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Into the Great Silence

Colleen Mandell
It began with a message to the editor’s inbox:

“Hi Susan,

I am a senior taking Dr. Park’s course in mysticism. On March 6, as a class, we spent a night in the St. Norbert Abbey without any electronics, homework or other everyday distractions. We brought one reading of about 10 pages with us and spent the night in quiet contemplation with just that one text. I chose to go for a run in the dark through a snowstorm that night and attended the morning prayer the next day.

“I would like to write about my experience for the St. Norbert magazine. Most of my time as an undergraduate I have been very disconnected from my faith. Being Catholic is so much a part of who I am, but I have often felt at odds with it. During the retreat, and in my time in the class, I have been able to cohesively tie both aspects of my identity together.

Thanks, Colleen Mandell”

With a pitch like that, our curiosity was piqued! Here's Colleen Mandell ’18 (pictured) on her silent retreat:

It was March 6, and I was incredibly nervous. As a class, our professor had explained, and in order to further understand the visionary writings of Hildegard of Bingen and other contemplatives, we were going to attempt to get into their “headspace.” Our Christian Mysticism class was to undertake a silent overnight retreat, and we were now headed to St. Norbert Abbey for the experience.

We would leave behind our phones, our laptops and, even more harrowing, our homework. During the time, we would remain silent with only one text, about 10 pages in length, that we could read in a mini practice of the Benedictine tradition of lectio divina, a form of holy reading that encourages communion with the text and God.

Any time I enter a new social setting, I become nervous about the things that I cannot predict. I was worried the retreat would be boring, awkward and, ultimately, interminable. I was glad that we had the comfort of a text that we could choose on our own and even more happy that we could choose how to structure our time. 

The retreat started with prayer followed by dinner. I was not expecting to enjoy the prayer at all. It has been well over a year since I last attended church, and that was with my mother for a holiday Mass that I could not avoid. I often catch myself telling others that I am Catholic by culture, but not necessarily by faith. It is an incredibly true statement; so much of what I think, believe and do is colored by my Catholic upbringing, but I often struggle with the institution of the Church as exclusionary of women and the LGBTQ community. However, sitting in the pews with the Norbertines I was struck by the comfort in the tradition of Catholic prayers and Masses. Despite my lack of church attendance, it all came back so quickly. I felt at home again. The sound of the call-and-response hymns reverberated beautifully in the pews as my eyes were drawn continually upward to the beauty of the stained glass.

After prayer, we ate a small dinner and promptly began the silence. During our quiet time, I chose to go on a run. I dreaded going out in the snow, especially with the wind blowing wickedly. I convinced myself I would do just a mile. “Lace your shoes up”, I told myself. “If it is as terrible as you think it will be, you can turn around.” Outside, I found it was just me and my footprints. There was something so peaceful in knowing it was only me out there, running in the storm. I was bundled up in gear and guided by my headlamp, my trail-running shoes connecting me to the earth. Words cannot even begin to describe the peace I felt, though it was not a painless run. Cramps ate at my calves and side, but it was as if the pain did not matter. I felt it but kept going. When I got back onto St. Norbert Abbey grounds, I ripped my earbuds out and ended my run in silence. Listening to my breath and the crunching of snow under my feet, I knew that I was the only one who cared that I finished my run without walking. I chose to keep going, and step by step I carried myself back to the front doors of the spirituality center and entered the warmth feeling accomplished.

Reframing my relationship with theology
Although I came to St. Norbert College from Benet Academy, a private Catholic high school in the suburbs of Chicago, I was determined to leave Catholicism behind. Having been privileged to grow up in parochial schools with religion classes incorporated into the curriculum, I decided I knew enough about religion to last me a lifetime. I would take just enough theology courses to complete my core requirements and that was it. I would never have imagined that in my last semester before graduation, I would have added a theology course – and on mysticism of all things – yet that’s exactly where I found myself.

After having completed Theological Foundations, I started to realize that religion was not the enemy, it was the way that I had been taught it in the past. Before coming to college, I took religion classes that smothered me until I could not breathe. In those classes, I sat in a classroom as a teacher lectured on the history and beliefs of the Catholic Church. It was simply assumed that, as a student, I, too, would believe these things. At St. Norbert, I have had the opportunity to take theology courses that create a place for spiritual and religious discussion. As a Catholic college, the Catholic perspective has always been presented but never forced as the correct set of teachings.

Having a professor who introduced theology as a way of discussing and thinking about religion without necessarily believing in such ideologies, I suddenly felt like I had room to breathe. God did not have to be any one thing. I learned that there are different ways to talk about God through metaphors – both feminine and masculine – and sometimes neither, changing God’s pronouns to fit that idea. Mostly, I came to realize that God is beyond knowing, but that does not mean we cannot try. Theology is not simply a personal pursuit; other people do believe in a higher being (or beings) that continually shapes their actions; the palpable force that shaped the world around me.

These ideas from Theological Foundations began to permeate my everyday life. Sitting with my advisor trying to determine the courses I would take in my last semester of college, I knew I wanted to take a class that was quintessential SNC, and so I ended up in a course founded in the liberal arts experience: religion + literature = Christian Mysticism.

Mysticism as solution
Entering the class, I felt skeptical. I have read various mystics from the Middle Ages in English classes, and they all seemed like fruitcakes to me. I was ready to dismiss mystics as mentally ill individuals living in times where medicine and psychology were not well-developed fields. Certainly today, any “mystics” we had would be locked into an institution.

Very early in the course, my skepticism was addressed. Maybe the individuals we would study did suffer from mental illness, but that did not invalidate their experiences of the divine. It was not for us to diagnose these mystics but to try to truly understand their writings and beliefs. Contrary to my original thought, mysticism has very little to do with mental illness. While, very often, religion is thought of as an academic theology, mysticism finds value in the experiential knowledge of God. God can be known not just by rational thinking, but through experience sometimes brought about by contemplative prayer and other methods. Sometimes these other methods, like self-flagellation and starvation, cloud modern perspectives as “crazy” behavior and distort the true pursuit of mystical experience: knowledge of God.

One such mystic, Hildegard of Bingen, notably wrote texts on theology and medicine, as well as composing music and poems. Under her supervision as prioress, the convent Disibodenberg flourished as a center of learning in the arts, science and architecture. Hildegard’s genius remains unparalleled. Throughout her life, beginning at just age 3, she experienced visions given to her by God. It was not until age 42 that, under the direction of God, she began to write these visions down. Hildegard’s writing presents the visions that came to her and then analyzes the deeper meanings of those visions, allowing the reader to both interpret the vision for themselves and understand her own perspective. She writes:

“Listen: there was once a king sitting on his throne. Around him stood great and wonderfully beautiful columns ornamented with ivory, bearing the banners of the king with great honor. Then it pleased the king to raise a small feather from the ground and he commanded it to fly. The feather flew, not because of anything in itself but because the air bore it along. Thus am I, a feather on the breath of God.”

In the classic metaphor that places God as king, Hildegard understands herself to be nothing more than a prop for God to manipulate. Her existence relies entirely upon this God, shaping the course of her life. Hildegard grounds her own theology based upon the experiential knowledge of God that she gains through this vision and many others like it. The breath of God moves her to action and to contemplation alike.

It was only later, upon reflecting on the experience of the silent retreat and the course as a whole, that I felt flooded with the sense of relief that an asthmatic must experience breathing from their inhaler. I had found peace in a spirituality grounded in running and still wholly Catholic. Just as the mystics create their own contemplative practices, I can find my own path. There do not ever have to be separate warring parts of my identity. For we are all the Church: Hildegard of Bingen, the mystics and me.

June 30, 2018