Oren Slozberg of Commonweal Retreat Center
By Oren Slozberg

While retreat centers are “lights for the world,” they often struggle to keep the lights on. The Retreat Center Collaboration (RCC), funded by the Fetzer Institute, is a three-year project to understand and connect retreat centers and their allies across North America, all in an effort to support their evolving roles in a changing world. Below we share RCC member Oren Slozberg’s thoughts on the state of retreat centers today.

Recently I was reflecting with friends on in the nature of land-based organizations in the United States, our “state of the union,” you might say.

Simply put, retreat centers are threatened. These centers have hosted many groups, teachers, and communities. They welcomed us into nature with contemplative practice, creative workshops, youth camps, healing spaces, ceremonies, rituals, respite, permaculture classes, and more. They hold memories and histories. Many have been closed since the beginning of March, and there is no knowing when they might re-open. Many of these centers, of which there are more than 2,500 in the United States, are at risk of financial collapse and permanent closure.

In the midst of our own change, thousands of religious spaces close every year in the US. As we become more secular, convents, monasteries, churches, temples, and other places of worship are being shuttered all over. Convents and monasteries are being sold to developers as their communities age and vanish. Recently, a 500-room mother house in Michigan was razed as the Sisters could not afford to maintain the building. Others are turned into senior living complexes, office space, private homes or apartment buildings. This happens every day. 

In this time of transformation, these physical spaces will inevitably have to change. Many will be lost in the COVID-induced consolidation of assets. However, many are looking for new ways to re-invent themselves. What is the retreat center of these times? What might these land-based communities look like after COVID?

Some have already changed.

  • Five Oaks retreat center in Ontario has become a shelter for agricultural workers who need to quarantine.
  • The kitchen of the Pearlstone Retreat Center is providing 4,500 meals a week to people in their nearby communities.
  • Many centers have adapted their work into the virtual space, like the Healing Circles program.
  • Some retreat center are offering their rooms as respite spaces for social justice organizers and activists.

As the monasteries of the previous millennia are slowly disappearing, what are the monasteries of the 21st century? What are the places that might hold the flow and wisdom of our times? Are they watering holes like Commonweal, Three Creeks, and other land-based centers? Are they sacred religious spaces repurposed? How do we support that transition?

Commonweal, which is my home base, feels like a monastery. It is a large cement edifice in the middle of a 600-acre cow pasture, located in Point Reyes National Seashore. In this pseudo-rural setting (we are only an hour from San Francisco) there have been many learnings and practices that have accumulated over the years. We are exploring how to withstand the test of time and some variations of collapse.

Along the West Coast places like Ojai, Esalen, Commonweal, the Whidbey Institute, Hollyhock, and other retreat centers are like a trail of oases, though without a common history, religious, or spiritual affiliation. We all know each other, and some of us have been working together. Are there ways that we might reimagine our totality and function? How might reparations play into this shift as we acknowledge all aspects of our lineage, good and bad? How does justice and environmental challenges factor into how these spaces are held and function?

There are more questions than answers at this moment, and yet it is prudent to start thinking what might grow out of these lands and buildings. Otherwise, they gradually will disappear over time.

Oren Slozberg is the executive director of Commonweal in Bolinas, California.