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Serenity Now

Spiritual Retreats

When it’s time to step away from the distractions of everyday life and get back in touch with your inner self, you don’t have to go far to go deep.

Spiritual Retreats

— Blend Images/Getty Images

"They told me they prayed and read the Bible every day and, when they needed to talk to God, He was there." Thomas joined a centering prayer group and found that sitting with others also trying to open themselves to God gave her support and inspiration. Encouraged, she began going on group retreats, including two weekends at Bon Secours Spiritual Center in Marriottsville, Maryland, which she found through Findthedivine.com.

An ecumenical center, Bon Secours is run by the Catholic order the Sisters of Bon Secours and is set amid 313 acres of rolling hills and hiking trails. The rooms are simply furnished, containing one dresser, a twin or double bed, a rocking chair, and a desk. The bathrooms are down the hall from the rooms and are communal, though separated by gender. Meals are served cafeteria-style with options for vegetarians, a full salad bar, and different entrées every day. Across the hall from the main dining room are two smaller dining halls for silent retreats.

A 55-foot labyrinth is one of Bon Secours's more striking features. The focal point of a one-acre "sacred space," its stonework is laid in a pattern based on the design of the famed Chartres labyrinth set on the floor of the Chartres Cathedral around 1220. "Everybody does the labyrinth," says Thomas, describing the thoughtful slow walk visitors take. "It can take as long as you make it; it is a very individual thing."

Not all the retreats at Bon Secours focus exclusively on religion and faith. One that Thomas attended was based on yoga and another was a near-silent, contemplative meditation retreat.

Though the retreats were structured, Thomas says that of her two experiences at Bon Secours, she enjoyed her solitary nature rambles best. "I liked to get out early in the morning and jog for an hour or so in the woods. I would see lots of wildlife, like deer and foxes. It gave me time to be alone with my thoughts," she says.

For Tim Siegel, 48, who frequently visits the Friends Wilderness Center (FWC) near Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, being in nature engenders closeness with God. The FWC is located in 1,400 lushly wooded acres and sponsors events such as silent retreats, music festivals, and poetry readings. Siegel, the director of major gifts for a Washington, D.C.-based conservation group, has been a board member of the FWC for two years. A few times each year, he heads off alone to the center, where he either camps in its meadow or sleeps in a rustic wooden yurt, a domed shelter that sleeps four or five. He cooks on an open fire pit, hikes miles of the seldom-used trails, watches wildlife, and marvels at the night sky. "The quiet and solitude help me think," he says. "I'm a practicing Quaker, and it fits very well with our concept of dwelling in silence."

The FWC also offers a tree house, which has a roof and no walls and sleeps up to 15, and a cabin with two bedrooms. When Siegel brings his teenage daughter or a friend or two with him, they tend to prefer the cabin, with meals prepared by the preserve's resident manager.

Religious leaders too seek and enjoy the benefits of solitude that come from a retreat, even one hosted by another faith. Five or six times a year, Nancy Copeland-Payton, 55, pastor of the First Presbyterian Church in Sandpoint, Idaho, drives 200 miles to the Monastery of St. Gertrude, a community of 60 Catholic nuns in Cottonwood, Idaho. "There's always the smell of fresh-baked bread, and the sisters pray together three times a day. It's just such a nourishing atmosphere, and I feel a deeper sense of being grounded in God's presence," she says.

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