|Getting in Touch by Getting Away
Retreats Bring Quiet Sanctuary Into Busy Lives
By Caryle Murphy
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 6, 2003; Page C01
On Faith appears on the first Sunday of each month.
As a nurse at Inova Fairfax Hospital, Peg Wesbecher finds that her medical expertise is constantly in demand and her reserves of human compassion are taxed. So once a year, she checks herself into a plain, three-story brick building in McLean to recharge her spiritual batteries.
For two nights, she sleeps in a tiny, monastic room. She prays in the chapel, takes walks in the woods, eats her meals in silence and listens for things she usually can't hear in the hectic pace of daily life.
"It's a time when I can intimately talk to God and say, 'Is this the way I should go?' and, 'What's the meaning of life?' " said Wesbecher, 49, of Alexandria. After her weekend stay at Dominican Retreat, she said, "what was important to me on Friday night when I went in there is not so important on Sunday."
Like Wesbecher, an increasing number of U.S. residents are going on spiritual retreats, according to directors of monasteries, convents and other retreat centers. Getting away in order to get in touch, they are flocking to such places to spend two to 10 days in reflection, meditation and prayer.
"At least here, the trend is up in terms of people who want to make retreats," said the Rev. Timothy J. Stephens, director of Loyola Retreat House, situated on 235 wooded acres along the Potomac River just south of LaPlata. "We're booked solid for the next 12 months."
The retreats are made by adherents of many different denominations as well as those with no religious affiliation. Some are people in transition -- recently divorced or widowed. Some are facing major decisions. Some are marking a milestone birthday.
But the biggest draw, it seems, is savoring the increasingly elusive experience of silence.
"Part of finding your God is finding yourself," said Phil Stone, 60, a Great Falls real estate consultant who has made regular retreats for a dozen years. "And one way of finding yourself is in peace and quiet. It's not necessarily where you go, but that you are alone and in quiet."
To help people find retreat centers, Stone started a Web site, www.findthedivine.com, a little over two years ago. "This thing has really exploded," he said of his site, which lists more than 1,200 places across the country and got 300,000 hits in May.
In addition, an updated version of Marcia and Jack Kelly's "Sanctuaries: A Guide to Lodgings in Monasteries, Abbeys and Retreats," first published in the early 1990s, is about to be reissued because of interest in the retreat experience. "People who 10 years ago brushed it off," said Marcia Kelly, "are now beginning to say, you know, this makes sense."
Stephens said that retreats are appealing for both practical and spiritual reasons. "People find their lives are noisy, hectic, scattered and they want a break, they want a little peace," he said. Women especially "love the break of not having to think about what they're going to cook for their family," Stephens said. "It's not that they don't love their husbands and children, but they want some quality time for themselves."
More important, the Jesuit priest said, "people are looking for answers to ultimate issues: life, death, why am I here, what should I be doing? How should I make an important decision in my life? . . . They want a chance to listen to their heart."
The Washington area has scores of retreat centers offering a variety of programs. St. Gabriel's Retreat House at the Anglican All Saints Convent in Catonsville offers overnight retreats for as many as 24 people led by one of 17 nuns or their chaplain.
Other places, such as the Catholic-affiliated Missionhurst Retreat Center in Arlington and the Bishop Claggett Center in Adamstown in Frederick County, run by the Episcopal Diocese of Maryland, organize some retreats but also rent their facilities to outside groups that have their own programs.
Loyola hosts both kinds of sessions and also runs retreat programs for specific groups, such as recovering alcoholics and people living with AIDS. In response to numerous requests, Stephens said, Loyola will hold a retreat for married couples in August.
The 1,000-acre Satchidananda Ashram-Yogaville on the James River in Buckingham, Va., schedules yoga classes, group meditations, vegetarian meals, and 10-day silent retreats several times a year. The nondenominational Mountain Light Retreat Center in Crozet, Va., specializes in Zen-based meditation. And the Bhavana Society Forest Monastery and Retreat Center in High View, W.Va., holds Buddhist meditation retreats for individuals and families, including one entitled "Awareness of Death."
Most retreat centers have a "suggested donation" for a stay, which generally includes the cost of meals, but most do not turn people away if they cannot afford the donation. An eight-day retreat at Loyola, for example, costs $360 and a weekend retreat at Dominican is $230.
A large number of retreat centers are Catholic, partly because of the denomination's extensive network of convents and monasteries and partly because of its long-established retreat tradition. But non-Catholics are welcome in most places. At the Benedictine Pastoral Center in Prince William County, where the guesthouse for eight people is surrounded by 100 acres, about 40 percent of the 500 to 600 annual visitors are not Catholic.
"It's not something we inquire about," said Brother Benedict Simmonds at Holy Cross Abbey in Berryville, Va., a monastery of 25 Trappist monks. "We welcome people of all faiths and of no faith."
Set on a large farm crossed by the Shenandoah River, the monastery accommodates 15 overnight visitors, who, if they wish, can join the monks at their daily prayers and meet with a monk to talk.
"We offer a place for a person to have a more solitary, quiet, contemplative experience," said Holy Cross' abbot, the Rev. Robert Barnes, who noted that the ancient tradition of hospitality to travelers once made monasteries "the Holiday Inns of the Middle Ages."
Dominican Retreat, on 12 acres in McLean, is run by an order of nuns who founded the first retreat house for women in 1882 in New York, according to Gail Battista, executive director of the facility. Each of its 42 bedrooms is named for a saint, and the brick-walled chapel looks out on a wooded area. Visitors are awakened at 8 a.m. by the sound of a stick striking a brass bowl. Small signs on the walls discreetly say, "Your silence can be a gift to your companions."
Brian Kelley, a 60-year-old retired Air Force officer who lives in Vienna, recalled that the theme of the first retreat he attended at Dominican 12 years ago -- "If you're too busy, you're too busy" -- struck a chord in him. He is now a regular retreat-goer and a fundraiser for the center.
In recent years, a growing interest in Jewish spirituality has sparked the appearance of Jewish retreat centers, according to Chaia Lehrer, associate director of Elat Chayyim, a Jewish retreat center in New York's Catskill Mountains. Opened in 1992, the 175-bed center brings in rabbis, scholars, artists and experts in kabbala, the Jewish mystical prayer tradition, to share their insights.
Jewish meditation retreats that stress silence are especially popular, Lehrer said, adding with a laugh that despite Jewish culture's traditional chattiness, "we do have a hundred Jews sitting in the lobby in silence."
The emphasis at Dayspring Silent Retreat Center is ecumenical. Operated by the Church of the Savior, it has offered retreats on its 200 acres in Germantown for almost 50 years, according to director Carol Wilkinson. The facility can house 18 overnight guests and "we're usually booked a couple months in advance," she said.
Typically, Wilkinson said, a weekend retreat begins Friday night with "a speaking meal" followed by a meeting with a retreat leader "who talks about silence." Retreat-goers, who are asked to leave cell phones in their cars, walk on the grounds, read, write in journals and meditate. On Saturday, there is an optional 4 p.m. silent tea accompanied by music "conducive to contemplation," she said. The retreat ends Sunday afternoon after a communion service.
This structure is partly to help those who have trouble keeping silent. "It's frightening not to talk," said Wilkinson. "This is a very noisy culture, and some people can't make the leap from the culture to silence."
But most people appreciate the experience. "One person in every retreat says they were surprised at how much community there was in the silence because they thought they would feel isolated," Wilkinson said. "But they felt the opposite, they felt closer to each other."
To encourage connection among its visitors, Dayspring asks them to make their beds with clean sheets before they leave and to pray for the person who will use the bed next, leaving them a note if they wish. "We have a little desk in each room and every drawer is stuffed with letters left by people," said Wilkinson, who shared a note written in November 1998 that read: "I've made your resting place, and lined it with love. I pray that the calmness and serenity of this place finds a home within you."
The note captured what seems to be the universal desire of all retreat-goers. "People are just looking for simplicity and peace," said Dominican Retreat's Battista. "To find peace, I think, that's probably the bottom line."