A few years ago, I went on retreat at St. Andrew’s Abbey, a Benedictine monastery of the Congregation of the Annunciation, in Valyermo, California, just north of Los Angeles County in the Mojave Desert. The monks follow a modern adaptation of the Divine Office and practice silence from after Compline to after Lauds the next morning. Retreatants had access to a multipurpose room where quiet conversation could take place, but we were warned that noise carries farther in the desert, so it was advised that we avoid speaking if possible.
After the great silence began, I went to my room to journal. As I reflected on the day’s spiritual movements, I heard a scratching noise. I stood on my bed to peer over a ledge and discovered a tiny desert mouse, frozen in fear and looking back at me. I sat back down, and the mouse continued to scratch randomly throughout the night. The sound seemed to get louder with every minute that passed. I couldn’t fall asleep, concerned about the mouse crawling down from the ledge and, in the worst-case scenario, into my bed. I decided I’d stay up instead. I prayed with Scripture for awhile and ended the night with a rosary that finally lulled me to sleep.
On the second night I was surprised to find that my rodent roommate was still there, but now looking down at me from the ledge, watching my every move as I watched his. I had expected to find silence and restful sleep in the desert night, but the Spirit had different plans for me. The Benedictine monk was right: I learned that the desert silence makes sound more discernible, and that though I may have been in solitude, I was never alone.
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