LAKE ELMO, Minn. — After three days of silence, Mike Seifert says, the return to normalcy can be jarring.
Seifert spends one weekend a year in silent retreat at the Demontreville Jesuit Retreat House in Lake Elmo. When he returned to his home in St. Paul last month after his latest retreat, he was met at the door with the news that his wife’s car wouldn’t start and his glass coffee pot was broken.
“I’m, like, ‘Oh, shoot, here it is all again,’” Seifert said. “Immediately, I was right back into all the noise and the reality of the real world. There was a total demarcation — from complete relaxation to ‘Oh, my God, where’s the battery charger?’”
Each weekend, as many as 70 men gather for three days of prayer and meditation near Lake Demontreville.
Conducted by the Jesuit order of the Roman Catholic Church, the retreats have been held since 1948. Some 3,000 men take part each year.
From Thursday night to Sunday, they devote their time to meditation, prayer and spiritual exercises based on the writings of St. Ignatius, the 16th-century Spanish priest who founded the Jesuits.
Other hours are reading, in private religious devotion or hiking through the retreat’s 100 acres.
The Rev. Patrick McCorkell, the retreat house director, said the men come to the retreat in pursuit of learning how to “know, love and serve God in this world.”
“To really know, love and serve God, however, one must know oneself,” McCorkell said. “Silence is essential if you are ever going to know who you are. You have to filter out all the noise at some point and get down to your core and say, ‘Who am I in this creation?’
“If your head is full of noise, you’re not going to hear the voice of God.”
Seifert, 48, an advanced software support engineer for Oracle Corp., went to his first silent retreat five years ago after being invited by a friend from Lumen Christi Catholic Community.
Now, he said, he wouldn’t miss another.
“I mark time by it now, and I think about it all year,” Seifert said. “If work were to suddenly say, ‘You can’t go; something has come up,’ I would have to seriously think about quitting on the spot.”
Hear the silence
At the beginning of each retreat, McCorkell asks the men to be perfectly still and notice what they do not hear.
“They don’t hear traffic. They don’t hear a radio blaring. They don’t hear ads on TV. They don’t hear their phones ringing,” he said.
“Then I ask them what they do hear. … There is a sense in which you hear silence. It’s like space; you create empty space.”
Known as retreatants, 90 percent of the men are Catholic. Many are on repeat visits; some now are grandfathers returning with their sons and grandsons, McCorkell said.
A strict “daily order” is followed, beginning about 7 a.m. and plotted to the hour and half-hour, with blocks of free time. Lights are out at 10:15 p.m.
Talking is allowed during two short recreation times Friday and Saturday nights, but strict silence is demanded for practically the entire retreat.
The men stay in six Dutch colonial homes named in honor of St. Ignatius — Manresa, Xavier, Campion, Regis, Loyola and Bellarmine. The rooms are Spartan — a bed, small desk, chair, sink, suitcase rack and crucifix. There are no clocks; a bell alerts men to meal and prayer times.
The predictability of the environment and the slow pace encourage silence, McCorkell said.
“We don’t rush from one thing to the next,” he said. “Things are spaced far enough apart so that there’s a physical slowing down. I talk about silence at three levels: verbal silence, the silence that is in your mind — that you don’t let a thousand thoughts come running or racing around — and physical silence — just the way you move, how you close a door.”
Seifert said he likes the “sameness of everything.”
He returns at the same time each year (the third weekend in January), stays in the same house and in the same room (Loyola, Room 23) and sits in the same seat at chapel (“back row, on the left, go in four”).
He even hangs his coat on the same hook in the main building (“first rack, third in from the left”).
“In the dining room, you sit with the same guys at the same table,” he said. “For a joke once, one of the guys switched name tags around so we were all sitting in different chairs, and we were all, like, ‘What is this?’ It rocked my world. I moved one seat over, and it was all different.”
Seifert spends part of one day walking a birch-lined path to a statue of St. Joseph and part of another hiking through a field to look for turkeys. As he walks, he said, he thinks of family, school friends, neighbors, work colleagues and God.
“Everyday life provides too many distractions, which can lead one away from what is important,” he said. “Demontreville brings you back. You can truly relax. At home, when you get up in the morning, you start running lists through your head and when you go out the door. … You don’t have to do any of that there.
“Where else are you going to get that opportunity? One man said, ‘It’s best thing I’ve ever done as an adult.’ That’s a helluva statement.”
Escaping life’s noise
Larry McMahon, 76, of St. Paul, has attended the retreats for 45 years. He relishes the silence, the solitude and the time to take stock.
“It’s as if I’m a company, and once a year, I’ve got to take an inventory and see what’s going on,” he said.
McMahon said he worries about young people who are “constantly surrounded” by the noise of everyday life.
“Going on retreat has probably given me an outlook over the years to be less tolerant of the wired world we live in — where everybody has got the Facebook or their smartphones in front of their noses,” said McMahon, a retired print and packaging salesman for OlymPak Printing & Packaging in Brooklyn Park, Minn.
Mike Zipko, who has attended since 1998, said he begins to unwind as soon he pulls into the front gates of the Jesuit Retreat House.
The owner of Zipko Strategy, a St. Paul-based public-affairs consultancy service, he is a self-proclaimed “Type A personality.”
“I have to be aware and engaged in all sorts of things — whether it’s media and the community and things my clients are working on,” he said. “But, for me, being able to go and spend three days thinking about where am I at with my life, what’s going on, what do I like and what am I going to do about it, is good.”
Zipko, who lives in Ellsworth, Wis., always attends the second weekend in January. He said he likes going early in the year because “it’s a great way to change the oil, so to speak, in your brain.”
Taking time and space to “really deprogram your brain and put it back together again in a world where we’re getting bombarded all the time is hard to do,” he said.
When he leaves, Zipko said, he leaves with a different perspective on life.
“It kind of gives you energy to go back out into the world and say, ‘OK, let’s go,’” he said. “There are some things that I’m doing that I feel OK about, but there are other things that I know I need to work on, and now I have better idea of what I can do.”
A ‘gentle breeze’
Amid their silence, McCorkell said, each group of men forms a bond.
“It’s a marvelous thing how a commonness of purpose forms among them and how they really do care for each other,” he said.
“There is great freedom to be who you are. Nobody is judging anybody. There are no visible, measurable standards that people have to meet. … Ultimately, it comes down to God’s acceptance of who you are.”
McCorkell cites the Bible passage of Kings 19:11-13 in which God shows himself to Elijah not as “a big, huge wind,” but as a “small, gentle breeze.”
“There’s no guarantee that in silence it will happen,” he said, “but you can pretty much guarantee that if it isn’t silent, it won’t happen.”
For Seifert, the time away from his wife, Teresa, and son and daughter allows him to think deeply about his relationships — with family, friends, work and God.
“It’s amazing,” he said. “Each year, I think, ‘This is the year where it isn’t going to work.’ And it works every single time.”
At a glance
The Silent Retreats are held 47 weekends a year at the Demontreville Jesuit Retreat House, 8243 Demontreville Trail N., Lake Elmo.
The retreat house is not open on the weekends of New Year’s Day, Memorial Day, Fourth of July, Thanksgiving and Christmas.
Men of any denomination are welcome to attend. Free-will donations are accepted.
For more information, call 651-777-1311 or go to demontrevilleretreat.com.
Mary Divine writes for the St. Paul Pioneer Press, a Forum News Service media partner.
Pictured above: Father Patrick McCorkell, left, is the retreat director at Jesuit Retreat House Demontreville in Lake Elmo, Minn., on Wednesday, February 3, 2016. He shows a portrait on the wall of the founder, Father Don Keegan. (Pioneer Press: Jean Pieri)