‘Rested Bodies and Stirred Spirits’

Volume 52, Issue 1 :: Amy Lignitz Harken

The design of retreat centers can help or hinder the experience, an experienced retreatant reflects.

Windows at Christ’s Peace House

Walls of windows that capture views of the world beyond surround the chapel at Christ’s Peace House.
Photo courtesy of Christ’s Peace House

It was late into the long, summer afternoon. Sunlight slanted across the meadow from a sky the color of faded blue jeans. I sat on sun-warmed grass, my back against a towering limestone slab. It was one of several which formed a great stone circle behind me. Only the countryside that captured my gaze wasn’t Wiltshire County, U.K. This was Leavenworth County in eastern Kansas.

I had come to the Shantivanam House of Prayer to sort some things out, to unplug from anxieties I was experiencing as a freshly ordained minister, and to connect freely and fully with God. The Midwestern sun gilded everything: the upright stones, the waving, hip-high prairie grasses, my outstretched legs. Several hundred yards beyond my hiking boots, the golden sun caught a single, gossamer strand of insect web arcing in the breeze. As that distant, solitary strand rose and fell, so did my thoughts. Something shifted and dropped into place. A minor mystery became clear, and deep peace descended.

Many years later, I remember neither the topic of my pondering nor the deep thought that yielded such cosmic clarity. I do remember the sense of place, the sense of peace, and the illuminated solitary arc of wafting gossamer.

I have since moved to New England, and Shantivanam, operated by the Catholic Archdiocese of Kansas City in Kansas has been re-named Christ’s Peace House of Prayer. Over the years I’ve come to know countless retreat centers as I’ve sought to connect with the divine. Entire constellations of deep thoughts have emerged along a fragrant forest path, a gravel walkway of an oblong labyrinth, at the lip of a stony ocean shore, on a sheltered porch as rain quivered the leaves of an ancient oak.

I don’t necessarily go on retreats for the purpose of having deep thoughts. The spiritual masters tell us that too much intentionality pursuing such insights only heightens their elusiveness. But retreat centers can provide enough psychic elbow room for the emergence of new insights as to who we are as human beings, abiding with God and with each other in God’s creation. I go on retreat seeking this spiritual spaciousness. For me, that entails opportunities for silence, solitude, autonomy, provision for my basic physical needs, a natural setting, and an absence of technological busyness. I choose retreat centers that allow for these things.

A Retreatant’s View

Exterior of Christ’s Peace House retreat center

The Christ’s Peace House retreat center, formally known as Shantivanam, overlooks the rolling Kansas prairie.
Photo courtesy of Christ’s Peace House

My perspective is not that of an architecture or landscaping expert, but that of a seasoned Protestant Christian minister with contemplative leanings. After many years of retreats, I know what works for me. A retreat center can foster the spiritual spaciousness I seek. Design elements can embrace it; they can also hinder it. They can direct it. This is true for facility staff as well, upon whom an ethos of hospitality and peace depends. For a personal or group retreat experience, however, that peaceful hospitality may rely primarily on the facilities themselves.

The retreat experience spans religious traditions. Buddhists, Muslims, Jews, Hindus, and adherents of other traditions incorporate retreats into spiritual practice. Many religious traditions have facilities for this purpose. Not all retreat centers are religious, or intentionally “spiritual.” Not all are primarily geared for the individual experience I typically seek. Some centers are designed for group spiritual work, others claim educational or peace-making foci.

Whoever we are, our typical day-to-day activity can be cacophonic, combative, competitive, impatient, over-scheduled, and of questionable ultimate meaning. Many people find themselves craving an experience that is the polar opposite of “usual,” and go on retreat to find it. Whether our retreat is in an urban, rural, or wilderness setting, we intentionally disconnect from our day-to-day lives and physically remove ourselves to different geographic environs. There, we can re-connect with that part of ourselves that feels more authentic. We have plenty of time for unharried reflection. We hope our retreat affords clarity, rest, meaning-making, and emotional or spiritual healing. We might also be re-invigorated toward creative processes or productive participation in the world around us.

Architecture can promote this. For example, the gathering rooms of the Kirkridge Retreat and Study Center at the eastern edge of the Pennsylvania Poconos convey the sense of a lighthouse. This manifests itself in the placement of ceiling beams, which fan outwards, in the manner of light rays, from a central point such as a fireplace. Mountain vistas are viewed through windows constructed to invoke the sense of a lighthouse’s lantern room. The intended effect is that retreatants be mindful of engagement with the world in which can become a beacon. Many aspects of Shantivanam/Christ’s Peace prompt retreatants to be mindful of our connectedness to the earth. The chapel, for example, was originally designed so the simple altar rested upon bare earth. Individual cabins are tucked among trees, distanced from one another and facing in opposite directions to promote solitude.

‘Drenched in Lightness of Spirit’

My non-clergy or non-religious friends have wondered about my penchant for going on retreat and about retreat centers. I’ve generally said something like, “Retreat centers are like hotels, except you have to make up your own bed and there’s no TV or telephone.” That doesn’t really cover it. I’ve tried to retreat in a hotel-like setting. Even with the television off, it’s not the same. The constant noise and mindless technological clutter seep in under the door.

Even retreat centers that have been re-purposed from other uses can be difficult. For example, those that have been converted from group homes (such as religious homes) provide individual rooms, but may rely on communal spaces for comfortable places to read, write, or meditate. Some retain communal bathrooms to accommodate a dozen or more people showering simultaneously in private stalls. One center with a large communal bathroom retained its deep bathtubs with narrow bottoms. These were difficult to step into for showering, hard enough to stand in when dry, and very slippery when wet.

By contrast, Shantivanam/Christ’s Peace was designed in 1972 specifically to provide a connective spiritual experience. Many elements that enriched my experience there, I have found in other retreat centers around North America and the UK. They encourage reflection, calmness, physical activity, spiritual practices such as prayer, reading and writing, and occasional communal times drenched in lightness of spirit. Shantivanam/Christ’s Peace exhibits many elements that make it a successful environment for retreat, those that it shares with many other retreat centers.

The main building, which houses offices, common spaces, kitchen facilities, and the chapel, is long, with strong, calm-inducing horizontals. The man charged with creating Shantivanam/Christ’s Peace was Father Edward Hays, who had just returned from a sabbatical to India. He had stayed at a monastery of the same name (which means “Forest of Peace”) and came to appreciate truths contained in non-Christian faiths. The architecture’s simplicity of line and shape and spare ornamentation communicate its Asian influence. It also suggests the surrounding Midwestern prairie, tucked as it is among the rolling hills of eastern Kansas. We might think of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Prairie Style: Banks of windows provide an abundance of natural light and unimpeded views of the natural world. Interior walls of natural plywood add to the ethos of simplicity, as do the rough 1-by-3 trim boards. The porous nature of the untreated wood contributes to an attitude of receptivity, as opposed to a polished finish intended to repel. One can imagine all the prayers and wisdom absorbed and released by that wood over the decades.

When I was a regular visitor, freestanding, single-room cabins efficiently provided everything I needed, and nothing more. Two rooms attached to the main structure provided the same: Kitchen area with cupboard, cooktop, stove, refrigerator, counter, sink; prayer/meditation corner with altar and meditation bench on which to kneel; large, comfortable chair or small sofa with adjacent reading light; full-sized bed; window-facing desk with adjacent shelves for books; full bath; porch with chair and side-table. Simple, but not Spartan.

More than 100 acres of rolling meadow and woodland encourage physical movement and fresh air with many clear hiking trails, benches, and a few religious icons unobtrusively placed among the vegetation. The acreage is surrounded by farmland. There, I never heard the jarring sounds of hunting, just the sounds of nature or agriculture.

The large, open common area featured a vaulted ceiling, central fireplace, and a small library with clusters of simple seating. This great room encouraged communal engagement without impinging on personal space. For example, some meals were served family style, around a large, single farmhouse-style table with plenty of elbow room.

Off the great room was the chapel, another open space with panoramic window views. Looking past the altar, you could watch the activity of birds and other creatures around the small pond, enlivened year-round by a recirculating pump. Occasionally, the Shantivanam cat could be seen prowling the perimeter. The wooden altar was sunken from the floor to rest upon the earth. From that lowest level, three or four tiered platforms for seating rose toward the back, again all natural surfaces. The only chairs were at the back for those who needed them. On the other tiers, people sat on zafus, zabutons, or wooden meditation benches. Several small images and icons from non-Christian religions — such as the dancing, many-armed Nataraj from Hinduism — were placed around the large room. Those provoked my curiosity, reminding me of hidden depths to Things Divine.

In 2011, the name of the retreat center was changed to Christ’s Peace. The change in name reflects other alterations to the retreat center to emphasize its identity as Roman Catholic. Gone is the stone circle. The place where the chapel altar sat upon bare earth has been covered, and the new altar sits upon flooring. Traditional-looking pews have been installed and non-Christian symbols have been removed. Additional Christian symbols, such as a large, outdoor cross, have been added to the building and grounds. Much, however, remains as I first experienced it.

Checklist for a Meaningful Retreat Experience

Fanned ceiling beams

The fanning of ceiling beams suggests light rays, or the the gathering of retreatants at the Kirkridge Retreat and Study Center.
Photo: Courtesy of Kirkridge Retreat and Study Center.

I am on constant lookout for retreat centers that allow for God to feed my spirit. Here are a few specifics of what I have personally found most helpful to people seeking a meaningful retreat experience:

Nature and opportunities to move your body in nature. Much of the spiritual life is sedentary — reading, writing, some prayer practices. Physical activity is necessary for a good night’s sleep and to avoid the aches and pains that come from sitting too long. Gazing upon the natural world is always a reminder of God’s creative power, the uniqueness of every being, and the beauty in which God delights.

Opportunities for absolute quiet. This contributes to many prayer practices. It removes the possibilities of distractions, other than distractions of one’s own mind, which might need tending to. Quiet encourages access to our inner resources.

Opportunities for extended solitude. This means a place that affords a high degree of autonomy, and ability to take care of physical needs at one’s own pace, in one’s own time. Ideally, there will be a private bathroom, and a place to prepare at least some meals. When a small kitchen isn’t possible, space for an electric kettle to make something hot to drink is a must.

Many retreatants spend time reading. A comfortable spot, adequate light, and place to set a book and a beverage are welcome.

A place to write. Like many retreatants, I like to write, sometimes in longhand, sometimes on a laptop. One needs a stable, flat surface that can accommodate a laptop, a mug of tea, and space for an open book, such as a Bible. Adequate light is crucial; a workspace facing a window is preferable.

A place for research. Some retreatants plan for ministry, such as preparing sermons or classes. This involves research, and space is needed to spread out books and papers. This can be an eating table. If it’s a desk, it must be sturdy, large, with a drawer in which to put any provided materials (maps, house rules, etc.). Grounded electrical outlets are essential for charging electronic devices.

Furnishings of integrity. A retreat may have required considerable effort in scheduling and travel. When one’s world-weary self finally arrives, the retreat space should feel warmly hospitable and designed for one’s purpose. For me, this means furnishings must be sturdy, inviting, useful, and modern — not a mismatched assortment of wobbly cast-offs and scratched up hand-me-downs.


Peaceful, restful retreat centers are tucked into beautiful settings in every one of the United States, and in many countries. They come in all shapes and sizes. Some are ideal for personal retreats, others are better organized to serve groups. Some are religious, others generally spiritual, others are neither of those things. One of several websites can direct a seeker to a secluded spot near them, or many miles away if that is desired.

Retreat centers have enormous potential to fulfill an important need in our collective journey as human beings. They provide the physical, spiritual, and emotional space necessary to remember, or perhaps discover, our truest selves. I think of this as emerging into the person God had in mind when God created us. However we conceive the benefits of a retreat, when we pack our bags to go home, we do so having rested our bodies and stirred our spirits. We are ready to re-engage the world in ways that reflect our best selves.

The author is an ordained minister with standing in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) and the United Church of Christ. She is pastor of the Mattapoisett Congregational Church, UCC, in Massachusetts.