Can we make retreats better? How modern Catholics are reinventing an ancient tradition.

The term retreat implies an action that is also a location; we withdraw to some place away from our normal lives.

And yet the physical structure of the place where we go on retreat, things like its layout and interior design, are key elements for our experience as well. “Our bodies are our primary way of knowing the world,” the architect Terrence Curry, S.J., says. The way that world is structured informs everything from how we feel and think about ourselves to our experience of God.

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Some architectural features of religious structures seem to work for everybody. Father Curry notes the way “immensity and infinity induce a quality of awe” as well as the satisfaction we all take from a composition that is coherent and engaging. “Our brains are constantly trying to make sense of things; every time we look at a space we try to make sense of it.”

These modern retreat centers are helping people grow closer to God.

Other design choices are not so universally accepted. Consider the 1950s-style retreat centers, massive old novitiate buildings and convents out in the woods somewhere repurposed into hardy meat-and-potatoes places. For some their concrete monumentalism offers a comforting sense of permanence, a God who is strong and unflappable. Others find that such structures make us feel small and inconsequential. They seem to require submission instead of inviting a relationship with God.

Today a number of designers of retreat centers around the country are thinking intentionally about this relationship between physical environment and spiritual experience. Their work suggests key ways that design can help people grow in their relationship with God.

Spiritual Exercises in Glass and Stone

For decades the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Mass., offered the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius four times a year at a diocesan retreat center on the Atlantic Ocean in Narragansett, R.I., about two hours from the college campus. The experience was very popular. “You hear stories of married couples taking their children to show them the spot where they made their retreat,” says Paul Harman, S.J., the university’s former vice president of mission.

When the retreat center closed, Holy Cross began considering the possibility of creating a place of their own. Years of exploration finally led them to 50 acres of woodlands overlooking the Wachusett Reservoir near Worcester.

The site checked a number of boxes. Its location just 15 minutes from campus would allow the college chaplains to offer not just weekends or weeks away but programs on weekdays or evenings. And the spectacular views would give them the best of what they had known previously. “Narragansett was a clue for us,” says Marybeth Kearns-Barrett, director of the Office of the College Chaplains. “We knew we wanted something that had some sense of the natural world and God’s presence in that, a place that would leave you sort of in awe.”

Sunrise at the Joyce Center (photo: John Cannon)
Sunrise at the Joyce Center (photo: John Cannon)

Michael Pagano, the project’s lead architect from Lamoureux Pagano Associates, spent months learning from the university’s planning committee not only about the kinds of programs the chaplains planned to conduct at the center, but also about the spirituality of St. Ignatius Loyola that informed them. In the end, the group decided that every element of the building should be inspired in some way by the Spiritual Exercises.

Simplicity became a key element in fulfilling that desire. The design would rely on just a few main materials—glass, stone, wood. The layout would likewise be easy to understand, with the public spaces of the dining room, meeting room and chapel all on one side of the building and the residential wing on the other. The simpler the building’s structure, the designers believed, the fewer potential distractions it would pose, and the easier it would be for people to feel at home. “We wanted students to feel they can breathe here,” explained Megan Fox-Kelly, associate chaplain and director of retreats. The hoped-for result, Mr. Pagano says, “is a sense of comfort and of being welcomed. A quiet mind.”

The idea of creating a space with minimal distractions led to other choices as well. The parking lot was placed down the hill and behind the center, where it was not likely to be seen. The center is also located at the end of a winding, four-block long uphill driveway through a wooded area, which gives retreatants a physical experience of leaving behind the ordinary world. The three-story building was also built into the hill rather than on top of it. “We wanted the natural landscape to dominate the experience,” Mr. Pagano explains.

In the end, the group decided that every element of the building should be inspired in some way by the Spiritual Exercises.

Ms. Kearns-Barrett had visited Frank Lloyd Wright’s Taliesin West in Scottsdale, Ariz., and was struck by the way Wright tried to make the outdoors blend seamlessly with the indoors. “This idea of bringing the outdoors in is so Ignatian,” she says. “We’re always trying to say, ‘Look at the world; there you will find God, in all of its beauty and all of its roughness and all of its overwhelming awesomeness.’”

Everywhere you go on the public side of the Joyce Center you find full-length windows that offer views of the reservoir below, over which the sun rises each morning. It creates “a wonderful way to center prayer,” says Philip Boroughs, S.J., the president of Holy Cross. Ms. Kearns-Barrett agrees, noting the view also has a way of drawing students out of themselves: “Sometimes a retreat can become so self-focused. To see what’s outside, it’s like something bigger than yourself always calling back to you.”

Meanwhile the 48 bedrooms on the western side each have large windows looking out on nearby woods through which the sun sets. The rooms off the chapel for spiritual direction and confession were also given substantial windows with woodsy views. “In some [retreat centers] the direction rooms can feel so dark and cold,” Ms. Fox-Kelly explains. “We wanted ours to be a space where students could feel comfortable and invited.”

“We wanted our spiritual direction rooms to be a space where students could feel comfortable and invited.”

In reading about St. Ignatius, Mr. Pagano was touched by the story of how he used to love to look up at the stars. To provide some sense of that experience, Mr. Pagano gave the chapel 52 small ball-shaped light fixtures at different heights and in a pattern that subtly mirrors a spiral galaxy. Students “will sit or lie on the ground and look up at them,” says Ms. Fox-Kelly. “It’s pretty amazing.”

In considering artwork for the building, chaplains chose pieces that reflect the main scriptural images they tend to use in retreats. “If retreatants want to pray with this passage from Scripture, we can invite people to go and sit in front of it,” says Ms. Fox-Kelly.

Meanwhile Father Boroughs had the idea to include photographs of religious iconography from campus, like details of statues; and Ms. Kearns-Barrett invited the artists who had designed the altar, lectern and crucifix in the college chapel to design the pieces for the Joyce chapel as well. The hope is that these kinds of details might allow the experience people have at the center to continue back at home. “I go back to campus and I’m reminded of my retreat again,” explains Ms. Fox-Kelly.

The design of the building has become a means of living out the invitation of an Ignatian retreat, empowering people to trust in their own instincts and relationship with God.

The center also offers a great variety of spaces in which to pray. In addition to the chapel and dining room, alcoves throughout the building offer quiet spaces in which people can sit and look out on the reservoir, the forest, an interior courtyard or some of the building’s artwork. The entrance room to the building is also designed like the living room of a home, with a fireplace, couches and a long shelf abutting the window, where students like to set up pillows and blankets.

The center seems to inspire such personal adaptations naturally. Discovering the long windows looking into the forest in the largely quiet stairwells, students moved chairs there. A chaplain had the idea to turn some chairs near the dining room toward the side courtyard. “It was like a whole other new experience,” Ms. Kearns-Barrett says. “So many kids started eating their meals facing out in those chairs, or just sitting there during the day.” The design of the building thus has become a means of living out the invitation of an Ignatian retreat, empowering people to trust in their own instincts and relationship with God.

Christ in the Desert: Refuge and Wonder

Nestled between mesas 13 miles down a treacherous, winding, red dirt road in north central New Mexico, the Benedictine Monastery of Christ in the Desert has surprisingly few buildings. The abbey proper and a small church sit at the top of a rise. The church is built from the same stone as the mesas that rise behind it, as though it had been carved out from them.

A simple adobe guesthouse and a small free-standing ranch house lie a five-minute walk down the hill. In terms of architecture, that’s it. If the Joyce Center’s aim is to blur the separation between indoors and out, Christ in the Desert instead offers the canyon setting itself as the “structure” to inspire people’s spiritual experience.

The Benedictine Monastery of Christ in the Desert in New Mexico is built from the same stone as the mesas that rise behind it, as though it had been carved out from them (photo: CNS).
The Benedictine Monastery of Christ in the Desert in New Mexico is built from the same stone as the mesas that rise behind it, as though it had been carved out from them (photo: CNS).

There is wisdom in that decision. The silence and stillness of the mesas have a powerful effect on the place; they function as a high pressure front, forcing you to slow down and step gently. Over the course of days the space seems to naturally draw away any busyness within, leaving you room to simply be still and meet God in the silence and subtle beauties of this place.

The abbey church, designed in the 1960s by George Nakashima, takes its cue from the land around it, not only in its stone construction but also in the massive panes of glass that circle the upper walls. Much as at the Joyce Center, the world is offered as material for contemplation—the skies and cliffs that rise around the church, their colors constantly changing with the light; the moon and stars at night.

Here the invitation of the architecture calls forth a physical response. One’s eyes are constantly drawn upward to those windows; the body naturally takes on a posture of seeking, of looking beyond oneself. It is a pose well-suited to a structure built for the Liturgy of the Hours, sung here by the monks throughout the day. Worshipers looking upward mirror the monks’ voices raised in hope to the Lord.

Christ in the Desert offers the canyon setting itself as the “structure” to inspire people’s spiritual experience.

The Benedictines have come to use the setting in meaningful ways. Incense at Sunday Mass creates material with which the sunlight pouring in forms beams, until the entire church is filled with them, transforming the small, simple prayer space into something otherworldly. Likewise, the large, freestanding tabernacle, which when open displays icons of saints from nine countries (representing some of the different nationalities of the monks), glows golden in the afternoon sun. When praying in this church, the notion of the Mass as an inbreaking of eternity becomes a lived experience.

The guesthouse down the road has an unexpectedly fortress-like quality; there are no windows or reception area, just a set of wooden beam doors that take a bit of puzzling out to unlatch. From outside you have no sense of what lies within: 13 rooms nestled around a courtyard and looking out on the gorgeous mesas and river of the Chama Valley.

But as disconcerting as that entrance seems—so different from the typical retreat house—with it comes an immediate sense of privacy and ownership. For the days you are here it is clear: This is your space. The guidebook placed in each room goes further: “This orientation will surely not answer every question that you will have during your stay,” the guestmaster writes. “We have found that searching for God is always a bit mysterious and requires the need to wonder, to puzzle, to reflect and to pray for a deeper understanding of what lies right before us.”

“I think of God cradling us in this space in so many ways.”

In his book The Poetics of Space, the French philosopher Gaston Bachelard talks about the human need for cave-like spaces. “It gives [one] a physical pleasure,” he writes, to dwell within “the primitiveness of the refuge.”

In a place where brutal heat, cold or precipitation can descend and the darkness of night is sometimes frighteningly absolute, the guest rooms at Christ in the Desert very much function like Bachelard’s cave. Many are little more than cells in size, yet the craftsmanship of the furniture somehow provides an immediate feeling of comfort and home.

The most significant item in each room is a large reproduction of a religious painting, like Bartolomé Esteban Murillo’s poignant image of St. Francis embracing the crucified Christ. Placed in such small, simple quarters, the art offers its own powerful invitation into prayer.

Christian Leisy, O.S.B., the abbot of the monastery, notes that the retreat center’s location in a canyon is a somewhat unusual place for a Benedictine community. “Benedictine abbeys are traditionally located on mountains,” he explains. “That’s the tradition of Monte Cassino or Subiaco.” But he believes their physical location creates a unique spiritual experience: “I think of God cradling us in this space in so many ways.”

The Spiritual Ministry Center: No Place Like Home

From the outside, the Spiritual Ministry Center in the Ocean Beach community of San Diego looks like a set of two-story townhouses in the middle of a suburban block. Farther down the street children run around playing with their dog, while guys sit in lawn chairs listening to the Padres on the radio. This is a community of yard sales and American flags, bird feeders and the kind of gently swaying palm trees one sees in the movies. A 10-minute walk away, in the center of town, tourists wander past souvenir shops while homeless children sell paintings and beg for change along the beach.

It is an unexpected location, in other words, for a retreat house. And intentionally so; when the Society of the Sacred Heart decided to start a retreat center in 1987, they did so inspired by the idea of bringing together contemplation and normal life. “The thought was to leave these isolated, protected big houses where everyone is holed up and be immersed in the regular, ordinary life,” says Marie-Louise Flick, R.S.C.J., the director of the center.

At the Spiritual Ministry Center in the Ocean Beach community of San Diego, every detail of the space has been considered with an eye toward giving retreatants an experience of home (photo: the Spiritual Ministry Center).
At the Spiritual Ministry Center in the Ocean Beach community of San Diego, every detail of the space has been considered with an eye toward giving retreatants an experience of home (photo: the Spiritual Ministry Center).

The front two townhouses of the center serve as a community for the nuns who work there and a gathering place for workshops on prayer, psychology, spirituality and art. Meanwhile, the back half offers rooms for up to four retreatants, who may come for anything from a weekend or evening to 40 days.

Every detail of the space has been considered with an eye toward giving retreatants an experience of home. The beds are much bigger than one would normally find in a retreat center, with comfortable mattresses and bed linens. The rooms also have a pleasant sitting area, large walk-in closets and an en suite bathroom. “We believe comfort is important,” explains Sister Flick.

At the same time there is simplicity to the space. “We don’t have a lot of fluff around,” says Sister Flick. The artwork on the walls is understated, and while the furniture is comfortable, it doesn’t all match. Nor do the sheets. For the sisters, that, too, is about creating a feeling of home. “Our model is that we are not institutional,” says Jane O’Shaughnessy, R.S.C.J., a staff member. “People can come, and the retreat is arranged the way they’d like.”

The idea of going on retreat to a place that looks quite like the one you left at home may seem odd. And yet the sisters have witnessed how being in a space that looks and feels like a home without all the responsibilities of one creates a sense of freedom and rest. “People really do like the ease of it,” says Sister O’Shaughnessy. “They find their comfort zone.”

Cooking for oneself—part of the setup of the center—has turned out to be a powerful part of that experience for some.

Cooking for oneself—part of the setup of the center—has turned out to be a powerful part of that experience for some, as well. “People really like the freedom to eat what they want when they want,” explains Sister Flick. “It creates a kind of hermitage for people; it actually kind of amplifies their silence and their routines.”

And on a pleasant San Diego evening, having a simple meal by yourself on a patio as the stars slowly come out is itself a kind of spiritual experience. The light changes so gradually, you find yourself naturally starting to slow down, savoring the world around you.

The other thing that has made the Spiritual Ministry Center uniquely attractive for retreatants is its proximity to the commercial district of Ocean Beach. For visitors, the neighborhood streets become a part of the experience, a kind of actual labyrinth space in which their physical wandering can mirror what they are going through spiritually. And oftentimes in that activity retreatants have powerful experiences of discovering or being discovered by God. Sister O’Shaughnessy recalled a woman from the East Coast: “She came with her surfboard, rented a bicycle and she was all over the place. When I met with her and asked where was Jesus, [she said] Jesus was on the rock, he was out there surfing, ‘He was there with me.’”

In Margaret Visser’s The Geometry of Love, a best-selling book on the architecture and spirituality of St. Agnes Church in Rome, the author writes, “A church is deliberately ordered toward consequences, toward the future.” It is laid out “with a certain trajectory of the soul in mind.” It has a “plot,” a story being told.

For as different as they are in setting and design, the Joyce Contemplative Center, the Monastery of Christ in the Desert and the Spiritual Ministry Center share an interest in simplicity and in the world as a fundamental source of grace. These features give them a slightly different orientation from Visser’s image of church. Rather than being pointed toward a future, the modern retreat house intends a deepened appreciation of the multitudinous present, an opportunity to discover, as Gerard Manley Hopkins, S.J., wrote, that “Christ plays in ten thousand places,/ Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his.”

Like all Catholic institutions, these centers have as both their foundation and purpose our shared story, the story of salvation. And yet rather than directing people where to go, they seem built to enable all who visit to meet the God who loves them as they are, in their own way.

Correction, Aug. 21: This article originally misspelled the name of Philip Boroughs, S.J., the president of the College of the Holy Cross.

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