More Christians seek quiet relief in the practice of solitary piety

One week ago, Rosalie Durante left her stressed-out life as a therapist for criminal offenders in West Milwaukee and set off in search of Easter's deeper meaning. Her quest took her to Racine, Wis., where Dominican nuns and others on retreat sought to go beyond customary ritual. Her focus: inward reflection on her life and a vision of the God of resurrection at work within it.

Ms. Durante's retreat is part of a wider pattern. Even in an era when Christians have been reviving ancient rituals, such as the use of ashes on Ash Wednesday, they are also putting new focus on a quieter side of the search for religious meaning.

What's emerging is a heightened interest in individual exercises of piety, as well as a rediscovery of the "desert fathers and mothers" tradition of breaking away for periods of hermitlike solitude and one-on-one spiritual guidance.

Behind the trend, experts say, are events that have touched the culture, such as the terrorist attacks of 2001 and this spring's release of the film "The Passion of the Christ." More broadly, it's a response to the frenetic pace of modern life.

"People are saying, 'I need some quiet. I don't know how to do quiet,' " says Liz Budd Ellmann, executive director of Spiritual Directors International, a network of Christians who help others hear the Holy Spirit. "It's really a reclaiming of this early contemplative practice of prayer, meditation, and silence."

A number of indicators suggest personalized piety to be on the rise:

• 44 percent of Americans surveyed in 2004 said they read the Bible weekly outside church, up from 36 percent in 1999, according to Barna Research Group.

• 83 percent of those surveyed in 2004 said they had prayed to God in the past week, up from 77 percent in 1999, also according to Barna Research.

• To meet growing demand for one-on-one spiritual counseling, the number of spiritual directors worldwide is up to 4,300 from 3,500 in 1998, according to Spiritual Directors International.

• The movie "The Passion of the Christ" has led individuals to seek out or start new church discussion groups in 31 percent of churches whose leaders responded to last month's online poll by Leadership Journal, a magazine for church leaders.

Many in church circles have celebrated these and other signs of fresh interest in the divine. Yet a trend toward "privatized" religion also raises concerns.

"When people focus only on the individual journey, they can go off in all kinds of unusual ways of life," says the Rev. Kevin Shanley, a retreat leader at the Carmelite Spiritual Center in Darien, Ill. "If they belong to a community and share in its life together, they aren't so prone to be auto-focused in ways that get them into trouble."

Ancient precedent

In the early period of Christianity, within 200 years of Jesus' death, individuals were already breaking away from church communities and "the world" to pursue solitary lives of perfect focus in the Egyptian desert. Hermits though they were, they traditionally welcomed pilgrims who would seek them out for brief periods of instruction, guidance, and prayer with a contemplative master.

Today, it's not just members of monastic traditions, such as Eastern Orthodoxy and Roman Catholicism, who find the ways of early hermits worth emulating, perhaps just for a day or two. Young adult evangelicals increasingly make a point to practice solitude as a spiritual discipline, says Leadership Journal managing editor Eric Reed. Some also read devotionally selections from the early church fathers, such as Irenaeus, Origen, and Tertullian.

"There's a significant strain among younger evangelicals who are wanting to reconnect with the early traditions of the faith," Mr. Reed says. Another example: the increasingly popular practice of labyrinth walking, with headphones narrating a "guided prayer journey."

At retreat centers, participants are asking for personalized direction from modern-day masters in the faith, and hosts are reconfiguring programs to accommodate them. The Racine Dominicans, for instance, now dedicate three weeks in June and July to retreats for those seeking solace and personalized guidance from the sisters.

Even "preached" retreats, which center on a group conference, build in as much time as possible for individuals to confide privately in their retreat leaders and "rediscover their own goodness," according to director Rita Lui.

'Time to focus'

Durante, who took part in last week's retreat, was delighted that ancient tradition had established such a path. "Without the opportunity for retreat, life and work become very overwhelming," she says. "I find myself asking, 'What's the point?' For me, Holy Week is a time to focus on what it is I'm trying to do on this planet."

At the Jesuit Retreat House of Cleveland, a group-presentation format of the 1990s has given way to individually directed retreats that give pilgrims many hours on the wooded grounds to pray, read, walk, and think. Hours alone get interrupted only by sessions with leaders who ask what's being revealed amid so much stillness.

Says the Rev. Clem Metzger, director of the retreat house: "They might say something like, 'That tree I just walked by ... I just realized it's a reflection of my true self.' And we go from there."

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