When Nature Calls

Spirit walks and sage prayers at a South Carolina “eco-spiritual” retreat

As the mother of two small children, my self-reflection time is limited to an occasional glimpse in the mirror, followed by the realization I haven’t showered in two days. But here I am in Kingstree, South Carolina, pulling onto the long, magnolia-lined driveway that leads to Springbank Retreat. My car is empty, save for my suitcase, which contains a wild mix of clothes that illustrates my confusion about this weekend. I have no agenda or schedule, not even instructions for checking in.

But this is how Springbank operates. Things aren’t forced; they unfold. As soon as my feet hit the sandy driveway, Sister Theresa Linehan materializes in a golf cart. After a warm hug, she shows me to my cozy apartment and tells me dinner is just up the path at the main house. And then I settle into silence—nerve-wracking, unscheduled, uncomfortable silence.

Described as a center for eco-spirituality and the arts, Springbank is something of an enigma. It was established as a plantation in the late eighteenth century, then became a hunting retreat, then a monastery for Dominican monks. Today, the eighty-acre campus is staffed and supported by the Adrian Dominican Sisters, who have merged their Catholic roots with Native American practices such as sage blessings and “Spirit Quests” to encourage self-healing and renewal. (More on those later.)

Springbank Retreat in Kingstree, South Carolina
Springbank Retreat in Kingstree, South Carolina

SR. Sharon Culhane, OP

People come here for all kinds of reasons. Some are tired of city life and want to spend a weekend weaving baskets or learning about Celtic spirituality. Others are in need of longer sabbaticals to reinvigorate their creativity. (Sue Monk Kidd wrote The Dance of the Dissident Daughter while sitting under the Celtic Tree, one of seven “sacred sites” on the property.) 

My first morning, Linehan takes me on the Cosmic Walk, an almost two-mile path with stone markers chronicling the creation of the universe. She explains her perspective on how it all began, with something the size of a tear bursting forth in a mysterious explosion of life. Both man and nature come from that same kernel, she says, so we’re all connected. “Right now, the trees are listening,” she says, gesturing up at the live oaks. “There’s a vibration of energy bouncing off everything. We recognize it as the life force of God.”

I’m struck by this concept, largely ignored by modern society but embraced by indigenous cultures throughout time. I begin to notice the spider webs in the trees, the leaves fluttering in the wind, and the bright green moss carpeting the forest paths.

My visit coincides with three Sisters finishing sabbaticals, and they graciously welcome me into their drum circle. We pray, sing “The Earth Is Our Mother” (well, I listen), and perform a sweet grass blessing, where we burn bundles of the aromatic herb, blow out the fire, and wave the smoke toward our faces. This practice, I’m told, welcomes the positive spirits of nature. We then move under the Granddaughter Tree (an ancient live oak) and Linehan plays a Native American flute.

Merrell McGinness at Springbank Retreat in Kingstree, South Carolina
Merrell McGinness at Springbank Retreat in Kingstree, South Carolina

Merrell McGinness

The sun warms us while we chant and drum, harnessing the energy of Mother Earth. My inhibitions melt by the minute, and I feel my inner hippie emerging. As the Sisters share their experiences at Springbank, more than one mentions that a tree has spoken to her here. I’d like to hear one, too.

Later, during my two-hour walk alone in the woods (called a “Spirit Quest”) I find a quiet spot and perform a sage blessing (like a sweet grass blessing, only with smoking sage) to drive away negative energy. The Sisters have given me questions to ponder—including “What place does your Creator play in your life?”—and encouraged me to listen for answers.

My new awareness of the natural world causes a strange shift. Always squeamish about bugs, I don’t gasp and smoosh them for entering my personal space. I wait. I listen. After a while, I decide nature isn’t in a talkative mood, so I keep wandering the woods.

That’s when two trees catch my eye. Their trunks bear scars indicating they were once strangled by a vine, yet they tower above me like pillars of strength. Hmm. Could these trees be speaking to me? Then I stumble upon the “Nursing Tree,” a felled poplar with several saplings sprouting from its trunk, a beautiful symbol of resurrection.

When I depart from Springbank, it’s with some sadness. Inner peace is easier to find when you’re not knee-deep in laundry and sippy cups. I know I’ll never sell my car, live in the woods, or part with my iPhone. Hey, even Springbank has Wi-Fi. But I’ve discovered if you spend enough quiet time outdoors and open yourself up to new ideas, the trees just might have something to say.

Springbank Retreat, 843-382-9777