- The Washington Times - Friday, August 27, 2004

PITTSBORO, N.C. — Swinging away lazy afternoons in a hammock. Indulging in quiche and homemade peach cobbler from the General Store Cafe. Walking barefoot on the grass down to a placid pond, cooled by the summer breeze off Jordan Lake.

All are on the agenda — or not — at Windsong, a spiritual retreat center about 45 minutes outside of Raleigh where there are no rules, no “to do” lists and no need to take a vacation after the vacation.

“We wanted to create a space where, even if the guests do absolutely nothing, they’d start to shift from the moment they walk in the door,” says Anna Cassilly, the center’s co-founder.

Windsong is one of several retreat centers around North Carolina. Not just for clergy or artists, these centers provide sanctuary to anyone needing a break from everyday stress.

Some retreat centers are affiliated with religious traditions; others, like Windsong, are secular sanctuaries where activities range from doing nothing to yoga to attending classes on self-improvement topics. The length of stay ranges from as little as a day at Windsong to as long as a month at Living Waters Catholic Reflection Center.

“We’re human beings, not human ‘doings,’ and often we’re pressured into doing, doing, doing. Sometimes you need a break, sometimes some guidance,” Mrs. Cassilly says.

She and her husband, Terry Otto, searched seven years for the perfect property on which to build their pocket of peace. It had to be accessible — and it is, right off U.S. Route 64 near Pittsboro. It had to be green and lush and beautiful, amenable to gardening and long walks. It had to be especially dark at night so the stars could be seen. Most of all, it had to be silent.

“I listen to silence the way other people listen to music,” Mrs. Cassilly says. “You can’t hear anything here — no cars, no loud neighbors. It’s such an essential part of the retreat experience. After a few minutes of listening to the birds sing and to the wind rustle, people just start shifting.”

Visitors to Windsong can take walks, eat fine cheese from nearby Celebrity Dairy or lie in a hammock. Mrs. Cassilly is both a former conflict mediator and a certified Kripalu yoga instructor, and she offers classes in both.

Elsewhere in the state, Southern Dharma is a mountain center an hour northwest of Asheville, near Hot Springs. The 25-year-old facility offers silent meditation retreats for a wide array of religious traditions, including Buddhism, Sufi traditions, contemplative Christianity, Judaism and universal chanting, director Dagmar Nickerson says.

Guests are asked to speak only during evening lecture discussions, in personal interviews with teachers or at the final meal of the retreat. The goals, according to Miss Nickerson, are to remove distractions, allow contemplation and encourage inner peace.

Living Waters Catholic Reflection Center, cocooned in the mountains about 40 miles west of Asheville, is owned by the Roman Catholic Diocese of Charlotte. Like Windsong, it has self-directed retreats, but it also offers scheduled sessions and directed retreats with Augustinian friars such as Brother Bill Harkin.

“Our whole ministry is to provide a quiet, clean, safe place,” says Brother Harkin, who directs the center. “We just want people to be refreshed spiritually as well as physically. To slow down — re-evaluate where they are in their lives, and maybe plan for the future.”

To that end, there are no phones in any of the 45 private rooms. Guests can choose from a Preach Retreat, during which a speaker gives lectures twice a day; a weeklong Nature Retreat, which takes advantage of the nearby Great Smoky Mountains National Park and Cherokee Indian Reservation; a private retreat; or a sabbatical, which goes for at least a month. The center advertises itself as a place for couples to celebrate a quiet but meaningful wedding anniversary.

Another church-affiliated retreat center, Kanuga Conferences, consists of 1,400 mountain acres near Hendersonville overlooking Kanuga Lake. Affiliated with the Episcopal Church, Kanuga is a busier sort of retreat, welcoming an estimated 35,000 visitors year-round.

Guests come primarily for religious conferences and group retreats, although individual retreats are possible during Christmas, Thanksgiving and the summer weeks. Guest periods offer Bible studies, crafts and conversations with a chaplain.

“We want people to be inspired,” says Frank Ballard, a spokesman for the nonprofit facility, “but not just by the speakers. We want them to be inspired by the serenity of the place, the earth as God created it.”

• • •

Windsong Retreat, Pittsboro, N.C.; 919/542-2611 or www.windsongretreat.org.

Southern Dharma, Hot Springs, N.C.; 828/622-7112 or www.southerndharma.org.

Living Waters, Maggie Valley, N.C.; 828/926-3833 or www.catholicretreat.org.

Kanuga Conferences, Hendersonville, N.C.; 828/692-9136 or www.kanuga.org.

Mepkin Abbey, Moncks Corner, S.C.; 843/761-8509 or www.mepkinabbey.org. Catholic abbey. Vegetarian meals eaten in silence.

Monastery of the Holy Spirit, Conyers, Ga.; 770/760-0959 or www.trappist.net. Retreats are mostly silent.

Abbey of Gethsemani Retreat, Trappist, Ky.; 502/549-4129 or www.monks.org/aloneingod.html. Receiving guests since 1848. Writer-monk Thomas Merton was its most famous resident. The abbey welcomes individuals; groups generally not accommodated. Reserve four months in advance. Emphasis on silence.

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