Soul Searching

July 24, 2003
VOL 122 NO. 27
Soul Searching
By Blessed Sacrament staff/ SUN contributing writers
SUN photo(s) Paul Finch
Going away to find peace and enhance spirituality is an age-old quest. Jesus went off into the solitude of the desert to fast, pray and prepare for His sacrifice. St. Ignatius Loyola lived for 10 full months in a cave in Manresa, Spain, withdrawing from the world to contemplate life and become closer to God.

Today, retreats serve the same purpose as they did centuries ago –– to offer a break from frantic everyday life to reflect. Yet, the aspects of today’s fast-paced society that are meant to make lives easier, such a cell phones and computers, are paralleled by a sense of urgency; there is little time to relax. Now, more than ever, there is a need to take some quiet time. In 2002, over one million Americans used vacation time to visit a retreat house or a religious sanctuary. As lives become increasingly hectic, the figure is expected to grow.

Father Michael Carmola, director of Christ the King Retreat House in Syracuse, said that people find retreats appealing for both practical and spiritual reasons. “We live in such a hurried and pressured society,” he said. “People need the opportunity to relax and take a break.” More importantly, Father Carmola added, “People want a chance to encounter God. In the silence and beauty of a place like this they can really shut-down and listen to Him.”

Retreat programs fit every lifestyle –– from the person who longs to get away for a week during the carefree days of summer to the busy working parent who has only one evening to take a break. At one end of the spectrum are completely pre-planned retreats coordinated by the retreat house staff; at the other end are hermitages where individuals map out their own unique retreat schedule. All retreats offer a chance for contemplation, meditation and prayer through silence. It is easier to focus internally without ringing telephones and computers constantly announcing, “You’ve got mail.” “Silence creates an environment for listening to one’s thoughts and feelings,” Father Carmola said. “You can really become in tune with what God is telling you.”

People of the Syracuse Diocese who are looking for a bit of peace and solitude are fortunate to have several retreat houses in their own backyard. Most centers are located on the outskirts of the city and take full advantage of the scenic tranquility that makes Central New York so breathtaking, particularly during the summer months when, underneath summer’s blue skies, flowers are in full bloom and wildlife abounds. Most of these centers are very busy, so reservations are important.

Christ the King

Christ the King Retreat House in Syracuse offers ample space and opportunities to nourish the entire person spiritually. The spacious house has accommodations for 62 guests. Though the house is set in the midst of city, an overwhelming feeling of peace and calm sets the tone.

If the walls of Christ the King could talk, they would tell many stories of love and faith. There is a story behind practically every statue and flower patch that one passes while walking through the house and garden. “That is a gift from the parents whose daughter was killed,” Father Carmola said, pointing to a statue of Mary holding Jesus’ body after His crucifixion. “People who want to remember a loved one will often do something in their memory here. It’s a nice way to share their memories with others.”

These simple acts give Christ the King such a great spiritual feeling. From the moment people enter the house they feel God’s presence, said Anne Richter, associate director. “You feel a sense of peace the minute you enter the grounds,” stated Richter. “You feel yourself going down some pegs.” Throughout the year, the house hosts days and evenings of reflection and retreat, featuring various topics and speakers. Often during the warmer weather, a few moments on the grounds will suffice. “For those who do not have the time to devote for a weekend stay, a simple walk through the garden is enough for a quick spiritual pick-me-up,” explained Father Carmola. “People sit and meditate alongside the statue of St. Francis or pray at one of the stations of the cross and leave feeling revived and relaxed.”

“We are all so busy that it’s hard to set some time aside,” he added. “But once you come and do it, you realize just how essential it is to everyday life.” Janet Hood, a parishioner of St. James in Cazenovia, frequently comes to Christ the King on her own for a self-guided retreat. She sits in the library, attends Mass and takes time to walk around the grounds. It is a much-needed break from the rigors of daily life, Hood said. “It is a way for me to get away from the concerns and distractions and become aware of His presence,” stated Hood. One weekend is not adequate time to make a lifelong commitment or a life-changing decision, but it can be a stepping-stone to change. Richter said she notices a substantial difference in people when they walk out the doors of Christ the King. “We have people who come in for the weekends with the marriage encounter program. Some are working on making their relationship stronger,” Richter explained. “They come in on Friday afternoon and leave Sunday with a completely different look on their faces. The love lights are beaming.” For more information, call (315) 446-2680.

The Good News Foundation

The Good News Foundation Retreat and Conference Center in Utica also offers an opportunity for spiritual enrichment. A year and a half after relocating its offices from Barton Avenue in downtown Utica to Cosby Manor Road in the Utica suburb of Deerfield, the foundation has prospered at its new surroundings on the former Vincentian Fathers’ complex.

The foundation can accommodate 44 overnight guests within its two buildings. It sits atop 63 acres of Adirondack woodlands and open fields. With deer grazing through the grass and butterflies fluttering overhead in summer months, the center provides individuals with an opportunity to experience God in the majesty of nature. Chairs scattered across the property give visitors an opportunity to sit down and enjoy the view. “It’s a good place to grow in relationship with God,” said Deacon John Droz, co-executive director of the foundation. “God is alive in nature, and people who come here can sense it from the atmosphere.”

Entering the property, guests are welcomed by a statue of Christ extending His arms. Religious artwork adorns the hallways, library and chapel. A painting depicting each of the Twelve Apostles hangs outside the twelve bedrooms. The unique paintings were a one-of-a-kind gift to Droz and his wife Elizabeth, also a co-director, by renowned painter Kenneth Wyatt.

In addition to the retreat house component, Droz said that the foundation also serves as a Catholic center –– a gathering place for Catholic events and people. “The foundation welcomes churches and parish groups. We believe that we all have something to learn from each other,” Droz said. Meeting rooms can hold between 80 and 140 people. The foundation also frequently hosts secular groups, giving them an opportunity to learn about Jesus and Christian living. These groups get something from the deep-rooted faith of the center as well, said Kathy Poupart, director. “If the group is secular or non-secular, the holiness of the atmosphere gets to everyone. They cannot help but stop and reflect –– ask themselves, ‘What am I doing?’ and ‘What is my value?’” Poupart said. “This is our mission –– to evangelize and get people thinking about faith.” For more information, call (315) 735-6210.

Stella Maris

Many of those who attend a retreat at Stella Maris Retreat Center get hooked and it is easy to see why. Located on picturesque Skaneateles Lake, the house, which has 60 rooms, sits on 10 acres of property. Originally owned by Fredrick Roosevelt, it was purchased in 1952 by the Sisters of St. Francis who still operate the center today.

At the far end of the property, the boathouse built by the previous owner still stands. It is one of the most beloved spots on the property; from it, one can see both ends of Skaneateles Lake.

In addition to the main house and the boathouse, the retreat center also includes two smaller buildings. A former carriage house, which once served as a Franciscan formation house, is very popular. Now known as the Passover House, it can lodge four people. Another house, the Poustinia House, meaning ‘hermitage’ in Russian, has room for an individual or a couple.

Although a large center, Stella Maris still has the quaintness of a home. Gerrie Kaluzny, director, and Sister Rose Raymond Wagner, OSF, program director, take turns greeting guests. “Our mission is to offer guests the hospitality of Jesus,” said Kaluzny. “We want them to feel at home here.”

Even the staff of 50 people works to bring a sense of comfort to Stella Maris. “The staff feels a sense of ownership,” said Sister Rose. “It’s more than a job. Some will say it’s a ministry. This feeling is conveyed to the guests.” Several different retreat programs are available at Stella Maris. There are directed group retreats and private retreats. Among the groups that utilize the center is the Formation for Ministry program. Various parish groups also journey annually to Stella Maris.

A walk through the parking lot reveals license plates from Pennsylvania, Connecticut and Maryland. But Terry Major, a resident of Skaneateles, doesn’t have to travel hundreds of miles to experience the beauty and faith of Stella Maris. “I had been going on retreats at different places and then one year I decided to go and stay at Stella Maris,” said Major. “I didn’t know what I was missing.” For more information, call (315) 685-6836.

Transfiguration Monastery

Sister Celia Deutsck, NDS, has faithfully gone on retreat at Transfiguration Monastery in Windsor for the past 10 years. While there are dozens of retreat houses in her hometown of Brooklyn, Sister Celia continues coming back to Transfiguration because of its peaceful, countryside location.

“Nature brings a feeling of solitude,” said Sister Celia. “You can’t find this inner peace and serenity in the city.” Sister Donald Corcoran, OSB Cam., director, said it is not unusual for guests to come to Transfiguration from larger cities, such as Philadelphia and Manhattan. “People enjoy coming on retreat away from the city. It is a different environment here,” Sister Donald pointed out.

Transfiguration consists of three main buildings with six bedrooms, offering group and individual retreats. Guests at the monastery are free to journey through the 80-acre trail system that runs behind the property or find another place on the property where they can feel connected with God.

But Transfiguration is more than a retreat house –– it is home for Sister Donald and Sister Jeanne Marie Pearse, OSB Cam., both Camaldolese Benedictine Sisters. The retreat aspect of the monastery is an extension of the Benedictine chapter of hospitality. When one visits, there is a feeling of being at home. The two sisters take the guests their meals and welcome them into the chapel to share in prayer. “The sisters are wonderful. They are there if you need spiritual guidance or direction, yet they leave you to yourself to reflect and pray,” said Sister Celia.

Transfiguration also offers guests a hermitage –– a small building intended for use by one person making an individual retreat. Sister Jeanne Marie said that there is something especially refreshing about taking this time out for complete solitude and silence. “Hermitage forces you to look inward. You are letting your worries just drop,” said Sister Jeanne Marie. “It makes you look at yourself and do some deep consideration.”

Guests to Transfiguration are welcome anytime, but will have to make other plans during January and February. “During these months the guest houses are closed. We need our own time for peace and quiet…our own retreat,” said Sister Donald. For more information, call (607) 655-2366.

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