Religious houses provide space for the soul Sanctuaries: Convents and monasteries worldwide are accepting guests who seek respite from fast-paced modern life and time for quiet reflection.

Destination: Retreats

November 01, 1998|By Cecile S. Holmes | Cecile S. Holmes,HOUSTON CHRONICLE

It's barely daylight. Outside the convent walls, the Italian city of Florence comes alive. A tiny coffee bar serves steaming espresso. Birds chatter and vie for tidbits not whisked away by lumbering street sweepers. Motor scooters putt-putt-putt through narrow, winding streets.

Inside Suore Francescane dell'Immacolata, 10 black-robed nuns kneel in prayer. Sunlight filters into their airy chapel, glinting off stained-glass windows. The nuns sing a cappella, softly chanting the rosary. Just as the priest enters, several sleepy latecomers ` lay people in street clothes ` join the sisters.

Most of the year, this convent serves as home to an aging group of Franciscan nuns and as a residence for young women attending college or graduate school nearby. It is near the center of Florence, about a mile from the Duomo, the majestic Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore.

Off-season, the convent's whitewashed corridors join the picturesque halls of some 2,000 religious houses worldwide that accept travelers for short stays and guests for longer periods of quiet reflection.

Demand for space at these sanctuaries is so high that some U.S. monasteries take reservations a year in advance. Modern life with its fax machines, e-mail, beepers and cell phones has knocked us off balance. We are seeking soul space at an unprecedented rate.

In the recent book "Music of Silence" (Ulysses Press, $12), Benedictine monk David Steindl-Rast teams with Sharon Lebell to explore the spiritual riches of everyday life moving to monastic rhythms. In the book's introduction, best-selling author Kathleen Norris explores the difficulty of striking a balance.

"One day, when I timed an annoying delay (from my computer) and found that it constituted all of 10 seconds, I had what I would call a 'monk moment,' a quick slap that told me, 'Pay attention ` watch yourself,' " Norris writes.

Norris, also an award-winning poet, helped popularize the notion of finding soul space in monasteries. A Presbyterian, she described her seeking in three best sellers: "Dakota," "The Cloister Walk" and "Amazing Grace: A Vocabulary of Faith." But forsaking routine for silence is an ancient idea. Today, thousands find silence in sanctuaries once frequented mainly by priests and nuns.

General interest in such lodging is so high that at least three recent travel books focus on it. One of the most engaging was compiled by retired Army Col. James J. Hughes and his late wife, Victoria. Hughes, 82, is as enthusiastic about his self-published guidebook today as he was when its first edition appeared in 1990.

"Oh, we found some wonderful places," Hughes confides, rattling off a list that begins in Assisi, Italy, in the 16th-century confines of St. Anthony's Guest House. He is planning a trip that would include staying at a convent in London two blocks from Victoria Station and at a monastery in the foothills of the Dublin Mountains.

Hughes' book, "Overnight or Short Stays at Religious Houses Around the World," is available for $19.95 (including postage) by writing to Hugen Press, P.O. Box 2286, Bloomfield, N.J. 07003-0998. The directory lists only addresses and telephone numbers; no details on types of accommodations or proximity to famous sites.

"It is not a travel guide with details about the houses and area sites to be visited," Hughes writes. "It is a simple listing of an extraordinary resource that may be unknown to you. "

Until recently, the Spartan pleasures of a convent or abbey were little-known. Only religious insiders - from Catholic lay leaders to Buddhist meditators - could outline the pros and cons.

Hughes advises travelers to decide what they're seeking before choosing a place to stay. Guest houses are best as "the base for a holiday," he writes.

Retreat houses are more suited to people seeking physical rest, mental review, emotional reflection and spiritual renewal.

Another recent release on such soul spaces is "Sanctuaries: The Complete United States" (Bell Tower, $18) by inveterate travelers Marcia and Jack Kelly.

An update of two previous regional guides, this book describes 127 monasteries, retreat centers, convents and abbeys that the Kellys have visited. It also provides listings in all 50 states of 1,000 other places ` including Jewish, Buddhist, Hindu, Sufi and religiously unaffiliated havens.

Another useful volume is "A Guide to Monastic Guest Houses" (Morehouse, $13.95), which lists Christian hostels across the United States and Canada.

Newcomers to this sort of travel need to do their homework. There is a difference between a house of prayer and a retreat center. The former is designed for silent, soulful reflecting with periods of silence - or complete

silence - often required. Retreat centers cater more to groups and families, but are usually noisier and less suited to soul-searching. Guest houses, usually adjuncts to a monastery, are designed for shorter stays.

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