studio. Thank you so much for joining us.

Ms. BOLDIN: Thank you.

Ms. MANTEUFFEL: Thanks for having us. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.