In his little book God is Silence (1969,70) Pierre Lacout, discussing the stages by which silence leads on to union with God, writes:
Each stage corresponds to a progress in love. Love unites. Silence and love go hand in hand. The quality of the one indicates the quality of the other.
Later come the stages of silence. which are the gifts of God’s Grace and the manifestations of his Nature. The first of these is the grace of inward retirement. Mystics compare the faculties of the soul to the sheep which the whistle of the divine shepherd calls back to the fold. The sheep return of their own accord at the faintest signal. They also say that the soul is like the bee which flies swiftly back to the hive; or like the tortoise which with an instinctive movement withdraws and hides in itself. The power of the soul, says another, is like the needle which swings towards the magnet. Such, according to the mystics, is the grace of inward retirement.
I have often thought that any list of spiritual graces, or stages, is entirely flexible and dependent upon the individual pilgrim, as she or he steps, one breath at a time, towards the Light. For me, this grace of inward retirement was, apart from a couple of childhood epiphanies of some kind, the first conscious step on the path of contemplation. I didn’t know to call it that, unfortunately, and so wasted years wandering about trying to find where it might fit into life as I understood it. Even when I first encountered the teachings of Thomas Merton and DT Suzuki, for instance, and even when I first began the practice of the Jesus Prayer (more than 30 years ago now) I didn’t clearly understand that this instinctive movement to withdraw and hide within myself was the very foundation of the path I had stepped on to.
As far as I can remember, it was only when I encountered Quaker worship that I came to realise that inward retirement – and in the case of meeting for worship a shared inward retirement – was the movement of the heart into the field of God. Quakers know this as ‘gathered worship’; Buddhists, at least in some traditions, would think of it as a glimpse into a buddha field, a pure land. It is the realm of grace, and it might not be an exaggeration to suggest that Jesus had something like this in mind when he taught that ‘The kingdom of God is not coming with things that can be observed; nor will they say, “Look, here it is!” or “There it is!” For, in fact, the kingdom of God is within you.’ (Luke 17.20-21)