WEST BOYLSTON — Prepping for college finals can be a pageant of miseries: staggering through the overheated library in search of study space. Scarfing animal crackers from the dorm vending machine at 2 a.m. Trying to sleep through the rager next door.
But for the three dozen Holy Cross students who spent last weekend on an “Eat, Pray, Study” retreat at the college’s new contemplative center, the pre-exam period was positively restorative. Ensconced in the hilltop haven — more boutique hotel than monastery — they curled up in armchairs to review class notes and sipped cucumber- and mint-infused water from mason jars. They prayed, meditated, and practiced yoga at twilight in the glass-walled chapel.
After living cheek-by-jowl in dorms, where showering might involve someone warbling in the next stall, the weekend was a world apart.
“It’s so quiet,” marveled Julia D’Agostino, a freshman, a few hours into her stay. “At school, you’re very rarely by yourself.”
The College of the Holy Cross, like other Jesuit schools, has a long tradition of sending students on five-day silent retreats to practice a short version of the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola. Ignatius, who founded the religious order in the 16th century, devised the regime of prayer, meditation, and contemplation of the Gospels to help foster a personal and intimate experience of God’s love and guidance.
Participation in retreats has more than doubled over the last dozen years, to about 500 students annually. The trend, college chaplains say, partly reflects students’ growing need for respite from a culture of frenetic overcommitment, digital distraction, and gnawing worry.
“Students are so much more anxious than they were when I first came here” 25 years ago, said Marybeth Kearns-Barrett, director of the chaplains’ office. Retreats — which the college now offers in a variety of themes and lengths — offer “the opportunity to step away, to experience the sense of being loved — because sometimes these anxieties are people grasping for something. There is nothing grounding them,” she said.
The experience can transform young lives, said Megan Fox-Kelly, director of retreats at the college. She still has a letter that her grandfather, Frank J. Kinney Jr., wrote to his mother after a retreat he made as a Holy Cross student in January 1929. His days in silence, he wrote, were “the three days of my life which, if it were possible, I would like most to live over again. . . . Many of the problems of my life have been solved.”
Jesuit retreat houses in Gloucester and Weston hosted the retreats until the opening this fall of the Thomas P. Joyce Contemplative Center, a 34,000-square-foot building set on 52 acres in West Boylston, a short ride from the school’s campus in Worcester. The new space — which cost $22 million, $18 million of which was raised through gifts — has allowed the college to create programs for alumni and faculty, too.
This past weekend’s 29-hour retreat was a bit of an experiment, designed to be a doorway in to Ignatian spirituality. The idea was to offer a quiet place for students to study and unwind during the term’s most stressful period and to reconnect with their sense of God’s calling for their lives. It was also meant to teach lifelong techniques for slowing down and focusing.
“When you’re stressed out, you don’t do your best work,” Kearns-Barrett said at the brief orientation.
As the students arrived in their hoodies and Uggs, they seemed stunned by their surroundings — slate floors, vaulted ceilings, spectacular views of the Wachusett Reservoir.
“I’m going on every single retreat!” one student breathed.
Freshman Riley Benner, who handed out bundles of towels and sheets for students to take back to their rooms, said he was ready to start chipping away at three papers and studying for two exams.
“I get distracted pretty easily,” he said. “I figured this would be a good opportunity to get away.”
After an introductory gathering and prayer — Sarah Fontaine-Lipke, the retreat leader, urged the group to put their phones on airplane mode — they sat down to homemade calzones and fire-roasted vegetable soup. (The “eat” part of the retreat was no joke: The chef proudly displays a letter from a student who visited in October, thanking the staff for their “extraordinary cooking,” which she said helped her overcome her eating disorder.)
Each of the young men and women carried along a litany of stressors: Ameer Phillips, a senior Spanish major on a pre-business track, was thinking not just of the 35 pages due by the week’s end but of postgraduation uncertainty. Vidya Madineedi, a freshman, had to write a sociology paper and prepare for exams in biology and psychology.
“We experienced finals in high school, but it’s nothing like what we’re experiencing now, with papers, projects, presentations,” she said.
Social media only amplifies the stress, said her friend, D’Agostino.
A friend shared “something about how some school decided, we’re going to have a group cry. BYOT — bring your own tissues,” she said, half-laughing. “Is that how I should feel?”
After lunch, some headed to a half-hour meditation class in the chapel, sitting on cushions before the floor-to-ceiling windows. Then, they settled in to study, write — or, in some cases, take an overdue nap.
The afternoon sun quickly faded, and a few students ventured into the frigid air outside, crunching over the snow-encrusted lawn. Others gathered in the chapel for a slow-flow yoga class as the sky turned from lavender to indigo, amplifying the glow of candles set around the room and the constellation of glittering softball-sized lights hanging from the ceiling. The lighting is a reference to the stars Ignatius contemplated on Roman rooftops 500 years ago.
Late in the evening, Fontaine-Lipke led an examen — a prayerful reflection on the day and a renewal of intentions for the next.
A few students woke early enough to watch the rising sun illuminate the mist over the reservoir. At morning prayer, Fontaine-Lipke read a Gospel passage about Jesus retreating from the crowds to rest and talk to God.
“If Jesus needed time to recharge, so do you,” she said.
Then a breakfast of eggs, freshly baked muffins, and coffee.
“I was able to concentrate so well in my little room,” said Jaqueline Alvarez, a first-year student who spent some of her time preparing for a political science exam.
Later, as the light in the sky began to fade again, the students collected their books and clothes and gathered for a final moment together.
Each wrote a word or a phrase on a small card to remind them of their respite in the stressful days to come: “calm,” “peace,” “a good night’s sleep.”
“It was great,” said Phillips, as he prepared to board a bus back to campus. Speaking for pretty much everyone, he added with a smile: “It would be even better it were two nights.”