- Associated Press - Saturday, January 31, 2015

CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) - Almost Heaven Retreats are for seeking spiritual direction in the solace of silence.

Offered through the West Virginia Institute for Spirituality, the retreats have become so popular that they could be referred to as spiritual tourism, with attendees coming from throughout the United States and even overseas.

“We focus on silence as being able to hear the voice of God speaking to me,” said Sister Carole Riley, WVIS spiritual director. “The silence unplugs us from society and plugs us into God through the whole experience.”

WVIS will offer the annual Almost Heaven Retreats at two locations this summer. Advance reservations are recommended with many signing up in January as part of their New Year’s goals.

From June 1 to 30, retreats will be held at West Virginia Institute for Spirituality, 1601 Virginia St. E., Charleston. From June 28 to July 19, retreats will be held at John XXIII Pastoral Center, 100 Hodges Rd., Charleston.

Since the retreats began in 2001, the number of attendees has continued to grow. In the summer of 2014, 53 people registered for a total of 264 days of silent retreats. Generally, people register for three to eight days, depending upon the time they can invest and the goals they wish to accomplish. An ecumenical team of trained directors guide participants through the experience.

There is a separate application process for longer retreats, including some lasting 30 days.

A typical day at an Almost Heaven Retreat includes prayer periods, meetings with spiritual directors, three meals and assignments tailored to the individual.

After meeting with a spiritual adviser for a year, Liz Deal of Huntington decided to try a silent retreat.

“So much happened in the silence,” said Deal, 55. “It was really surprising. I’ve been on two-, three- and five-day retreats. This year I will do eight days. (At first) my expectations were that a silent retreat would be lonely, confusing and isolating. That is not what happened. Silence is a relief. There is no duty for interaction. You stay with what is going on inside you. There is no phone and no Internet. I could hear the things going on inside me. I could think about what God was saying to me.”

Deal, a victim advocate at a rape crisis center, said each retreat has left her with different insights.

“Each time, I come home having had a profound experience of God, sometimes unsettling and sometimes encouraging,” she said.

Among regular retreat participants are Elaine Soper, director of faculty development for the West Virginia School of Osteopathic Medicine in Lewisburg, and her husband Tom, a retired business owner currently undergoing a program to become a deacon in the Catholic Church. Both are 63.

“We are hooked,” Elaine Soper said of retreat experiences. “It’s a time to get away from the world and seek the Lord. No matter who goes, you have a spiritual director to guide you through scripture passages and things to pray about.”

She feels rejuvenated through praying, journaling, walking and taking refuge in silence. She feels serene as she returns to the busyness of life.

“You’re more at peace with things that are going on in your life,” she said. “I need time with God to put things back in perspective. Last year I did an eight-day retreat. It can be one day or up to 30 days. Everyone is different. It is calming and peaceful. A three-day retreat is a good starting point. One day is not much time out of the world, but if it’s the only amount of time you have, it works.”

Robert Sylvester, 73, and his wife Kathy Lester, 61, are both retreat participants as well as spiritual advisers.

Sylvester, a retired FBI agent with a master’s degree in counseling, said his own battles with addiction led him to become interested in all forms of mental health counseling. He has weaved all of life’s experiences into his passion for spiritual direction.

“I have been a spiritual director for about 10 years,” he said. “It is now my full-time ministry. I’m on staff (with WVIS) as a spiritual director and retreat director. I will be available as a spiritual director during the Almost Heaven Retreats. If there is time at the end, I will take a couple of days for my own retreat. Time for myself provides opportunity for prayer and most importantly for quiet. These are silent retreats. It’s an opportunity for being with the God of my understanding. It opens prayer life away from the world and gives me time to refocus where I understand my God wants me to be.”

Kathy Lester, a financial consultant, said the retreats offer the chance to unplug from technology and the demands of life while focusing upon spirituality.

“It’s protected, sacred time,” she said. “The whole focus is to improve your relationship with God and be at peace with who you are. You’re open to whatever God has to say to you. Prayer is also about listening.”

The donation requested for the Almost Heaven Retreats is $85 per day at West Virginia Institute of Spirituality, or $119 a day for John XXIII Pastoral Center. For more information or to register, email [email protected] or call 304-345-0926.

To discuss what type of retreat may be the best fit, contact Sister Carole Riley at 412-901-4259.

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Information from: Charleston Daily Mail, https://www.charlestondailymail.com


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