"Before a group agrees to be in silence together for any length of time, a discussion about silence is wise. When retreatants are invited to speak of past experiences as well as their fears and hopes for the silent times, they are more likely to enter into the experience wholeheartedly. One way to begin the discussion is to ask the retreatants to respond briefly in writing to a series of questions. Some evocative questions are:
"Were you ever silenced as a child? As an adolescent? As an adult? Do you silence others today?
"Has anyone ever used his or her silence to punish you?
"Do you use your silence to punish others?
"When has silence deepened a relationship?
"Have you ever done a task in silence with another person or with a group?
"Has group silence ever been frightening to you? When do you experience silence as a gift?
"Where and when do you long for more silence in your life? What is the difference for you between silence alone and silence in a group?
"Choose five or six of these questions or others from your own experience. After people have had a time to reflect and write, invite them to share in groups of two or three. The purpose of small-group sharing is to allow retreatants to give voice to their experiences and to practice listening with compassion to the experiences of others. Intentional sharing builds community, and people will later remember and accept how others may be feeling when silence is being honored in the group.
"A general discussion may be facilitated in the full group by asking: 'What did you just learn about silence?' The sharing then expands beyond the small group and continues community building. As part of this discussion, I usually speak for a few minutes about what I call 'the etiquette of silence.' I remind them that the purpose of silence is to open space and to discover stillness. When they have a simple need or a question, such as 'Did you find my journal I left in the chapel?' or 'Please pass the salt,' speaking is appropriate. I also remind the retreatants that they will occasionally break silence without thinking. They might say, 'Good morning!' or 'Excuse me,' or 'What a beautiful day!' and they can be gentle with themselves and each other when they do. Keeping silence is not something at which we succeed or fail. Keeping silence is a practice for the purpose of finding the still point within that allows us to be present in new ways to God and each other."