I’m noticing the airplanes again.

For new students on campus, one of the ways that you know you have finally made the Hilltop your home is when you stop noticing the jets flying overhead. There came a point during my freshman year here when that happened, and again when I returned to my alma mater a couple of years ago. But now the jets jar me again.

I spent this summer in northern Spain for a 30-day silent retreat. At least twice in our lives Jesuits make a month long retreat based on the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius, the founder of the Jesuits. Fourteen years after making my first “long retreat,” I traveled with six other Jesuits to make the exercises at Loyola, Ignatius’ home. Nestled in the lush valleys and rolling hills of Basque country, Loyola is an ideal place to make an extended retreat. The surrounding towns were quaint, and the weather was temperate, with sunny, mild days and cool, star-filled nights. There, the most jarring sounds I heard were those made in the middle of the night by the sheep that grazed on the hill behind the retreat house.

With over 100 nicely appointed rooms, the retreat house was full of priests, sisters and laymen and women from Spain and elsewhere making week-long and month-long Ignatian retreats. (Shameless plug: For our students, faculty, staff and alumni, Campus Ministry offers the exercises in modified forms, such as weekend and five-day silent retreats and weeklong retreats in daily life.) We all kept silent. We ate our meals without speaking; we passed by one another without the usual greeting. No reading newspapers or checking email. No using cell phones or watching TV. I admit, though, that a group of us watched the last hour of Spain’s first-ever World Cup victory on a TV in the basement. I rationalized that Ignatius, a Spaniard, would understand.

The purpose of silence is to ease the conversation each of us is having with God. Silence frees us from all the usual distractions. We come to embrace a solitude that lets us feel more deeply and think more clearly. We are usually over-scheduled and constantly wired into TV, Internet, iPods and iPhones. We clutter our lives with so much static that we miss God trying to get our attention. Leaving D.C. for Spain, I knew how full my life was, but only after entering into the silence did I realize how much I was running on empty.

The Spiritual Exercises are not a vacation. Ignatius, who devised the Exercises based on his own spiritual journey, called them “exercises” for a reason. Just as the body needs exercise, he explained, so does the soul. As an extrovert, I found a couple of the days long and lonely. Leaving work that I loved for this slower, measured pace, I became restless at times. Without the usual distractions, I could not avoid reckoning with my sinfulness and facing my personal disappointments and hurts.

For the most part, though, I found a gentle rhythm in the days of silence. I met again the God who created me, the God who is so faithful to us and the God who heals every hurt and forgives every sin. Praying through the Scriptures, I listened to the stories of my ancestors in faith and wove them into my own life’s narrative. Through the use of my imagination, I journeyed with Jesus Christ from his birth and public ministry, to his death and resurrection, experiencing anew how I am called to be a disciple today.

Those weeks in Spain were steeped in gratitude for God’s many blessings, particularly for the people in my life and for my vocation as a Jesuit priest. Grateful for the past and present, I also took time to dream about my future. God stirred the embers of my deep, holy desire to live my life for something (or Someone) greater than myself. I renewed my commitment to make this world a more just and gentle place. And God whispered to me again and again (because I often forget): “I will always be with you.”

I returned to the Hilltop rejuvenated for the year ahead. At times – especially when I hear those airplanes overhead – I long for the quiet days at Loyola when I was so easily able to go to the heart of the matter. The challenge for me – for all of us here – is to carve time and space out of the day to quiet ourselves so that we can hear, see and feel God stirring all around us. We need to stand still more often so that God can catch up to us. We need to stretch our spiritual muscles so that we can tap into that deep well of solitude amid our blessed activity.

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