The Religious Retreat Vacation
Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu and Buddhist retreat centers across the United States
The religious retreat is a form of vacation activity that most professional travel observers seem to have overlooked. Yet more than a million Americans each year--the figure could amount to 1,500,000--devote large portions of their leisure time to sojourns in retreat houses. And while the greater part of them limit the stays to weekends, and to locations close at hand, a large number go for a week or two and many hundreds of miles away, to centers whose broad range of subject matter and activities go well beyond the normal conception of a personal retreat.
What to expect when you go
More than 2,000 monasteries, abbeys, and spiritual retreat centers are scattered throughout the United States and Canada. About 80 percent are linked to a religious order. But most take a more ecumenical, interfaith approach to accommodate this increased interest. "In the old days if you were a Catholic retreat center, you advertised yourself that way. Now most of them want everybody to come," Stone says. Many places offer yoga, Buddhist thought, prayers of all sorts.
This article focuses on religious retreat centers, as distinct from those that are simply spiritual. Even if you're not actively religious, Anne Luther says, "It can be good to start where you're most familiar, your own religion." (We will do a separate article on Buddhist retreat centers in a later issue of Budget Travel. As for Muslim retreat centers in the United States, none of the retreat listmakers we interviewed is aware of any.)
While the centers are as unique in their personalities as snowflakes, they do share common elements. Many welcome both individuals and groups. The two most popular approaches are directed retreats, where you spend the time on your own, checking in with a spiritual guide perhaps once a day; and thematic retreats, where there are often speakers and discussion groups centered around a theme. Couples' retreats are also increasingly common. Most centers interweave periods of silence with group interaction.
The accommodations range from a bare-bones "hotel" room (religious imagery displacing third-rate landscapes on the walls) to spartan monks' quarters. Nearly all are clean, well-lighted places, going for anywhere from $25 to $100 per night (often presented only as a suggested donation). The charge usually includes three meals a day and a shared bathroom. At the end of your stay you may be asked to strip the bed and perhaps even put on fresh sheets for the next seeker.
The retreats we have selected are priced right--and placed right, too. We have looked not only for a warm and welcoming environment and good value, but for retreats located in settings of such natural beauty that even if you are not inspired to leaps of faith, you will at least be impressed with the handiwork of nature.
As best as I can determine, there exist slightly more than 500 Catholic retreat centers and houses in the U.S. and Canada, about 150 Protestant centers, a few Quaker ones, a dozen or so Jewish centers, and an emerging handful of Muslim, Buddhist and Hindu retreats. For a near-comprehensive listing of the Christian retreats, send $30 to Retreats International, P.O. Box 1067, Notre Dame, IN 46556 (phone 574/247-4443, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org), for the most recent edition of its extensive "Directory of Retreat Centers," which lists several hundred such locations, of which the great majority are Catholic retreats, others Protestant, all set forth state-by-state in pared-down fashion: addresses and phone numbers, name of director, months of operation, number of rooms, heavily abbreviated references to basic approaches and programs. To determine which centers best meet your needs, view the website retreatsintl.org/.
For a list of Protestant retreat houses (totaling about 150 in North America), contact the North American Retreat Directors Association (NARDA). While it offers simply a mailing list, not a directory with descriptions, it furnishes copies for free (after which you can phone the individual properties for more details). Despite that kind offer, it would be a nice gesture to enclose $2 for postage and handling. Many of the retreat houses on the mailing list can also be accessed at the Website: nardacenters.org/.
Upward of a hundred retreat houses have from 50 to 100 or more rooms apiece, while the remainder average 20 to 40 rooms. At the smaller houses, you obviously can't expect a complete activities program. Rather, in the monastic tradition of some (especially Catholic) retreats, the experience is largely a personal one, and guests take advantage of the stress-free atmosphere and freedom from business and family pressures to ponder the eternal verities. For people of all religions, and of none, it is a refreshing interlude that places more petty concerns into perspective.