AT FIRST, JULIAN FORTH, A DIVINITY student at Duke University, didn't think he could squeeze in an overnight stay at Dayspring Retreat Center. An intern at both a Washington, D.C., hospice and a church coffeehouse, Forth also had two papers and a sermon to complete.
Upon further thought, he realized he had no choice. If he wanted to give every task his best effort, Forth had to visit Dayspring, where for 24 hours, he could settle his mind.
And so Forth, 23, came to the retreat, a 200-acre tract of rolling meadows, wooded ridges, ponds and rambling trails in Germantown, surrounded by the suburban sprawl of northern Montgomery County. There he spent the night and wandered the grounds for three hours in silence.
Then he was ready to resume his busy life in Washington.
"If you don't take time for silence, you forget yourself and you crash," he says. "Whatever silence you find here, you kind of carry with you through the day."
Since 1956, those seeking silence and the solace of nature have flocked to the Dayspring Retreat Center, built by members of the Church of the Saviour, an ecumenical Christian community in Washington. Dayspring visitors, both church members and others, are among a proliferating number of personal peace seekers who come to a retreat for a day, a weekend, a week or longer.
A 2006 survey by the Travel Industry Association found that spiritual vacations are more popular than ever among adult travelers. The idea of a religious retreat or pilgrimage appealed to 25 percent of the travelers surveyed. Enthusiasm for reflective getaways was evenly distributed among travelers 18 and older.
Spiritual retreats, sprouting across the country, range in price from an optional donation for a mini-retreat at Dayspring to nearly $2,300 for a five-day personalized retreat at the Farm of Peace in Pennsylvania.
Belief in the healing power of cloistered vacations rests within an assortment of faiths, including Quakerism, Buddhism, Judaism, the Episcopal church and the Muslim mystical sect of Sufism. Most retreats welcome visitors of all denominations who come to clear their minds and find spiritual insight in a natural environment with no distractions.
"I think people come for a lot of different reasons, but I think probably the underlying reason is a kind of spiritual hunger," says Dayspring director Nat Reid.
For some, a retreat "may be something they do on a regular basis," he says. "For others it may be a response to a sense of something missing that can take on a pretty urgent dimension and be a kind of crisis."
Retreatants may not find specific answers to their concerns, but often their experience results in a healthier perspective. "Sometimes, it comes in the form of an answer to a question a person might have brought on a retreat," Reid says, "or it can come in the form of a flood of feeling or emotion that can be cathartic."
For example, "Someone might not realize they're grieving about something, but with nothing to do but sit on the porch and gaze at the sunset, they're overcome by a feeling," Reid says. "And sometimes, it's just people having a sense of peace and rest, which have been elusive."
In April, Maggie Blandin-Clark participated in a silent retreat at the Jesuit-run Eastern Point Retreat House on the Massachusetts coast. "I thought it would be interesting to see what happened if I could be quiet for eight days," says Blandin-Clark, 56.
"After about three or four days, the constant chatter in my mind either about things that have happened or things that might happen, or organization things, such as 'I forgot to pay that bill': All that kind of chatter that goes nowhere just went away and things got really quiet," the Charles Village resident says.
Although Blandin-Clark is not a practitioner of any specific faith, she met daily with a Jesuit priest at the retreat. The priest steered Blandin-Clark, who has ovarian cancer, to a breakthrough in her
thinking: "I came home with the concept of 'hopeful experiences,' as opposed to 'being hopeful,' and always struggling with walking the line between being realistic ... and being hopeful." Now, Blandin-Clark says, "I have all kinds of hopeful experiences all the time, not just related to health."
The retreat lessened Blandin-
Clark's tendency to pose pointless questions. "There's aren't as many 'what ifs,'" she says. But it didn't erase all of her fears: "I still get discouraged and weepy. I still worry about what's ahead."
Some retreats offer counseling, massage and other bodywork, as well as group discussions and inspirational talks. Numerous retreats reinforce visitors' privacy by requesting "modesty of the eyes," the practice of not making eye contact with others. Reading and journaling may be encouraged, but not before participants settle themselves into the quiet routine of their retreat. Laptops, cell phones, off-campus ventures tend to be discouraged, if not forbidden.
Messages in silence
Silence, a mainstay of many retreats, speaks to Caryl Maxwell Gazmen, a frequent retreatant at All Saints Convent in Catonsville. She took naturally to silent meditation she says. "I found it very helpful to my spiritual life."
During retreats that may last a day or for a long weekend, Gazmen may solve a problem, but not as anticipated. "After I've been here awhile, I find God had something else in mind," the Columbia resident says. "What I thought was so important, was not necessarily what I get out of it."
For many years, silent meditation helped Gazmen run her ballet studio. "The challenges of a business like that, all the challenges of teaching, and of the art: I often say to friends that I couldn't have gotten through it without being able to come [to the convent]."
During her stays, Gazmen may walk the convent grounds, pull a book from the library or listen to a tape. During the day, silence is an option, she says. It's usually suggested, "that if you're new, you have at least one day of talking, to ask questions you might have."
Leaving a period of silence can be more difficult than entering it, says Gazmen, who paraphrases a friend: "If you rush it, you'll get the bends."
At the Farm of Peace in Warfordsburg, Pa., visitors may spend five days in an intensive healing retreat based on Sufism, described by retreat teacher Halima Reilly as a body of principles that convey "the experience of the presence of God in your heart."
People "come for a lot of different reasons," says Reilly, 56. "They may have physical issues, like cancer, or they're having trouble with relationships. Most recently, we had a family that came because they wanted to do some healing with what was happening within their family."
Dianne Van Sciver of Denver enrolled in the healing intensive retreat at the Farm of Peace in order to cope emotionally with a brain tumor that had returned. Gentle massage, flavorful organic food and unconditional love mended her will. "I really felt taken care of," says Van Sciver, 62. "I felt that they were really thinking about my whole self. It was almost as if they could read my heart and know what I needed. They had the words I needed to hear."
When she returned to Colorado, "I think I was better prepared for the surgery," she says.
'In touch with God'
For Virginia Schurman, a Quaker accustomed to silent worship, the monthly retreat at Gunpowder Friends Meeting in Sparks is a way of deepening that silence.
The Quaker ideal "is being in touch with God throughout the day and living your life under God's teachings," says Schurman, 65. A silent retreat "really brings you back to that place -- together, though. That's what's really wonderful, the communal sense of God's presence."
Time spent in silence helped Schurman, who lives in East Baltimore, make an important decision. "When I started on this journey toward retirement, I wasn't really sure, first of all, whether it was time for me to retire, what that retirement might mean in terms of what would I do. It was basically through that silence that I got the message: 'This was my time to retire.'"
Since she left her teaching post last September, "It's been marvelous," Schurman says. "All of these things I would never have dreamed of have come about."
In particular, Schurman anticipates a stay next spring at Pendle Hill, a Quaker center for spiritual growth outside of Philadelphia. "I had never thought about doing this," she says. "I was asked to go there and to just be a presence for other people, a spiritual presence. It's really exciting. I'm really looking forward to that."
To see a photo gallery of the All Saints Convent in Catonsville, go to baltimoresun.com / retreat
Some retreats feature holistic health
While most spiritual retreats encourage personal reflection, they offer a variety of experiences. Some emphasize faith, while others may concentrate on holistic health. Participants may opt for a week by the sea, a secluded getaway in the woods or an exotic journey abroad.
Through yama, the yoga studio she founded, Diane Finlayson occasionally offers retreats that include the preparation of a communal meal. "We work together as a group to cut and prepare the meal in silence. We also eat in silence," Finlayson says. This summer, rather than offer a retreat, Finlayson will attend one herself, led by musician Jai Uttal. "I'm going to chant for 10 days in San Francisco," she says.
Gina Sager, Finlayson's colleague, offers an eight-week course on "mindfulness-based stress reduction" that includes a silent retreat. Sager guides participants, including a group of cancer patients, through breathing exercises and other practices that help them learn how to "respond, rather than react," to life's events.
Through her Florida-based travel company, Journeys of the Spirit, Sheri Rosenthal, a 50-year-old former podiatrist, takes retreatants around the world. "We use the energy of the sacred sights to work on ourselves."
Atlanta Realtor Deb Ryburn has taken three trips with Rosenthal to the pyramids of Teotihuacan in Mexico. "When you go on these journeys, the [group's] collective energy, plus the energy of the place, are just unbelievable," says Ryburn, 54. Surrounded by the pyramids, "for the first time, I really [understood] my divinity; who I really am," Ryburn says. "It was life-altering."
Places to soothe souls
To learn more about retreats offered at the Farm of Peace in Warfordsburg, Pa., call 877-367-7723 or visit www.suficentereast.org.
Dayspring Retreat Center in Germantown offers daily and weekend retreats. Call 301-428-9348 or visit serve.com/dayspringretreat.
All Saints Convent in Catonsville offers guided retreats from September until June, as well as opportunities for individual retreats. Call 410-747-4104.
Gunpowder Meeting in Sparks has a monthly day of silence. For more information, call 410-472-4583 or visit gunpowder.quaker.org.
Journeys of the Spirit, a Florida-based travel company, features spiritual retreats around the world. Call 727-421-0849 or visit journeyofthespirit.com.
yama studio, in North Baltimore and Bel Air, presents a variety of retreats. Call 410-464-9000 or visit yamastudio.com.