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Seeking out silence: More people visit retreat centers to look inward

By Caryle Murphy

Seattle Times - July 26, 2003

Seeking out silence: More people visit retreat centers to look inward

By Caryle Murphy
Seattle Times
Saturday, July 26, 2003

WASHINGTON — As a nurse at Inova Fairfax Hospital in Virginia, 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, Va., 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, Va. 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 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 Stephens, director of Loyola Retreat House, situated on 235 wooded acres along the Potomac River just south of LaPlata, Md. "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, Mont., 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,, a little more than 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. 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."

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. "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."

At Dominican Retreat, on 12 acres in McLean, 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 fund-raiser 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 cabala, 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."

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