Christine Center: a simple, stunning retreat

My reward, at the end of a 200-mile drive, is hearing the rhythmic click of hoofs and watching the sinking sun brighten a clump of clouds with splashes of orange, sherbet-like in color.

I am following County G, between Marshfield and Eau Claire, where an enclave of Amish families seems to reside without fanfare or disruption. Their presence, in northwest Wisconsin, is a pleasant surprise to me.

Roadside signs announce that quilts, eggs and vegetables are for sale. At least one tack shop is nearby, and the rural road heads into Willard, population 539. It is nobody’s suburb.

There still are a couple more miles to travel, to what used to be a 250-acre farm on a hilltop. Today it is a retreat flanked by forest, 120 acres for listening to nothing but your surroundings and self.

The silo has been a chapel, and the barn has been a place of meditation. Sprinkled in the woods are 15 hermitages, simple cabins that provide shelter and privacy, but little more.

A set of clean linens sits on each of two twin beds. A little screened porch makes it easier to hear the twittering of birds. In the kitchenette are tea bags.

Electricity. Heat. That’s about it. Some of the shelters have no indoor plumbing. Mine is more deluxe; it has a hot shower. If I wanted better lighting, conversation or more roomy surroundings, it is a short stroll to the lounging areas of the main building.

“You can see how close the deer get,” my guide remarks, using the toe of her shoe to point out a fresh and clear print in mud, just a few steps from my door.

The Christine Center, an interfaith gathering place since Wheaton Franciscan nuns established it in 1980, will never turn into a Holiday Inn, and that is a good thing.

But the complex is expanding because more people – women, in particular – are discovering the value that simplicity and silence hold. They come for a night, a weekend, a week. Groups can rent the facility and design their own program. Someone occasionally stays longer, sorting out life while working odd jobs on the grounds in exchange for room and board.

“This small piece of earth is a sanctuary only because together we make it so,” writes Sister Cecilia Corcoran, the facility’s coordinator. “We’re drawn here because what we find gives us hope.”

My stay is brief, one overnight that included an hour of mostly silent meditation and yoga, before eating breakfast as a group. The meals, typically $27 per day, are vegetarian, homemade and high-nutrition. Ingredients include organic and local foods.

Group meditation, yoga and seminars occur in a round, paneled room whose windows make it easy for sunlight to stream in. The type of exercise that will begin the day will depend upon who is teaching.

Spiritual counseling, although available, is not pushed. It is the same with reiki, cranial-sacral and other mind-body treatments, which can be scheduled.

Less expensive therapies come from exploring the forest or hanging out at a small pond. There are two miles of trails for hiking, or cross-country skiing.

Organized program topics include yoga and various forms of meditation (mindful, insight, Tibetan). Spiritual group singing, March 28-30, embraces several cultures. “For Women By Women,” March 7-9, emphasizes the sharing of creativity. “Winter in the Woods,” Dec. 27 to Jan. 1, mixes solitude with “the old-fashioned joys of conversation” and “gentle companioning.”

For more: www.christinecenter.org, 866-333-7507. The Christine Center is at W8303 Mann Road, Willard, about 2.5 miles south of the Clark County community.

Lodging is $25 to $63 per person, depending upon day of week, type of accommodation and whether another person shares it. A rustic hermitage has no indoor plumbing. The modern version has a bathroom and kitchenette. Camping also is possible.

The Christine Center has begun a $750,000 capital campaign to improve and expand its buildings. Details are online.

Another simple but welcoming place for retreat in Wisconsin is Holy Wisdom Monastery, formerly known as St. Benedict Center, near Middleton (Dane County).

Personal retreats and retreat programs are offered in this ecumenical setting. For more: www.benedictinewomen.org, 608-836-1631.