On the morning of Thanksgiving day at St. Mary of the Lake, we wake up to the resounding gong of the clock-tower bells. In the corner of the musty room my sister and I share, the radiator gurgles. Blankets that had seemed overzealous the night before are now pulled up to chins, and our noses are pink with the sudden onset of cold. Yesterday, it seemed November had stalled in a pallid temperate fall, winter still far off, but this morning, after fumbling for coats, pulling on boots, and running down the creaking stairs, the first sound that greets us as we step outside is the clear-pitched crackle of frosted grass under our feet. A stillness seems to sweep across ivory buildings and marble statues of Moses and Mary, curling all the way out to the far reaches of the newly frozen lake. In the quiet, even my sister’s inhales and exhales seem thunderous, as if to impress on us how lucky we are to see this change of seasons. To witness and live through another day.
For many years, my family took a vow of silence over Thanksgiving, retreating to a Catholic seminary perched on a small lake in Libertyville, Illinois. The rules of the Thanksgiving Silent Retreat were simple: no talking, no reading, no watching TV or listening to music. We were allowed to draw, or write, or play the grand piano in the pink-carpeted seminary lounge, but were not to bring books or use our laptops or phones.
Every year, while my peers watched football or made pies with their siblings, I would chatter incessantly at my family as we drove to the seminary, trying to talk as much as I could before the inevitable quiet was enforced. Once we drove through the wrought-iron gates of St. Mary’s, following the winding path through thickets of vibrant autumn foliage, the panicky urge to talk would mount, and I’d find myself exclaiming at everything we saw: the squirrels! the sleepy-looking security guard in his booth! the passersby on a walk with their children!
As we clambered toward the retreat center, the silence grew like a slow-blossoming vine, tendril by tendril, until evening found us in the seminary rec room, miming to ask for another serving of pie or suggest a round of cards. At bedtime, my sister and I would slink into the sparsely furnished old-fashioned dorm room we shared. When we were young, we would always whisper to each other, thrilled to indulge in rebellious talking and giggling beyond our parents’ earshot before we finally dropped off to sleep, bundled in felt blankets smelling of chamomile and mothballs.
I am often asked why my parents chose to invoke this strange monastic rule for our family’s Thanksgiving celebration. As is the case with most family myths, I’m no longer sure precisely why or how the silent retreat came about. Part of it was no doubt my parents’ own studies in Protestant theology, their exposure to ideas of stillness as proximal to holiness. When the first Silent Retreat took place, they were both seminarians, and our family attended church every Sunday.
But as time wore on, the spiritual dynamic of our family became increasingly complicated, with some of us abandoning Christianity. While we might have initially been encouraged to spend our silence in prayer, after the first year or two of our retreat, religiosity became increasingly optional.
The retreat gave us all time away from the bewilderment we tended to experience around American holidays. By the time we first visited St. Mary’s, we had lived in the US for almost five years, but holidays and the surrounding sociocultural expectations were still a source of stress for us. Spending the weekend in silent contemplation and companionship proved a good way for my family to ease into the American holiday season; to take what we appreciated and understood—quality time together, to reflect and feel grateful—and leave what we didn’t, such as football, Black Friday shopping, and the white-meat portion of the turkey. Silence provided us with a touchstone to return to what we held dear as we continued to acclimate to a new country and culture.
On our first Thanksgiving retreat, I was a seventh-grade bookworm of the highest order and had just received my own textbook-sized laptop. I was sure I would be bored to death with no one to keep me company but my little sister and newly uncool Mom and Dad. And at first the silent gesturing seemed infuriatingly slow; communication of the simplest ideas took minutes, minutes that slid by in what felt like an eternity. But after the initial frustration, the silence around us seemed to deepen and warm. Moments when one of us might have snapped at the other over a dropped piece of pie or a hand in an almost-slammed door were smoothed over more quickly, because the expression of frustration and anger had been relegated to facial expression.
To express affection or care without words, we sat close to each other, took long walks together, or fell asleep in overstuffed armchairs, side-by-side in puddles of late-afternoon sun. Silence made us more patient, more creaturely, somehow truer to ourselves. We did not have words to give thanks, but somehow gratitude remained, flourishing and becoming all the more tangible. On Sunday morning following that first retreat, even after we pulled away from the gates of St. Mary’s, our quietude persisted. It was with a lingering sadness that we slowly eased back into verbal communication, reluctant to return to the world of sound.
We celebrated our Silent Retreat Thanksgiving many more times. Through disappointments, illnesses, losses in the family, I have come to count on that one pocket of time in our year when we gather and appreciate one another’s presence. One of my favorite memories was during my first year of college, when I, disillusioned by what I saw to be the racial hypocrisy of our church congregation, decided to forgo the annual attempt at prayer and instead spent the weekend napping on an overstuffed coral-plaid couch, cuddled next to my sister.
It is during our hushed yearly respite when I feel closest to my sister, my mother, my father, and—perhaps most importantly—myself. Away from the din and worry of everyday life, I sit with the victories and disappointments of the year and then, in wordless gratitude or relief, let them go.
To some, the idea of a silent retreat over the holidays must seem ascetic and unappealing. Sure, you might not regret losing your chance to mumble obligatory responses to queries about your job search, whether you’ll ever move out of your parents’ basement, or when you plan to get married. But wouldn’t you miss bantering with your funny cousin, or snapping at your annoying one? Regressing to childhood communication patterns with your siblings and telling your sister that if she borrows a sweater one more time without asking, you’ll set fire to her stuffed animal collection? What about the annual chorus of “I’m thankful for”s around the dinner table?
Consider the Thanksgiving table, groaning under the weight of abundance: jeweled cranberries winking in orange-spiced syrups; the skin of the turkey rubbed and brined and roasted to crispy perfection; mounds of potatoes fluffed into chive-flecked clouds; green beans and stuffing and marshmallow-topped yams. Circling these dishes, the yawning promise of empty plates, and yet—above the whole table floats a cottony haze of silence. No one speaks. No one asks you to pass the salt, to refill the wine. What would that be like? How do you think you might feel and exist in that silent, still place?
The last time my family made our pilgrimage to St. Mary’s, my sister and I walked down to the lake after a dinner. We strolled together down to the waterfront to the single white peel of pier that extended into the middle of the lake. It was an early Midwestern fall evening, the sky pinkening over jet-black treetops skeletal and delicate like lace against the skyline. A lush lull fell over the woods. Sitting on the cold concrete steps of a gazebo, we huddled together for warmth, feeling happy and full.
As the sun continued to dip behind the horizon, we saw a flock of geese land on the lake. Out of the far corner of the sky, another strand of flying geese emerged—and then another, and another, until the sky was thick with the pulsating shadows of birds flying in swinging arcs, one flock braiding into the next. The air was thick with the sounds of their calls, the heartbeat pulse of their churning wings, the splash of water as they landed on the lake. I remember the complete awe I felt in that moment, speechless and unbelieving, the warmth of my sister’s back against mine as grins strained our cheeks. Gratitude for what we had witnessed brimming over, we shared a wordless, singular joy as we turned and trudged back up to our room, the night sky behind us shifting to a dusky dark blue. Again the silence deepened, holding us and our thankfulness in thrall.