Monas­ter­ies of­fer get­aways for spir­i­tu­ally minded trav­el­ers.

Many abbeys across the coun­try of­fer ac­com­mo­da­tions and a slice of seren­ity — re­gard­less of faith

The Washington Post Sunday - - TRAVEL - BY KATE SIL­VER travel@wash­post.com Kate Sil­ver is a writer based in Chicago. Find her on Twit­ter at @K8Sil­ver.

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 abbey near Madi­son, Wis., to re­al­ize that I had been miss­ing out.

On a Fri­day af­ter­noon in April, I check in at 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 has LEED plat­inum cer­ti­fi­ca­tion 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 pro­gram 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 for which Bene­dictines — who fol­low tra­di­tional Chris­tian monas­ti­cism — have been known 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 Saint Bene­dict, which says: “Let all guests who ar­rive be re­ceived like Christ.” In other words, every­one is wel­come. The sis­ters tell me that they’ve hosted artists, writ­ers, refugees, na­ture lovers and peo­ple of all faiths. It’s an ec­u­meni­cal monastery and even the sis­ters are of vary­ing Chris­tian de­nom­i­na­tions. The Dalai Lama has even spent time here. Guests ei­ther stay at one of the two her­mitages — at $85 per night for a sin­gle, $100 for a dou­ble for one to six nights, — or in ba­sic dor­mi­tory-style rooms with pri­vate bath­rooms ($61 for a sin­gle, $78 for a dou­ble but rates vary ac­cord­ing to how long a guest stays). They are wel­come to eat to­gether; break­fast is in­cluded, lunch is $12 and din­ner is $15. They are 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,” Kol­lasch says. “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.”

Sanc­tu­ar­ies

In a world where ho­tel brands are trip­ping over them­selves to be­come more “au­then­tic” and of­fer mean­ing­ful ex­pe­ri­ences to trav­el­ers, these re­li­gious in­sti­tu­tions de­liver the real deal. Scores of monas­ter­ies, abbeys and re­treat cen­ters of all faiths in the United States 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 1990s, when they stopped overnight at the Abbey of Our Lady of Geth­se­mani near Bard­stown, Ky., 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,” Mar­cia says. 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 eye­open­ing. They con­tin­ued their cross-coun­try jour­ney and stayed at another monastery, New Camal­doli Her­mitage, in Big Sur, Calif. From their peace­ful roost over­look­ing the Pa­cific, they knew they were onto some­thing. “When we dis­cov­ered these places, we re­al­ized that no­body else knew about them,” Mar­cia says. “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, Mar­cia says. “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.”

Seek­ing your own path

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 Amer­ica, in D.C., 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 $80 per night.)

At the Sonoma Moun­tain Zen Cen­ter, in Santa Rosa, Calif., guests are wel­come to stay in shared or pri­vate cab­ins ($55 to $65 per night) on top of Sonoma Moun­tain and par­tic­i­pate in daily med­i­ta­tion, bow­ing and chant­ing ser­vices, and com­mu­nal meals. At the Monastery of Christ in the Desert in north­west­ern New Mex­ico’s Chama Canyon, dou­ble and sin­gle rooms are avail­able at a sug­gested do­na­tion of $70 to $150 per night and meals — which are silent and eaten with the monks — are in­cluded. Guests are wel­come to par­tic­i­pate in daily ser­vices and even help the monks with man­ual la­bor, 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 1,000 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 $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.

KARL W. WEG­MANN/ALAMY STOCK PHOTO

NICK WILKES

CLOCK­WISE FROM TOP: In New Mex­ico, the Monastery of Christ in the Desert; in Wis­con­sin, the Holy Wis­dom Monastery; a man med­i­tates at Holy Wis­dom; the abbey’s mod­est ac­com­mo­da­tions; in Ore­gon, Our Lady of Guadalupe Trap­pist Abbey.

KATE SIL­VER

COUR­TESY OF OUR LADY OF GUADALUPE ABBEY

COUR­TESY OF HOLY WIS­DOM MONASTERY

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