Scores of US abbeys and retreat centres give visitors a chance to become their best selves, writes Kate Silver
The word retreat never seemed to fit into my life. As someone who isn't religious, doesn't do yoga and struggles to disconnect and slow down, the concept of just being somewhere solo never really crossed my mind. It took spending a night at Holy Wisdom Monastery, a Benedictine monastery outside of Madison, Wisconsin to realise I'd been missing out.
On a Friday in April, I check in to my hermitage — a small, modestly furnished cabin in the woods with a bedroom, living room, bathroom, kitchen and deck — and immediately put on my running shoes.
Unfazed by the gloomy drizzle, I wander the nature trails just outside my door, gazing at placid Lake Mendota in the distance. Once this was farmland, but the monastery, which is home to the Benedictine Sisters of Madison, helped coordinate efforts to restore the wild prairie and oak forests that now encircle the 130-plus acre property.
As a Benedictine monastery, caring for the earth is part of the mission. That commitment shines through in the structure of the monastery, itself, a tawny brick building that is certified LEED platinum, and generates much of its own power through solar panels.
At 5:15, I join three of the monastery's four nuns and two "novices" (women in a year-long programme studying and living at the monastery) for a dinner prepared by the staff chef. In a dining room filled with about 40 exuberant men and women who are there for a weekend retreat (and a nature walk and bonfire later that night), we talk about hospitality, something Benedictines — a Christian monastic tradition — have been known for throughout history.
"Monasteries were like the first hotel," says Sister Mary David Walgenbach, between bites of haddock and butternut squash, which was grown in a garden a few hundred feet away.
"At Benedictine monasteries, part of the ministry is welcoming guests in," adds Sister Joanne Kollasch.
"They can come there if they're looking for a spiritual place or a place to be at home with themselves."
Benedictines are guided by the rule of St. Benedict, which says: "Let all guests who arrive be received like Christ." In other words, everyone is welcome.
The sisters tell me they've hosted artists, writers, people of all faiths (it's an ecumenical monastery and even the sisters are of varying Christian denominations), refugees, nature lovers. The Dalai Lama has even spent time here.
Guests either stay at one of the two hermitages (US$85 per night for a single, US$100 for a double) for one to six nights, or in basic dormitory-style rooms with private bathrooms (US$61 for a single, US$78 for a double; rates vary according to how long a guest stays), and are welcome to eat together (breakfast is included, lunch is US$12 and dinner is US$15). They're also invited to attend daily services, but are under no obligation.
Kollasch points out that those who wish to stay in a monastery should understand and respect the culture.
"It's not a cheap place where [you] can go and hole up. That's not the point. The point is to go to a place that supports your own interior growth. Or your own growth as a whole person," says Kollasch.
"It doesn't have to be overtly religious or doctrinal. But you wouldn't want people coming here [thinking] I can do as I please and disregard the whole point of it being a place that's dedicated to this interior life."
An eye-opening journey
In a world where hotel brands are tripping over themselves to become more "authentic" and offer meaningful experiences to travellers, these religious institutions deliver the real deal. Scores of monasteries, abbeys and retreat centres of all faiths in the US open their doors to people seeking quiet contemplation and personal retreats.
Husband-and-wife team Jack and Marcia Kelly have visited nearly 300 monasteries of all spiritual paths in the United States, sharing travel information in their book, Sanctuaries: A Guide to Lodgings in Monasteries, Abbeys, and Retreats of the United States.
Their interest was piqued on a road trip in the early '90s, when they stopped overnight at The Abbey of Our Lady of Gethsemani near Bardstown, Kentucky, to visit a monk who was a family friend.
"We were welcomed with open arms, had a lovely quiet place to stay, were invited to come to the services, with that glorious singing and had, probably for the first times in our lives, a completely peaceful and tranquil time," says Marcia. Neither she nor Jack are religious — Marcia is Jewish and her husband is, in his words, a "retired" Catholic — and so the experience was especially eye opening.
They continued their cross-country journey and stayed at another monastery, New Camaldoli Hermitage, in Big Sur, California. From their peaceful roost overlooking the Pacific, they knew they were onto something.
"When we discovered these places, we realised that nobody else knew about them," says Marcia.
"That all over the country were these gorgeous places that people should know about."
They set out to visit as many as they could, writing a total of six books — three about accommodations, one about mealtime blessings they heard, one about foods they tasted and another about the religious and spiritual communities' products and services. Every place they visited had its own distinct character — some had chanting, others were silent; some had yoga, others had tennis; some were in cities, others were high in the mountains.
Regardless of the differences, the men and women who work and pray there all had something in common, says Marcia.
"Every place is filled with human beings trying to be their very best selves, and radiating that kindness and compassion and hospitality toward their guests consistently," she says. "And so they glow."
Spiritual retreat options
For those considering a personal retreat, the offerings are diverse. There are urban options accessible by public transportation, such as the Franciscan Monastery of the Holy Land in Washington, DC, where those seeking silence can withdraw and stay in one of two hermitages (each one has a single bed, sitting area, kitchenette, washer/dryer and porch for a suggested donation of US$80 per night).
At the Sonoma Mountain Zen Center, in Santa Rosa, California, guests are welcome to stay in shared or private cabins (US$55 to US$65 per night) on top of Sonoma Mountain and participate in daily meditation, bowing and chanting services, and communal meals.
At Monastery of Christ in the Desert in northwestern New Mexico's Chama Canyon, double and single rooms are available (suggested donation of US$70 to US$150 per night) and meals, which are silent, are included, and are eaten with the monks. Guests are welcome to participate in daily services and even help the monks with manual labour, all with a backdrop of stunning red rock views.
In Oregon's Willamette Valley, the monks at Our Lady of Guadalupe Trappist Abbey bake fruitcakes, operate a book bindery and run a warehouse that stores and labels wine for area vineyards. They also welcome guests of all faiths to immerse themselves in the quiet of more than 1000 acres of lush forest, rolling hills and fertile farmland dotted with hazelnut trees and surrounded by Oregon's wine country. Visitors stay in individual, two-story guesthouses and are asked for a donation of US$50 or more.
The serenity can take some time to get used to, says Brother Chris Balent, one of 22 monks at the monastery.
"You get here and you get out of your car and step into this sense of peace and quiet and there's really a transition time. What do I do now? You don't have that external stimuli that you do in the world," he says.
Perhaps even more foreign: At breakfast and lunch, all of the guests eat in silence at a communal table, while dinner is a time for guests to be social.
Balent says that guests come to the abbey for a variety of reasons. Many are on a religious or spiritual quest; some wish to immerse themselves in silence; others want to hike the surrounding trails and connect with nature. While people of all faiths are welcome, Balent makes it clear that they should understand and respect the religious community.
"You simply cannot understand visiting a Trappist community if you don't understand that you're coming to a place that's all about God," he says.
As for my retreat in Wisconsin, I approached it as a quiet getaway, an escape from the city, a curiosity.
In the 15 hours I spent on the grounds at Holy Wisdom Monastery, I heard nuns tell intriguing stories about their history, watched deer sprint through an open prairie, searched for wild turkeys on nature trails, listened to rain fall on the roof of my hermitage and read my book late into the night.
By the time I packed my bags and drove home to Chicago, I felt relaxed and refreshed. Cared for. Sated.
And I decided that people like me, who convince themselves they're too busy for a retreat, could probably benefit the most.