A Space for Silence

Photograph by Anna Tesch

I was born on an island in the Pacific Northwest and have lived here all thirty-two years of my life. It is, in my opinion, one of the most beautiful spots in the world. Water here is plentiful. So much so that transplants usually have a hard time adjusting to the fact that our winters are more wet than cold. They tend to flock to places like Mexico and Southern California to get their depleted vitamin D resourced. I, however, happily take my daily dose of D in pill form and find comfort in knowing whichever direction I’m going I will eventually hit the ocean. 

What is it like to not live near the ocean? To not wake to the smell of salt air and the sound of seagulls? To not feel the morning fog on your skin in the summer? To not hear beneath your feet the crunch of weathered stones and glass that have been tossed for so long upon the shore? To not watch the blades of sea grass dance during windstorms? The beach has become a refuge for me on many different occasions. It has been my go-to place when I’ve needed to clear my head. So it’s strange, you see, that this Pacific Northwest island-loving girl would find herself so refreshed by the setting of the dry Texas Hill Country. And in ninety-degree June, no less!  

How I got to Texas was purely providential. On a whim (which I now recognize as the Spirit of God), I applied for a scholarship to attend a women’s retreat at Laity Lodge. Laity is a retreat center located about two hours northwest of San Antonio overlooking a bend in the beautiful Frio River. Set amidst rugged, tawny canyon walls, the Frio’s jade hue takes several twists, barely trickling in some spots and pooling in others. The vision of the foundation that owns the property is to “gather intimate groups of people — pastors and laymen, men and women — from all walks of life at retreats combining spiritual renewal and physical rest.” The program is “designed to equip the ‘laity’ to rediscover the high calling of the Gospel in the varied details and occupations which comprise daily life and work.” So it does.

I had heard about Laity Lodge from a pen pal friend of mine in Houston. The list of speakers for this particular retreat included Andi Ashworth (Art House co-founder and author of Real Love for Real Life: The Art and Work of Caring), Margie Haack (co-director of Ransom Fellowship and author of The Exact Place: A Memoir), and Kate Harris (executive director of The Washington Institute for Faith, Vocation & Culture). The musician for the retreat was Sara Groves. I had already been inspired by the words of all three speakers and had been nurtured by Sara’s music during some tough seasons of life. To say I leapt at the possibility of attending would be putting it very lightly and paint much too graceful a picture. I plunged with abandon. 

When I read the e-mail which said I had received the scholarship, my mother quickly matched my excitement and offered her airline miles and childcare for my three children for the duration of the trip. It was set. I was going to Texas by myself. But my flight to San Antonio was anxiety-ridden. I barely slept the night before as I am not too fond of flying, and this was my first solo flight. Yes, at thirty-two years old, I was traveling by plane independently for the first time. So when I finally landed in Texas, I was flooded with joy, mostly for being on land again. 

I soon found the Suburban that was to transport me to Laity Lodge, which was burgeoning with women of all ages, and though peppered with questions, I swiftly relaxed in the joyful spirit of camaraderie. The two-hour drive to the lodge passed quickly amidst the lively conversations and blessed air conditioning. Before I knew it, we were driving down the canyon and into the river. The landscape quickly changed from a flat, dusty tan, to a lush, tree-filled oasis. A hush fell over the vehicle as we rolled down the windows to hear the sound of water splashing up around us. We drove upstream, the river taking us to this unknown, almost magical place, not unlike Lewis’s wardrobe and Narnia. Eventually the dirt road that would take us to Laity appeared, and up we drove. This was already unlike anything I had ever experienced.

From the moment I stepped out of the vehicle, the hot Texas air stuck to me like honey. Dripping within seconds, I pulled my overly packed suitcase onto the ground and dust kicked up. It lingered in the hot air before it decided to settle. I quickly realized that the wheels on my bag would not be very practical over the rocky, limestone path, so I hoofed it.  As I walked, a chorus of birds, singing songs I had never heard, welcomed me. It was as if they knew I was a newcomer. And just as my weak arms began to buckle from the weight of my books and clothes, I heard it! Water again. It was that beautiful, familiar sound from home. A glorious fountain appeared in the midst of the courtyard and I instantly felt at ease. Water. Welcoming a weary traveler to a foreign land.     

I learned to lean into the rhythms at Laity Lodge, but to be honest, they were a bit jarring at first. As a mother, I am used to being the primary caretaker: schedule-keeper, counselor, DJ, housekeeper, nurse, transportation specialist, mediator, and dietician. So it felt a little strange to surrender those roles to strangers — to be the recipient. Like wise old Solomon says, “for everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven,” a time to serve and to be served, a time to bless and to be blessed, a time to give and a time to receive. Eventually I felt my shoulders relax, my breathing deepened, my walking slowed, and I submitted to being a cheerful receiver. 

So my days there became routine in a different kind of way. Wake, politely nod to your wonderful roommate, dress, stroll across the courtyard to where the coffee is, swirl cream into coffee, sit out on the deck, take a deep breath as you look over the railing at the turtles swimming in the river, find your way back to the dining room, pray over the delicious-looking food with the women at your table, partake, be fed. Then, refill coffee, meander into the meeting room, smile warmly and chat with new friends, sit, soak in words of wisdom from the speaker, drink, be quenched. Browse the myriad of books in the bookstore, take a few back to your room with you, read, stroll to a hammock in the yard, listen to the birds, take a nap, take a picture, breathe, be filled. No need for watches, no need for keys — every room available to you, a bell beckoning you when meals were ready or speaking was about to start. There was plenty of time in between everything to make sure no one felt rushed. 

That was Laity in a nutshell — time. Time to take those deep breaths, time to really look at things anew, time to speak about what was on your heart, time to listen to what the Spirit of God was saying.  

There, floating with these beautiful newfound sisters in the cool, emerald green water of the Frio River, amongst the tiny flickering fish and the long blades of grass, I felt my heart settle into the deep quiet. I didn’t have an ongoing grocery list running through my mind. I wasn’t worried about the kids and whether or not my husband had remembered the sunscreen. I did not even have to fight the insecurities that normally gnaw at me about my body in a swimsuit. No, for the first time in a great long while, I let go. I simply let the river feel the weight of my thoughts. I let it hold them for me. I put my head back, felt the sun warm on my face and my arms, the water cooling my legs, and I drank it all in. 

Then I heard it. The still, small Voice that had always been there, only I had covered the sweet sound with the buzz of busy. The technology that adds so much to my life had slowly taken over. A constant stream of interruption: music, photographs, important texts, movies, news, the latest articles, e-mails, coupon alerts, and games were cut off by the canyon walls. The temporary physical barrier gave way for a flood of spiritual renewal.  

The details have changed a bit, but the words of Madeleine L’Engle still ring true, and even more so in this age of smart, portable devices: 

Why are we so afraid of silence? Teenagers cannot study without their records; they walk along the street with their transistors. Grownups are as bad if not worse; we turn on the TV or the radio the minute we come into the house or start the car. The pollution of noise in our cities is as destructive as the pollution of air. If I look to myself I find, as usual, contradiction. Ever since I’ve had a record player I’ve written to music. Yet when I went on my first retreat I slipped into silence as though into the cool waters of the sea. I felt totally, completely easily at home in silence.  We need both for our full development, the joy of the sense of sound and the equally great joy of it’s absence.

That is the gift of Laity Lodge — a space for silence. The silence gives way for words and music to take on a deeper meaning than before. What is one without the other? Silence can even be deafening without a contrast. And this is what the silence said to me that hot, June day, in the parched Central Texas land in which this island girl found herself: “I see you. I hear you. I know you. I love you.” 

Like the descending of a dove, a pregnant cloud hovered over us and it began to rain. Cool drops of water poured from the thick, desert air as all of us cried out with thanks.   

Anna Tesch has been married for 13 years, is the mother of three blue-eyed beings, a daughter to supportive parents, a sister, an aunt, and a friend. She also works for her local school district, sings with the worship band and cuddles babies at her church, busses tables and mixes drinks at a nearby restaurant, volunteers, and is learning about landscape photography. You can find her work here

Some of her favorite activities include cooking, sipping red wine, singing along to her vinyl copy of Ella Fitzgerald sings the Cole Porter Songbook, listening to poetry, reading anything she can get her hands on, writing, having conversations that spark great thoughts, genealogy, visiting museums and bookstores, eating delicious food, people-watching, taking long walks by the water, and bringing cookbooks to bed.

You can interact with Anna on Twitter.

Building a "Culture of Encounter": An Interview with Bethany Welch

When Words Fail