Healing the body and soul

Women: A holistic retreat at a Catholic facility allows participants to relax and play as they find `other ways they can meet God.'

October 24, 2003|By Liz F. Kay | Liz F. Kay,SUN STAFF

Women at a healing retreat this week at Bon Secours Spiritual Center found a little peace, but not necessarily a lot of quiet.

Sitting in a circle during one session, a group of women played American Indian-style drums and shook African rattles, led by Sister Mary Ann Mulzet, a Roman Catholic nun and retreat staff member.

The music continued for several minutes, reaching a crescendo of energy. But when the drumming stopped, the absence of sound was palpable. Several women closed their eyes or rested their heads in their laps, reveling in the release.

"The silence," Mulzet said, "is almost as powerful as the power of the drum."

For three days, 44 women had an opportunity to relax, regain focus and examine new ways to experience God. Retreats like this fulfill the mission of the Sisters of Bon Secours, a French order - the name means "good help" - dedicated to physical, mental and spiritual healing.

That calling manifests itself in a number of ways, including some that one might not associate with a Catholic facility. The spiritual center, on a beautiful 313-acre campus in Marriottsville, offers daily Masses, walking paths and a labyrinth for meditation, as well as acupuncture, yoga and massage.

"It opens people up to other ways they can meet God," said Sister Carol Marozzi, who directs the center and described it as a "Catholic institution with an ecumenical thrust."

Many who attended the retreat said they were pleased by the opportunity to try something new. "You don't think of learning about tai chi in a Catholic retreat house," said Kathy Hansen, 47, of Germantown, who has attended several times with friends.

Twice a year, the spiritual center partners with the Bon Secours Baltimore Health System's Urban Medical Institute to offer the program, "A Bridge to Wholeness: A Women's Wellness Retreat." The goal is to expose women to methods of holistic healing - particularly those women who could not ordinarily afford such an escape.

"It helps women who would normally never get a chance to get away for a weekend," said Sister Sharon Goodremote, program director.

Fees for the retreat start at $130, compared with the center's standard price of $190, she said. Scholarships are available.

The idea for the retreat evolved from a day of pampering offered by the Urban Medical Institute in West Baltimore, which runs the health education programs of the Bon Secours Baltimore Health System.

Several years ago, the Urban Medical Institute partnered with the spiritual center to expand the event into an overnight retreat and expose women to different healing techniques, said Debra Gayles, a health educator from the institute.

"It's such a beautiful and holy place," she said. "Everything kind of fades away."

And the target group, she has found, could often use the break.

"Women take care of everyone else in the family," Gayles said. "Most of the time, they neglect themselves."

Nini Hansbrough is one of those women.

A 47-year-old registered nurse from Taneytown, Hansbrough has nine children, the youngest age 5. Her oldest, a 27-year-old, has leukemia, Hansbrough said.

"With all the stress, I've gotten away from my prayer life, my spiritual life," she said. "I knew I had to get back. I was just having a hard time doing it in the real world."

When she learned about the retreat, however, her work schedule opened up.

"The Lord opens doors, and there it was," she said.

It can work wonders, Gayles said. "They come in with all kinds of problems that sometimes we don't know about," she said. When they leave, "they're different women."

The schedule began early, with 7 a.m. yoga or aerobics classes. Participants are free to attend any session, or none at all. Instead, they can take time for private reflection, a professional massage or exploration of the Zen garden and grounds.

"Down time is an important aspect of retreats, as well," Goodremote said.

Several of the workshops addressed the role of female religious figures, such as St. Teresa of Avila or Mary, the mother of Jesus, as described in the Bible. Others offered new ways to address prayer or promote positive energy.

Other activities didn't fit the stereotype of a contemplative exercise, however. In addition to the drum circle, several women chose a session called "Play Your Way into the Sacred."

"Playing bypasses all of our judgments, all of our preconceived notions," said facilitator Karen Rowe.

It frees the mind to meditate on questions or simply explore. "You can play with intention, or you can play to see what happens," she said.

Participants were invited to find inspiration by running their fingers through bowls of beads, beans, feathers, pebbles and other craft items.

Sherketta Carter, 23, of East Baltimore bent over a table, using markers to add green grass to a drawing of a woman with a big, red heart bursting out of her stick-figure body.

"This is how I feel - happy," she said. "I didn't do this for so long."

Carter learned about the retreat from her grandmother, who has attended for several years.

The mother of a 3-year-old, Carter works full time and attends Baltimore City Community College. "I could use a break, too," she said.

Carter was amazed at how unstructured the experience could be. No one expected her to take notes or demanded that she attend any of the sessions.

She also tried new things, such as attending a demonstration of reiki, a form of healing touch, and was up early for a 7 a.m. yoga class.

Others found relief in more basic aspects of life. The best part, according to 75-year-old Irene West Holly of West Baltimore: "You don't have to cook."

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