Great Day Trips 2011: Bon Secours and More Spiritual Retreats

Can a spiritual retreat change your life? At a day’s end, with images of birds and actor Jon Hamm in her head, one woman was surprised by the revelations

By: Ann Cochran

Those seeking serenity—and answers to life’s puzzles—may find both at Bon Secours. Photograph by Erik Uecke and Illustrations by Alli Arnold

Positive affirmations were everywhere: “Everyone is an artist!” “All ways are the right ways!” “You have all the answers inside you!”

That last saying rang true. By 4 pm of a daylong spiritual retreat, I had some answers to my soul’s unrest—and they had been there all along.

Long before smartphones, William Wordsworth wrote that “the world is too much with us.” It’s certainly the case for me: I watch too much TV, and I don’t read Scripture as much as I’d like. Which is why a one-day retreat at Bon Secours Spiritual Center—“SoulCollage and the Five Elements of Life”—spoke to me. The promise: A sacred pause of a few hours can change your life.

Bon Secours is on 300-plus acres of pasture and woodland with lovely gardens in Howard County. The workshop began at 9:30 am on a Saturday. Facilitator Katherine Johnson, a life coach with a doctorate in education, explained that we’d be making two collages. She had a theme for us—“What seed is ready to burst forth in you?”—but said we could ignore that and draw on our own inspiration.

Two tables held piles of magazines for us to dig into. We were to avoid words. Referencing Carl Jung, who said symbols were the language of the soul, Johnson urged us to choose images that spoke to us.

More easily than expected, I got lost in the process of creating my five-by-eight-inch collage. When the 20 or so participants finished, Johnson took us through an analysis of our work and a guided meditation.

My first collage turned out to be about nurturing and being nurtured. After interpreting the collage with a seminar-mate, I realized that the one religious image—of Mary and Jesus—represented the fulfillment of family relationships. A big red tomato was a stand-in for my Italian heritage and the food of my Sicilian grandparents. A brown bird embodied the delight my soul feels when I look out my kitchen window at a bird feeder. The collage, I came to see, conveyed the messages that my life is bountiful, all my needs are met, and I should appreciate what I have.

After lunch, I forced myself away from the delicious food and conversation to walk a Chartres Cathedral–inspired labyrinth. I’ve walked through labyrinths before and never gained any insight. I’m not a slow-paced person, and inner peace eludes me. Here, I took the curved paths at my own speed. I valued the personality God gave me instead of lamenting my lack of patience. I decided I’m blessed to be energetic.

Back inside, we learned about the Chinese theory of five elements of life, which adds a season—late summer—to the usual four. The philosophy claims that we mirror nature’s characteristics in seasons of our lives: creativity (spring), passion (summer), abundance (late summer), letting go (fall), and stillness (winter).

In my second collage, Mad Men actor Jon Hamm (and why not?) represented my husband. Next to him, I pasted in a better-looking version of myself with children representing my grandson and, I hope, more to come. There were girlfriends in extravagant hats, fat cherries, a puzzle piece, and a big orange clock with reversed numbers. Audrey Hepburn in a little black dress reminded me to tackle closets and shed clothes that don’t fit or flatter me.

This collage’s focal point was an illustration of a head surrounded by looping barbed wire. Dissecting the collage with a partner, I was reminded—again—that I have all the components of a happy life. Still, I often feel out of balance. Clippings of a Thai elephant and a horse fit nicely, reminding me that I’ve loved riding both animals but fear calamity. What else am I afraid of that keeps me from exploring life more fully?

Despite that clock with its mixed-up numbering—no doubt symbolizing the unrelenting passage of time—I had managed to slow down and enjoy a thoughtful day. Driving back to my overscheduled life, I felt no sense of urgency at transitioning back to reality.

Johnson asked us how we would remember the meaning we extracted from our small works of art. I predicted that a watch, a puzzle piece, or Jon Hamm would serve as a mental reminder of the day. For good measure, I’d mount the collages inside my bedroom closet. A picture is worth a thousand words. Soul-inspired collages? Their value may turn out to be eternal.

Bon Secours Spiritual Center

Marriottsville, Md.; 410-442-1320
Weekday and weekend one-day retreats are offered several times a month and typically cost $30 to $65. The SoulCollage retreat ($60) will be offered again on October 15. Bon Secours also offers individual spiritual direction by request.

More Spiritual Centers

These retreat centers, all within a two-hour drive of DC, also offer retreats of a day or more.

Am Kolel Sanctuary
Beallsville, Md., 301-349-2799

Benedictine Pastoral Center
Bristow, Va., 703-393-2485

Earthwalk Retreat
Fredericksburg, Va. 540-752-5540

Friends Wilderness Center
Harpers Ferry, W. Va., 304-728-4820

Holy Cross Abbey
Berryville, Va. 540-955-4383

Pearlstone Conference and Retreat Center

Reisterstown, Md. 410-429-4400

PriestField Pastoral Center
Kearneysville, W. Va., 304-725-1435

Sevenoaks Retreat Center

Madison , Va., 540-948-6544

To go farther away and for more than a day, visit findthedivine.com for a list of retreats.

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