Refuges from an uncertain and frightening world

Retreats: The mid-Atlantic region has many places to pray, meditate or just seek peace and quiet.

Short Hop

October 21, 2001|By Tom Waldron | Tom Waldron,Special to the Sun

After the events of Sept. 11, it might seem as if there is no place a person can go to get away from the onslaught of grim news.

But locally, and in much of the mid-Atlantic region, there are many spiritual retreats that will welcome you and provide a quiet, temporary home, free from the news and disturbing images of terror and war.

While these retreats are generally affiliated with a religious group, they welcome guests of all faiths. Most offer basic housing, an unstructured schedule and the chance to meditate, think or just quiet your mind in an out-of-the-way setting.

Generally, guests are welcome for a day, several days or longer -- but reservations are required. Staying at a retreat will usually cost less than a hotel, although rates vary. Some retreats simply ask people to pay what they feel they can afford.

Don't expect luxury. Retreats tend to provide a basic bedroom and shared baths. Most provide meals, while some require guests to bring their own food, which can be prepared in the retreat's kitchen. There are no TVs, and phones are reserved for emergencies.

Eight members of a Washington-area Jewish fellowship group gathered Sept. 12, the day after the terrorist attacks, for a previously scheduled retreat at Dayspring Retreat Center in Germantown, in Montgomery County.

Melissa Kahn, a 46-year-old high school tutor from Takoma Park and an organizer of the retreat, said it was a relief to get away from the torrent of news.

"The day before, virtually all of us had been glued to the TV. Everything was just words and pictures going in, in, in," Kahn said. "To go someplace where there was no input but nature and your own thoughts was very restful."

All are welcome

The Catholic Church has long been in the forefront of offering spiritual getaways -- often allowing those on retreat to stay among the nuns and monks whose lives are devoted to prayer and quiet service.

At the St. Emma Monastery, an hour east of Pittsburgh in Greensburg, Pa., visitors on retreat are free to follow their own schedule but are welcome to take part in the six daily prayer times or help prepare meals.

"People can come in if they're looking for ... an alternative vacation," said Mother Mary Anne Noll, prioress of the monastery, which is home to 19 nuns. "They can live with us, work and pray with us as much as they like. It's a chance for people to come aside and experience God's oasis in their lives."

Sister Mary Anne thinks the recent terrorism is forcing people to rethink their lives, and she believes a retreat is a good way to allow for that.

"Life has been so changed" since Sept. 11, she said. "It's having people reassess who we are, where are we going, what's important in life."

Pendle Hill, a Quaker religious community outside Philadelphia, also offers solitude coupled with fellowship. Individuals are welcome to stay at the 23-acre suburban campus as "sojourners." They may spend their time as they choose and are free to take part in lectures, attend worship services and join other residents for meals.

"You find that people really like the combination of silence and religious fellowship," said Bobbi Kelly, a recruitment associate at Pendle Hill. "It's a place where people find they have not only plenty of time for quiet but also a community where religion can be talked about openly."

Kelly said Pendle Hill has replaced a planned lecture series this fall with discussions about terrorism. She pointed out, though, that "we always have classes in nonviolence and peacemaking."

Closer to Baltimore is the Bon Secours Spiritual Center in Marriottsville, which draws 20,000 guests a year to a variety of retreats and conferences at its 313-acre facility.

The Catholic center, open to people of all faiths, has yet to see an upsurge in interest sparked by the terrorist attacks. But programs are designed for those seeking peace and spiritual comfort.

A weekend retreat beginning Nov. 30, for example, is titled "Your Life as a Prayer," and combines quiet reflection with lectures.

"It's a retreat that really helps people come to their own centeredness, their own peacefulness, amid the craziness of the world," said Sister Sharon Goodremote, program director at Bon Secours. The conference costs $175 for the two-night stay. Commuters may attend for $125.

The gift of silence

Lynn Hutchison, a College Park insurance company service representative and mother of an 11-year-old daughter, spent a weekend last month at the Dayspring Retreat Center in Germantown, which is affiliated with a local ecumenical church, the Church of the Saviour. Hutchison said she needed some quiet time to reflect on her life and her religious beliefs.

By chance, she had the retreat house, which sits on a wooded, 200-acre preserve, to herself.

"I spent the time in prayer and meditation. I even sang hymns," said Hutchison, 40. "You just don't have silence anymore in this world. Wherever you are, there's noise.

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