Soul Searchers

In a quest for spiritual renewal, faith-seekers turn to retreats

Sharon Doyle Driedger April 16 2001

Soul Searchers

In a quest for spiritual renewal, faith-seekers turn to retreats

Sharon Doyle Driedger April 16 2001

Soul Searchers


In a quest for spiritual renewal, faith-seekers turn to retreats

Sharon Doyle Driedger

in St-BenoIt-du-Lac

Johanne Ruel's spiritual journey started at the hairdresser. As wisps of curly brown hair fell onto her shoulders, the calm young man circling her head with scissors and comb mentioned that he had just returned from a week-long stay at L'Abbaye St. Benoît, a Benedictine monastery in Quebec's Eastern Townships. "He told me about the peace he felt," she says. "It clicked right away, I knew I had to go." A few days later,

Ruel, a Roman Catholic who had not been to church for six years, reserved a room at the monastery. Then she tried to ignore her misgivings. “I was worried I couldn’t handle the silence,” says the Montreal passport officer, 40. “I had never been to a monastery before.” Even as the bus rolled out of the city on a cool, grey morning in late June, Ruel felt uneasy—doubts that persisted until she passed through the gates of the tranquil stone abbey, set amid woods and fields and orchards stretching down to Lake Memphrémagog. “The moment I arrived,” says Ruel, “I felt the serenity, I felt at home.”

In the sanctuary of the monastery, Ruel found peace, joy—and plenty of company. Following the Rule of St. Benedict, generations of monks have welcomed visitors since L’Abbaye St. Benoît was established in 1912. But in recent years, the Benedictines have noted a rising demand for their hospitality from laypeople. Last year, they accommodated nearly 5,000 guests for stays of up to five days. Waiting lists for weekends have stretched to three months, as believers and unbelievers of all ages, with a large contingent of baby boomers, are drawn to the contemplative atmosphere of the monastery—an experience that a few years ago would have attracted only priests, nuns and the seriously devout. Now, says the abbey’s guest master, Father JeanMarie Cyr, “we have to turn people away all the time.”

It is a silent revolution. Quietly, privately, more and more Canadians are slipping away from hectic lives, claiming time for inner reflection, in solitude or in small groups of like-minded seekers. “There has been, across North America, in some areas more than in others, a phenomenal flourishing of retreats,” says Steve Hill, a Kingston, Ont.-based representative of Retreats International. Christians of all denominations are rediscovering a tradition largely lost in the Middle Ages. But the growing retreat movement crosses all lines of faith. In the past few years, a

handful of Jewish retreat centres have sprung up across North America. And while sacred travel is booming as adventurous people trek to ancient holy sites in India, Ireland and Greece, many are now finding once-exotic spiritual traditions close to home. The Canadian Retreat Guideone of several new publications and Web sites catering to this awakening market—lists Buddhist temples, yoga ashrams, native sweat lodges and f ai chi camps among its dozens of diverse offerings.

Hard statistics are as elusive as angel sightings. The retreats phenomenon thrives largely on word of mouth, newsletters, and flyers in churches and health-food stores. But the signs are clear to marketers. Allusions to Zen, yogis and mantras often pop up in ads for Ford, Nike and other major companies. These commercials, says Gregory Skinner, head of Mina, a Toronto-based youth marketing firm, target young people in a unique way: “It’s not, ‘I am so repulsed by the world that I need to escape.’ It is picking up on something to build a stronger, better you.’ ” In California, the font of secular culture, retreats are like spas for the soul: Hollywood deities like Gwyneth Paltrow and Richard Gere tend their spirits at yoga or Buddhist retreats.

Despite its trendiness, the retreat movement has a solid core of authenticity. “There are certainly people for whom the spiritual trip is the last escapade,” says Peter Emberley, author of Suspended Disbelief: The Spiritual Searches of Canada’s Baby Boomers, to be published early next year. “But for the vast majority, this is a very serious enterprise.” The retreat phenomenon, circa 2001, is built not on the solid rock of religious fervour but on the shifting ground of a restless society. Uneasy with the seemingly uncontrollable advance of technology, environmental damage and globalization—and turned off by government and traditional religion—the spiritually minded are looking inward. “Baby boomers,” says Emberley, a Carleton Univer-

It is a silent revolution—quietly, privately, more and more Canadians are slipping away from hectic lives, claiming time for inner reflection

sity philosopher who participated in dozens of retreats across the country, “are on a quest for re-exploring what it is now to live at the beginning of the 21st century, and retreats are the most important part of the spiritual search.”

That is certainly what the monks at St.

Benoît hear, in the privacy of the cloister, when visitors seek their counsel. “People are seeking to grow spiritually,” says Father Gilbert Garand. “There is a need to contact the God within.” Many arrive midcrisis, in the wake of a divorce, or after a diagnosis of cancer, some of them sent by a doctor. “A lot of people are in burnout or in depression or had a heart attack and their body is telling them to stop,” says Garand. “I listen to people and help them open to a spiritual dimension.” Garand says many have nowhere else to turn.

“People are very isolated,” says the monk. “Families are not strong. Parishes are dying. The church is no longer a social force.” In fact, the retreats trend is a sign of a significant change in the complex puzzle of Canadians’ religious behaviour and attitudes. So far, it is unclear how the pieces will fit together. Surveys show that 84 per cent of Canadians believe in God, yet only one in four regularly attends services. “A close look at the figures shows that new patterns are emerging,” says Andrew Grenville, a pollster with Ipsos-Reid Corp. “Faith is very important to people, but their feelings towards organized religion are ambivalent. People are chasing their own ways of being religious.” André St-Denis, a former altar boy, rejects the Catholicism of his youth, “when everything was a sin.” But last year, he went to St. Benoît to deal with his grief at the end of a long relationship. “I am not religious,” says St-Denis, 60. “But I am very spiritual. I was there to meditate on where I was in life and where I wanted to go.”

The Bible says there is nothing new under the sun.

Moses, after all, climbed the mountain, Jesus prayed in the desert and Buddha sat under the Bodhi tree. Today, people are finding inspiration in Canada’s wilderness, in hermitages tucked away in remote forests, in rustic Yukon cabins or in year-round havens such as Mount St. Francis in the foothills of the Rockies in Alberta. St. Benoît, more typical of retreat accommodation in Canada, offers modest comfort for about $35 a day for a single room, meals included. Some other spiritual centres feature hot mbs, swimming pools, massages and other spa-like amenities for those willing to pay up to $200 a day. “All of us affluent people like to do our discipline in armchairs, diet on gourmet food and do our wresding with the shadow in full light,” says Sam Keen, a popular writer on spirituality.

Modern retreats encompass everything from spiritual healing to formal Zen training. They fill days with meditation, chanting, drumming—or leave them free. Women, youth, alcoholics: there is a retreat for seemingly everyone. Later this month, for instance, members of the Toronto Police Department can seek inner peace and order at a retreat at Manresa Jesuit Spiritual Renewal Centre, northeast of the city. “You’ve heard the horror stories about cops and booze,” says Insp. Larry Sinclair, co-ordinator of the gathering. “They had to deal with it on their own. Now, they have the option of retreats.”

Most organized religions sponsor their own getaways. “But personal retreats are new in Judaism,” says Toronto Rabbi Elyse Goldstein. “It helps to get away from the secular pressures of the world.” Still, Goldstein, who allows time for solitary reflection during her week-long retreat, emphasizes that in Judaism the personal quest is done in community. “We don’t say, ‘Come and ignore the world and contemplate on a mountaintop.’ We say, ‘Come and contemplate on a mountaintop with other people, then join in prayer and song.’ We have to be careful not to confuse personal spiritual quest with narcissism.”

Many Canadians are embracing Eastern spirituality, often beginning with a simple yoga class. “Eastern traditions offer physical techniques that allow you to connect with the inner self, and people are hungry for that,” says Stephen Cope, author of Yoga and the Quest for the True Self Yoga was originally a way to prepare the body and mind for meditation. “I have done yoga retreats at Christian monasteries,” says Cope, “and they were thrilled to find a way to connect the body and prayer. Christianity split off the body centuries ago, and they are in a struggle to reclaim it.”

It makes some pious eyes roll heavenward, but a growing number of Christian retreat centres are offering yoga, medita-

tion and other Eastern practices. Edmonton’s Providence Renewal Centre is one. “People say, ‘Well, really, yoga isn’t a Christian tradition,’ ” says Richard Wray, director at the centre. “But it is a good way to put your physical self into a state that can touch your spiritual self.” Some Western seekers take a more direct route to the East. Susan Vuyanovich, 25, began to practise yoga five years ago, and has since been to Hindu retreats in the Bahamas, Quebec and India. At the latter, she joined about 250 like-minded pilgrims, including many other Canadians. She ate a bland vegetarian diet and studied Sanskrit, yoga, philosophy and Hinduism under the direction of swamis. “It enriched my spiritual growth,” says Vuyanovich. “It’s not a religion, but a lifestyle.”

Not everyone who goes to retreats is seeking spiritual enlightenment. Some go to study, to write novels or, in the case of Ginette Belleville, to plan retirement. “Not very spiritual, eh?” says Belleville, tucking a stock prospectus into her duffel bag in her plainly furnished room at St. Benoit. “This is how I am going to get rich for my grandson.” The Montrealer says that at the monastery she “can concentrate without having to worry about food, phone calls, going to market. It helps to be in a spiritual place because of the silence, because there are no distractions.”

At St. Benoit, prayer sets the rhythm of life. Seven times a day, from morning matins to evening complines, a sturdy trio of bells sends the loud, urgent call to worship into every corner of the monastery and over the neighbouring hills. The monks abandon their tasks and obey, and as they file two by two into the chapel, the bells soften and slow to a heartbeat, a hush. The solemn sounds of Gregorian chants flow out of the sanctuary and touch people like Ruel, the passport officer, sitting in the polished oak pews. “The music,” says Ruel, “makes me feel happy and sad at the same time.”

Most of the time, though, silence rules. “At first, it felt strange to be sitting at a table with other women and you can’t talk to them,” says Ruel. “But you get used to it.” Michel Lamy, in fact, seeks it out every year: he takes a week of vacation every August at St. Benoit. “It’s just me, myself and I,” says

Lamy, a 32-year-old publicist from Drummondville, Que. “I just lie on my bed and listen to the silence.” He revels in the time to pray, to write and to think about how he could be “a better guy.”

At Gampo Abbey, a Buddhist monastery on Cape Breton Island, visitors follow the spartan routine of resident monks and nuns, and are expected to perform household chores. Much of the day is spent in silent meditation. “The food is simple, they don’t listen to music,” says Migme Chödron, 76, a Buddhist nun from Ottawa who was born Jewish and was once a research chemist at the University of Alberta. “They definitely have to be celibate. But I think they are attracted to that. Everyone seems to appreciate this paring down to the very basics.”

Some retreats cater more to the body than the soul. At Hollyhock, a luxurious, non-denominational retreat centre on Cortès Island in British Columbia, a Tibetan gong summons guests to a gourmet vegetarian smorgasbord, elaborately decorated with flowers.

“Hollyhock is like a great big womb,” says David Waugh of Vancouver. The 46-year-old businessman says he emerged “transformed” from his first retreat at the centre eight years ago. Now a holistic health practitioner, Waugh returns to Hollyhock every year. “You get a sense of the sacred in the in-ground hot mb looking out at the ocean,” he says. Sometimes he opts to commune with nature in Hollyhock’s lush garden, on a boat trip to the centre’s bird sanctuary, or out on the waves in a sea kayak. “This is not just a wonderful vacation,” says Waugh. “It is a vacation for my soul.”

Spiritual retreats can pay off in the here and now. “There is hardly a person I met who didn’t say they had had a conversion or a mystical experience—major epiphanies in their lives that made them rethink what they were doing,” says Emberley, the Carleton professor.

Karen Hellauer still marvels at the sense of well-being she enjoyed after her first yoga retreat. “I wondered if it was healthy because I was so relaxed driving back it was amazing,” says the McGill University medical researcher. Jim Cooney, a 57-year-old Vancouver executive, says he has occasionally experienced “an extraordinary feeling of lightness and being and love.” He knows not to expect peak experiences, but, he says,

“they did convince me of the benefits of

meditation and retreats.” That benefit, says Peter Oliphant, an accountant and a part-time lay spiritual director at the Guelph Centre for Spirituality, “is being face-to-face with yourself in a place where you can’t mn away.”

For others, the magic doesn’t quite work. Tom, a Toronto consultant and a member of Alcoholics Anonymous, attended weekend retreats at the Manresa centre for more than 15 years. He allows that they did help get his life pointed in the right direction. But while he’d feel “spiritually charged” when he left on Sunday, “then you’d get back to Toronto and it would be gone the first time the cellphone rang.” Last year, Tom stopped going to the retreats, largely because he felt uncomfortable with the forced expectations of camaraderie. “I have seen people form a circle thing with their hands,” he says. “I couldn’t buy that at all, maybe I am too cynical. I found myself going out and listening to my Walkman.”

Even if retreats aren’t for everybody, they could have profound implications for organized religion. Some believe the retreat movement reflects a deepening commitment to faith. “Many who come are very involved in local churches,” says Hill of Retreats International. Others say retreats represent a modern, à la carte approach to religion. “In other societies, people were either religious or not,” says John Stackhouse, professor of Christianity and culture at Regent College in Vancouver. “There wasn’t a widespread social permission to pick and choose. It is consumerist: I get to pick from a smorgasbord of religious options, what fits my taste and needs.” Emberley takes a darker view. The popularity of retreats, he says, is “a signal of the death knell of religious institutions.”

For Ruel, the stay at St. Benoît was a transforming experience. She attended services three times a day, walked

the grounds and poured out her heart to a young monk. Most profoundly, she found more than peace of mind; her stay helped her find her faith again. “There is something special about the monastery—the music, the Latin, the chant,” she says. “Instead of listening to a priest give a sermon, you listen to yourself.” After five days, she boarded a Montreal-bound bus, where she met three of the women who had also stayed at St. Benoît. “We didn’t talk in the monastery,” says Ruel, “but we talked for three hours on the way home. It was like we knew each other well. We understood each other.”

With Susan McClelland and Rima Kar in Toronto

Susan McClelland

Rima Kar

Do you use religion or meditation to escape daily distractions?