This last weekend, I went on a silent retreat based on the Spiritual Exercises of Saint Ignatius of Loyola (he was the founder of the Jesuit order). The retreat master was a young Legionary of Christ priest (the LC's seem to me to be a modern version of what the Jesuits were when they first started 450 years ago). There were about 20 men on the retreat, which took place in a rustic Santa Cruz mountain retreat center run by a handful of humble Franciscan nuns.
The rule of silence allowed us to sing and speak during the Mass and prayers (and spiritual direction and confession), but otherwise, unless strictly necessary (a whispered, "please pass the milk", or giving/receiving short instructions to coordinate activities, for example, "please lead the first decade of the Rosary", or "we need you to dry dishes after breakfast"), not speaking at all. So no small talk, no joking, no chitchat, no sharing of insights as they occur, no asking, "what do you think so far", etc. Just silence, so each of us had the luxury to hear (and perhaps wrestle with) what God had to say to our hearts over the course of 3 days. For some, it might have been a call to repentance, a call to turn away from a particular sin or addiction. For others it might have been a call to increase fervor and discipline in prayer and devotion to God. For others it might have been a deepened sense of the indwelling presence of God.
There is something profound and magical about such silence. Any Catholics reading this who have never done such a retreat, I implore you, do one! [Note -- I don't mean to be exclusive of Protestants or anyone else, but this kind of retreat is very tightly structured around the sacraments of Mass and Confession, and traditional prayer forms such as the Angelus, the Rosary, the Stations of the Cross, etc. Unfamiliarity with any or all of these things, especially combined with silence, could be quite confusing or distressing.]
Coincidentally, The Anchoress has a good post today about the movie "Into The Great Silence", which has been wowing audiences in Europe. She also highlights an article by David Warren, in which he takes a look at why the movie might have such resonance. I'm certainly not a Carthusian monk, but I think I did get a little taste of the Great Silence this weekend. I very much look forward to seeing the movie if it makes it to the U.S.