Searching for an enlightening getaway?

Image: Religious retreats
People are seen during oryoko, or breakfast, at Zen Mountain Monastery in Mt. Tremper, N.Y. Mike Groll / AP file
/ Source: The Associated Press

At the former Shaker village, where the Taconic Mountains roll into the Berkshires and New York touches Massachusetts, Yaqin Aubert read aloud Hindu, Buddhist, Taoist, Zoroastrian, Judaic, Christian and Islamic texts during the Sunday service at the Sufi religious retreat.

With two dozen worshippers, who mainly resembled any mostly white upstate congregation, Aubert invoked "the Omnipresent God" and repeated scriptures of peace from seven religious traditions. He told a story about Jesus, whose disciples were angry at their rude treatment by several villagers in ancient Palestine, while Jesus was unbothered.

"I can only spend what is in my purse," was his reply. "All he had inside was peace," explained Aubert, a Sufi Muslim retreat guide. Peace outside comes from peace inside.

Dozens of religious retreats are nestled in the Catskill Mountains and Hudson Valley of upstate New York, many open to visitors seeking quiet getaways and personal enlightenment. Stay for meals or overnight, you'll likely be asked for a donation or pay a small fee. Come for organized retreats for weekends, weeks or longer, with guided learning, solitary prayer or meditation, and pay program fees.

At Abode of the Message in New Lebanon, 25 miles southeast of Albany, the bulletin board by the communal kitchen had a Sufi story about how an individual's inner light can illuminate an entire city. The woman washing dishes described herself as a Sufi Christian. That afternoon, there would be a discussion of the mystical, reverent 13th-century poetry of Rumi, a key figure in Sufism.

Whatever your tradition, this mystical Sufi brand of Islam invites you to deepen your faith here without converting.

The Buddhists in Mount Tremper, 50 miles southwest of Albany in the Catskills, likewise welcome visitors at certain times, recommending the weekly Sunday morning program with beginning instruction in meditation at Zen Mountain Monastery. Senior monastics said they see no conflict between Buddhist practice and someone's search for God. The quest for greater mindfulness and compassion welcomes the question.

At an hour of instruction, 10 newcomers are briefly taught: how to sit depending on their flexibility — ranging from a full lotus position to chairs — or kneel on their mat with a pillow; remain still — hands folded, eyes fixed, counting breaths; and meditate — acknowledging discomfort, stray thoughts, distractions, and then letting them go.

They consider the mind a sense organ, and believe that people often go through their lives daydreaming, or thinking the same worried thoughts in recurring loops, instead of living in the moment.

Later, as dusk falls in the main meditation room, the newcomers join 50 people, seated or kneeling and many wearing robes, and the room is still for 35 minutes until a drum, bell, chimes and brief chanting end the meditation. As light from a single candle wavers, you smell the rain against a background of incense, see the intricate natural patterns in the hardwood floor, notice pain in your legs from so long in the Burmese position, like the Lotus but with feet and ankles on the floor, and then its absence. You hear the trickle of water off the roof.

The monastics say an evening is too short and a full weekend is more of an experience.

Holy Cross Monastery, a sprawling brick edifice on the Hudson River in West Park, 60 miles south of Albany, offers visitors small rooms in the guesthouse. You don't have to be Christian to attend services in the whitewashed chapel with the Benedictine brothers, who are Episcopalian. You don't have to attend services at all, just be respectful. Part of the day — as well as the nights — is spent in silence.

The dining room has stunning vistas of the river. On a weekday morning, with the brothers in retreat, sit in an Adirondack chair on the wide green lawn and hear only birds chirping and singing from the surrounding trees, an occasional dish clanking from the kitchen, and a distant hum of traffic from Route 9W through the trees and up the hill.

The Elat Chayyim Jewish Retreat Center relocated two years ago from the Catskills to the Isabella Freedman Jewish Retreat Center in Falls Village, Conn. The center welcomes people from all backgrounds, including those with little or no Jewish education and "seekers who have walked other spiritual paths." Programs are offered for entire congregations and schools, as well as for individuals, from families to seniors. Offerings include meditation retreats and retreats themed on Jewish holidays.

In the forests of New Lebanon, the Shakers established an outpost of their Christian utopia a century ago. Following a period of private ownership, Sufis followed 30 years ago. The meditation room had worn wooden floors and sturdy beams that would delight an antiques auctioneer.

Some people stayed that Sunday for the healing circle beneath the stained-glass window, inscribed: "Enter/ unhesitatingly/ Beloved/ for in this Abode/ there is naught/ but my longing/ for thee." Others crossed to the main building's dining room and kitchen, where three women, one with a baby, were preparing communal brunch — an $8 donation for visitors to Abode of the Message.

At Shree Muktananda Ashram in South Fallsburg, 80 miles northwest of New York City, near the Pennsylvania state line, staff of the global SYDA Foundation declined a request to visit and meet Gurumayi Chidvilasananda, whom bloggers have identified as the enlightened Indian emigre who inspired Elizabeth Gilbert's search for God through meditation at the group's Indian ashram, described in her best-seller "Eat, Pray, Love."

"We're not open for drop-in visitors. We don't make exceptions," Karen Williams explained, calling from California. Staying at Siddha Yoga's upstate ashram requires prior experience with one of its programs and a commitment to stay for some period of time. It's an effort to protect "the deeper experience" of those at the Ashram.

"People have different ways of getting there. People do, they find their way," Williams said. "It's not everyone's path."

Yet the essential truth is the same, she said. "The divine is in everyone."