A single candle flickers, and flowers decorate a small conference room at the St. Joseph Center for Spirituality. It's 10 a.m. on an August Thursday, and several women sit in a small circle.
Led by Kathy Wrobel, they are instructed to pay attention to their breathing, collect their thoughts, and sit peacefully in the presence of God.
"Ask God to make you aware of the deepest desires of your heart," she tells the group, who have gathered in a former dormitory on the campus of Christ the King Seminary.
The rooms here are typical student-style, with a single bed, a desk and chair and a shared lavatory. But there are the other things -- both small and grand -- that feed the soul. A library is filled with spiritual books and tapes. There is a small, quiet prayer room. And, outdoors, there is a waterfall in the woods, ponds and a meadow, all richly contributing to a sense of peace.
It's to such places that many people retreat.
"There seems to be an increasing need to withdraw, to find the space and time to think and get in touch with the inner self, with nature, with God or a higher power beyond the self," said the Rev. Canon Barbara Price, an Episcopal priest who leads retreats.
"That's increasingly difficult to do in a normal work setting and at the normal pace of everyday life because we are so bombarded by messages. The 'noise' from the world makes hearing the inner voice so difficult."
People come trying to rediscover God in their lives, said Msgr. James E. Wall, director of the St. Columban Center, which is set in a gracious Georgian mansion overlooking Lake Erie in Derby. "They may be churchgoers, but there doesn't seem to be the answer until they get away to delve more deeply and find the God within."
To aid this timeless and universal search, retreat houses offer what they always have: guidance, silence, spiritual direction, a vacation for the soul.
Vagabonds with God
Some retreats come packaged in modern wrappings.
At the St. Joseph Center, for example, retreatants can experience a Gypsy Overnight -- described as being a vagabond with God. They bring bedding and food and spend 24 hours in solitude.
Also, houses offer guided retreats for troubled marriages. There are separate retreats for men and women, as well as programs for families. And there's even a morning get-away for stay-at-home moms.
Individuals can spend a day and a night in a poustinia, a small hermitage in the woods, to fast and pray and enjoy quiet time in nature.
"They can bring a Bible, a loaf of bread, maybe some tea," said Carol Moscati of the St. Joseph Center. "You can find God here in the word and in the word of creation."
The voice of God speaks louder in these settings, retreatants say.
Debbie Keenan of Hamburg tries to get away on retreat twice a year.
"I promise myself that I'll be quiet at home or I'll read, but then the phone rings or I see some cobwebs," said Ms. Keenan, an art teacher at Hopevale Union Free School District. "I always find something to distract
The retreat, for her and others, is more than an escape; it's a search for the divine.
"Not only is your body asking for time, so is your soul," said Ms. Keenan. "When you develop a relation with God, it's like a relationship with another person. You hunger for time with them. But I need someone to assist me. I need some handrails."
Seeking God's counsel
Ms. Price spends one day each month at a prayer house, along with an overnight retreat every two or three months and an annual one-week retreat.
"I couldn't survive without it," she said, "especially that one day a month of quiet to reflect and be away from the grime of everyday life."
As Paul Weisenburger ended a three-day stint at St. Columban's, he described it as his way "to talk to God and seek his counsel."
"This is like home when I walk in the front door," he said of the attractive building and grounds, once the summer home of industrialist Hans Schmidt. "I get a feeling of peace, and that's what the place is for."
Peggy Dutch of Cuba treasures the silence that allows for introspection, she said.
"I have not yet been in a situation where I have found too much silence," she said.
Some people, though, find it difficult not to talk. In fact, there are usually allowances for conversing at meals or outdoors.
"I took a friend on a contemplative weekend and she could not take it," said Ms. Dutch, "but I need time to get out of schedules, deadlines, productivity, acquiring, even ministering to others."
Retreat centers try to remain open to the needs of those who knock at their doors. Some retreats minister specifically to AA members. Some foster meditation.
And some borrow from other traditions.
At a Vipassana -- a Buddhist-inspired meditative practice -- Sister Joan Wagner, a Catholic nun, and Jennifer Lewis-Drew, who has studied Buddhism extensively, blended the two religious traditions in a weeklong retreat at the St. Joseph Center this summer.
The Vipassana is a prayerful way of sitting and walking, said Ms. Lewis-Drew, who once made a silent three-month retreat in France, an experience that she calls transformative.
Vipassana participants are instructed that, during the week, they should take only what is given to them and refrain from sexual activity, Ms. Lewis-Drew said. They shouldn't kill anything, "not even an insect," and should abstain from intoxicants.
"In America, they do allow caffeine," she said.
Participants learn a meditation technique that allows for continuous, mindful concentration, she said.
"When you are free in that way, it allows your mind to penetrate the experience, to sense the movement of God in your life."
Retreat formats vary. Retreatants may attend a liturgy, listen to a talk, meditate on a Scripture passage, meet with a spiritual director. Or they might walk the grounds.
At the St. Columban Center, they can peacefully stroll a pathway on a bluff overlooking Lake Erie. Or sit quietly in one of the mansion's elegant rooms.
Retreatants can come for as short a time as a morning or stay as long as a month.
The longer period is attractive to those in the midst of making major decisions, who may want to be guided by the Exercises of St. Ignatius, which have been in use for centuries.
"This isn't a new fad," said Sister Campana of the St. Joseph Center. "It's solid, classical spirituality."
Transformational changes can occur even in one day, said Ms. Price. "People are here because they are seeking," she said, "and given time and space and someone to steer that seeking, it can be very fruitful."
But a retreat can only accomplish its purpose if people arrive with the proper attitude, said Joy Herrick of East Aurora, 58, a yoga teacher who has attended several retreats.
"People will want to read and knit and play tennis, but it's only when one really becomes quiet that you have to look at issues," said Ms. Herrick. "Then you touch that place of inner wisdom that can rise to the surface if you get quiet enough."
St. Columban's conveys tranquility from the moment a visitor enters the long driveway, where blue and white banners proclaim: "Be Still and Know that I am God."
The grandeur of the building, with its ornate carvings, heavy wooden paneling and Kittinger furniture, matches the beauty of the outdoors, where there is a walking path past the Stations of the Cross, a view of Lake Erie, and an occasional glimpse of deer.
Though it is the designated retreat house for the Buffalo Catholic Diocese, it welcomes all people "who have designs on deepening their relationship with God," said Msgr. Wall.
Those who walk through its doors come to confront deep questions about discovering God's presence in their lives and knowing God's will to determining the purpose of their lives, he said.
And they can get answers -- or at least learn to live more peacefully with the questions -- if they give themselves the gift of time.
It's time, silence, and seeking that adherents consider a necessity, rather than a luxury.
"On the Sabbath, we were instructed to rest," said Mrs. Dutch. "To let our children rest, everybody. Farmers know that there is a time when you don't plant and you don't harvest. You rest and the fields rest. Just rest.
"The need is built in. It's essential to who we are as creatures. We become depleted. We need to recharge. We need time for discernment, for decision making, for seeing where to go."