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The Right Retreat

Wood chairs in meadows allow for solitude under the stars at GilChrist. Photo by Brian Powers
You don’t have to go far to get away from it all

In the busyness of life, we often thirst for a place of quietude where we can reconnect, reflect and redirect our inner selves. It’s not an uncommon desire, and if you are seeking a solitary place to create, read, seek a closer bond with nature or are on a spiritual quest, you can find just what you need in Southwest Michigan.

Our corner of Michigan abounds with retreat centers, many within 60 miles of Kalamazoo, that offer opportunities to reflect on our lives, recharge our inner batteries, enhance our skills, feel better about ourselves or foster stronger relationships. And each of these centers offers something different. Some are religiously and spiritually oriented; some are secular. Some cater to individuals; some to groups and communities. Some accommodations are rustic; some are modern. All, in some way, feature meadows, inland lakes and forests. The costs vary from self-determined donations to reasonably priced fees.

If you are looking for a retreat, seek no more. Here is a snapshot of several area retreat centers that are diverse in intention and purpose: meditative solitude, youth and corporate/team activities, respite from social activism, and eclecticism amid healing energy.

GilChrist: Community and Solitude

Located eight miles northwest of Three Rivers on 67 acres of rolling hills and woods is GilChrist, the public retreat center of the Fetzer Institute.

“We offer a relationship between community and solitude where people experience both in a reflective manner,” says Kirstin Vander Giessen-Reitsma, head caretaker at GilChrist.

The heart of GilChrist is WindHill, the main gathering house for meal sharing, meditation and group activities. Built in the shape of a Scottish cross with a cathedral-like interior and large windows, WindHill provides the comfort of being indoors while looking out on GilChrist’s acres of moraine-carved terrain, suggesting, says Vander Giessen-Reitsma, “that we pay attention to the relationship between the inner and the outer.”

While WindHill, like a celestial star, is the centerpiece of GilChrist, its eight cabins are satellites that provide individual retreatants with a sense of security and solitude.

GilChrist was inspired by Rob and Molly Lehman, who, in the 1990s, were, respectively, president of the Fetzer Institute and director of holistic health at Western Michigan University. To balance the demands of their jobs, they often engaged in contemplative services at St. Gregory’s Abbey, a monastery in rural Three Rivers.

Deciding they wanted to live near St. Gregory’s, the Lehmans purchased adjacent property and built a cabin for themselves in 1991. Four years later, the couple formed a nonprofit and built WindHill and the cabins. At the turn of the millennium, with the stipulation that GilChrist will always be open to the public, the Lehmans gave the property to the Fetzer Institute as a venue for programs in a serene environment.

The Stone Chapel, which sits at the convergence of the meadow and a woods, is a special meditation place at the center. Molly Lehman patterned this small edifice after a stone chapel at a monastery in the Italian Alps. Built by hand and mostly by women, the Stone Chapel conveys a strong feminine character. “The chapel is a story of stories,” Molly explains. “Each person who put a stone in place felt something deeply about life and family.”

Other GilChrist features include gardens that represent each of the major world religions, a labyrinth, walking trails, an organic garden, wooden lounge chairs strategically placed for meditation under open skies, and a placid pony and goat. WindHill and one of the cabins are wheelchair accessible.

Where: 56265 Day Road, eight miles northwest of Three Rivers

Cost: $45 per person ($60 per family) per night, with discounts for extended stays

More; (269) 244-1130

Pretty Lake Camp: A Life-Changing Place

With its 250 acres of land on the shoreline of 105-acre Pretty Lake, located just west of Kalamazoo, Pretty Lake Camp has been a free summer camp for area youth who face significant challenges at home, in school and in their community, but its idyllic setting and facilities make it a great retreat center when camp is not in session.

Annually, more than 800 youngsters attend Pretty Lake for one week of summer vacation they otherwise wouldn’t experience. “Through world wars and depressions, we’ve been here, removing barriers and showing opportunities for kids who need it most,” says Paulie Cohen, Pretty Lake’s group sales and marketing director. “We’ve never missed a summer, because people in Kalamazoo have always prioritized keeping this program available for our youth.”

Donations are just one income stream that helps fund Pretty Lake. The camp is also supported by its Adventure Centre and customized retreat experiences that offer team-building exercises for groups that want to increase cooperative performance through challenging interactions in a natural environment.

The Adventure Centre includes three elevated ropes courses in the trees and serves 3,500 to 5,000 people a year, including collegiate athletes and groups from corporations, financial institutions, nonprofits and schools.

Pretty Lake Camp’s property includes a farm with fruit trees, vegetable gardens and animals. The food grown there is used to make campers’ meals, with surpluses donated to campers’ families and Kalamazoo’s social service agencies for the homeless.

The farm also serves as a team-building training ground. For example, a team of engineers from Pfizer built an Iron Chef outdoor cooking area where teams coordinate preparation of a wilderness meal, with some teams building fires while others forage.

The camp’s cabins, lodges and yurts can sleep 172 people year round. Another 60 can stay in an unheated lodge in the summer, and 150 on rustic tenting campsites.

Indoor facilities, include electronically equipped conference rooms and a gymnasium with a basketball/volleyball court and ropes hung from the ceiling for indoor team-building exercises.

The commercial kitchen staff can serve 200 guests at a time. Guitars hang on the wall for anyone to play.

While coming to Pretty Lake for an individual retreat is possible, not many people do. “Mostly we cater to kids and affiliated teams or groups,” says Cohen.

“This is a life-changing place,” he adds. “Folks develop a sincere relationship with nature and a broader picture of life, and the stories they tell about the shifts they experience are substantial.”

Where: 9123 Q Ave., Mattawan

Cost: Varies according to the program, camp or event

More info: ; (269) 375-1950

Circle Pines: A Social Cooperative

“Circle Pines is a place where like-minded people can come together to relax, make stronger human connections and find inner peace and happiness,” says Mike Evans, marketing fund developer for Circle Pines Center, located eight miles north of Delton.

The Circle Pines property, which consists of 300 acres bordering 20,000 acres of state land, “was founded for the common human and has a history in the folk school and cooperative movements of the 1930s,” says Evans.

“We’ve maintained that tradition, and people who come here today might be working in social activism or just want to enjoy time together, playing games, tending the garden, whatever they might choose,” he says.

Circle Pines boasts a private lake and 12 miles of trails that meander through wildlife-rich, glacier-carved terrain of forest and meadows. People sleep in communal cabins, some of which have been artistically painted by previous guests. Traditional folk dances or other community activities are held in a rustic, open-sided pavilion.

Not surprisingly, the center’s main gathering point is its dining hall, located in an old farmhouse. Announcements are made during the meal, but there is no whistling or shouting to gain attention. Rather, the person who wants to speak simply raises one hand. As others see the raised hand, they raise theirs and stop conversing until silence is attained.

Circle Pines hosts annual weekend events that are open to the public: maple syrup making in springtime, the Buttermilk Jamboree music and art festival in June, and apple cider pressing in autumn. There’s also a Spanish immersion camp for people who speak or want to speak Spanish that enables cross-cultural understanding. The People’s Institute, which conducts anti-racism training programs across the country, holds an annual retreat presenting social issues for older teens and adults. In addition, Circle Pines offers three sessions of children’s summer camp focused on social justice, peace and environmental stewardship. Young people ages 7 to 17 and mostly from Midwestern cities attend.

Circle Pines Director Tom VanHammen says this camp is “out of the ordinary.”

“Many come from progressive families and are pretty well educated in social issues, but they gain by being with kids and staff who are of a similar mindset, and they support each other when they go back into the rest of the world,” VanHammen says.

Families can also rent the property for reunions or weddings, and individuals can come to the center to meditate and help work with its bees in exchange for room and board.

For both youths and adults, VanHammen says, Circle Pines is a place “to get away from the real world, relax in a natural setting and be with people who share similar worldviews.”

Where: 8650 Mullen Road, Delton

Cost: Varies according to the program, camp or event

More info:; (269) 623-5555

Ronora: Earth and Family Energy

“People say they feel Mother Earth here,” says Deej Leggitt, co-owner of Ronora Lodge and Retreat Center, located two miles north of Watervliet. “I like to say that people get an experience here; the ones who get it really get it.”

Ronora clientele are varied: Orthodox religious families, Catholic priests and congregants, Wiccans, Tibetan monks, Russian and South American shamans, Reiki and yoga practitioners, social workers, university teachers, Montessori teachers and students, people in halfway programs and Alcoholics Anonymous, families having reunions, couples getting married or with romance in mind.

“People come here for celebrations; community, family, tribal connections; and because of the healing energy,” says Deej.

Ronora began its life in the 1930s as Camp Watervliet, a summer horse camp for wealthy girls from South and Central America.

The few extremely docile horses there today are not ridden but petted by those in calming therapy programs, painted on by children with their fingers or hands as a means of communicating with the animals, or utilized in team-building exercises.

When Deej, her husband, Hunter Liggett, and business partner Jim Gehring bought the property in 1988, Deej renamed the camp Ronora after her fraternal Shawnee grandmother. The rustic meditation house is named Grace in the Woods to honor Deej’s maternal Shawnee grandmother.

Ronora consists of 400 acres with natural features including woodlands, meadows, walking trails, indigenous vegetation, wildlife, and a spring-fed lake for swimming and paddling. There are also two tennis courts, a basketball court and six firepits.

Up to 100 people can sleep in the center’s six cottages, which can each accommodate from four to 24 people. One of these is Trilogy House, a massive wooden structure brought piece by piece from Chicago in 1936. It features a great room with a stone fireplace.

One of Ronora’s more popular units is Grandma’s House with its unusual interior design, quaint ambience and large solarium porch perfect for meetings, dining and conversation.

Each cottage features an ample kitchen; Chadwick Dining Hall is the main gathering place for meals and plenary activities, with traditional, vegetarian and vegan meals featuring natural or organic ingredients.

Throughout, Ronora exudes the sensation of family. “People say they come through the gate and feel like they’re here to visit their favorite grandmother,” says Deej.

Where: 9325 Dwight Boyer Road, Watervliet

Cost: Varies according to the housing unit and meal plan

More info:; (269) 463-6315

Robert M. Weir

Robert is a writer, author, speaker, book editor and authors’ coach. You can see more of his work at

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