Retreating for Spiritual Renewal


Home Page for the Theological Works of Thomas G. Lederer

August 30, 1998

NOT far from the noise, stress and hyperactivity of the glass-walled infrastructure of Islandia's business district lies a small, well-kept secret.

Built on a parcel of residential property is a secluded chapel, complete with a contemplative garden, a tabernacle and brightly painted icons. For the few who know of it, it is a rare source of peace and solitude in a frenetic suburban life.

Whether a tiny, isolated shrine less than a mile from Veterans Highway, an elegant retreat house minutes from Manhasset's Miracle Mile or a converted farmhouse overlooking Coecles Bay, Long Islanders of varying beliefs are seeking spiritual renewal.

''The pace of life is so fast and so intrusive that the only way to get in touch with anything spiritual is to leave the everyday world behind,'' said Rabbi Neil Kurshan, whose Huntington Jewish Center congregation has held four weekend family retreats in recent years.

A retreat is an individual or communal withdrawal from daily life for meditation, study and perhaps prayer. Its origins go back to St. Antony of Egypt who, in the third century, started a desert monastic movement thought to be based on the 40-day retreat taken by Jesus in the Judean desert.

In succeeding centuries, spiritual retreats developed alongside the monastic movement until St. Ignatius of Loyola established some definitive guidelines with his ''Spiritual Exercises.''

Today, within the more than 600 retreat centers throughout the United States and Canada, it is estimated that over a million people seek secluded spiritual renewal each year, according to the Harper Collins Encyclopedia of Catholicism, issued in 1996. On Long Island, there are about two dozen retreat centers ranging from converted estates in picturesque settings to austere hermitages.

During the doldrums of this past winter, Linda Sleszynski found herself mentally and physically exhausted. Mrs. Sleszynski, a social worker who lives in Northport, reflected on the religious retreats of her adolescence, which she found to be spiritually formative, and decided to seek similar moments of solitude.

Using a retreat guidebook, Mrs. Sleszynski telephoned 40 retreat houses, none of which could accommodate her because their weekend schedules were packed with group programming. It was not until she called the Siena Spirituality Center in Water Mill that she found a retreat house that could offer her space for a private, undirected retreat.

''The Dominican Sisters were cordial and offered me complete freedom to go off on my own, to meditate in silence or take walks along the shoreline,'' Mrs. Sleszynski said. ''But I still noticed women from some of the retreat groups who couldn't fathom what I was doing there alone.''

She found therapeutic the opportunities for prayer, meditation, reflective writing and communing with nature. Mrs. Sleszynski said she was ''fried'' when she arrived at Siena, but left refreshed and better able to relate to clients, friends and family.

Thousands of people use retreat facilities on Long Island. Determining the total number of Long Islanders active in the retreat movement is difficult because the different houses count some of the same people. Most retreats take place from Friday night through Sunday afternoon, although some programs are scheduled for a full week.

Retreats run throughout the year with attendance somewhat higher during the Lenten and Advent seasons. Participation fees range from a voluntary donation to the equivalent cost of an inexpensive motel room with meals included, perhaps $150 for the weekend. Sleeping accommodations are often austere, even in some of the more magnificent settings.

Retreat programming can range from intense, isolated prayer to dialogues between newlyweds. There are also preached retreats, sessions centered on a central theme with intervals of talks and periods of reflection, as well as at-home retreats, in which participants continue their daily activities with personal commitment to period prayer and meditation.

As Rev. Thomas Gedeon approaches retirement after 22 years as director of Retreats International, he expresses some concern about the future of the retreat movement. A recently completed nation-wide study conducted by his organization suggests that the traditional concept of a prayerful retreat is rapidly becoming more and more irrelevant to baby boomers.

''I haven't seen too many retreat directors actively finding ways to deal with the baby boomers who are by and large articulate, well-informed, family-oriented individuals who prefer dialogue to silence or preaching, and prefer creature comforts to minimalist surroundings,'' said Rev. Gideon from his office at Notre Dame University.

Rev. Gedeon does, however, laud Long Island spiritual directors whom he said are initiating innovative steps to take retreat programs beyond traditional contemplative regimens.

Ann Amideo, of East Northport, has visited retreat houses throughout the United States and she agrees with that observation.

''Long Island retreat centers are on the cutting edge of contemporary issues in spirituality,'' said Ms. Amideo, a high school teacher who holds a graduate degree in theology. ''Directors are taking risks in order to reach out to a varied population.''

Many retreat programs here on Long Island are geared to specific areas of an individual's life where there might be a desire to improve spiritual integration. Focus can be on gender, vocation, sexual orientation, age, marital status, and/or on traditional self-improvement objectives. Twelve Step programs have been incorporated into numerous spiritual retreat formats in both Nassau and Suffolk.

Although most of the retreat facilities on Long Island are Roman Catholic in origin and orientation, non-Catholics attend many of the programs as well.

''I have been on retreats that are quite ecumenical, where close to half of the participants are of differing faiths,'' said Ann Amideo, who noted that the St. Ignatius Retreat House in Manhasset offers retreat programs within the discipline of Zen Buddhism.

Of the approximately two dozen existing retreat centers on Long Island, most were converted from prior uses and paradoxically retain some their original characteristics.

The St. Ignatius Retreat House on Searingtown Road in Manhasset is what remains of a massive estate known as Inisfada, which is Gaelic for Long Island. Presently, Inisfada consists of some 120 acres of mammoth trees, lush lawns, sculpted hedge rows and an elaborate Tudor-Elizabethan mansion.

What was once the magnificent wood-carved dining hall of the estate when owned by multimillionaires Nicholas and Genevieve Brady is now the ornate St. Ignatius chapel.

Much more rustic is the St. Gabriel's Passionist Retreat House on 35 acres of waterfront property on Shelter Island. In addition to some unpretentious contemporary structures is a 190-year-old converted farm house, an athletic field, a swimming pool, and a 60-year-old chapel, which, according to the retreat director, Sister Maureen Kervick, creates a treasured memory for most retreatants.

Each year, more than 2,500 youngsters -- primarily from Long Island and Brooklyn parishes and parochial schools -- journey to St. Gabriel's for guided sojourns into the world of spiritual experience. Attendance has dropped off some in recent years, as youth retreats in Catholic schools have become more optional. Nonetheless, St. Gabriel's has had a profound impact on the religious lives of numerous Long Island Catholics.

''I remember the St. Gabriel retreats I attended while in high school,'' said Linda Sleszynski. ''I have wonderful memories of those first spiritual experiences, the almost magical atmosphere of the chapel, and how cool and hip we felt the Passionist priests were. I look back and think that's what church should be all about.''

Retreat Centers on Long Island

Following is a partial list of Long Island retreat centers:

Bethany House of Prayer, Bay Shore, 631-666-3514

Camp De Wolfe, Wading River, 631-929-4325

Cenacle Retreat House, Ronkonkoma, 631-588-8366

Cormaria/St. Mark's House of Prayer, Sag Harbor, 631-725-4206

Little Portion Friary, Mount Sinai, 631-473-0553

Our Lady of Grace Center, Manhasset,516-627-9255

Peaceful Dwelling Project, East Hampton, 631-324-3736

Immaculate Conception Seminary, Lloyd Harbor, 631-423-0483

Siena Spirituality Center, Water Mill, 631-726-4740

St. Francis Center, Oyster Bay, 516-922-3708

St. Gabriel's Retreat House, Shelter Island, 631-749-0850

St. Ignatius Retreat House, Manhasset, 516-621-8300

St. Josaphat Retreat House, Glen Cove, 516-671-8980

St. Ursula Center, Blue Point, 631-363-2422

Tabor Retreat Center, Oceanside, 516-536-3004

Villa Immaculata, Riverhead, 631-727-5122