Sister Claire Boissy radiates such a warm, healing aura that just sitting in her presence seems to lift the weight of the world from your shoulders. Look into her twinkling blue eyes and her smiling, ruddy face and your muscles relax, your pulse eases, your mind turns to more philosophical matters. And when she asks, in that gentle, grandmotherly tone, "Where is God in all this for you?" there's not a trace of dogma or proselytism in her voice. Hers is a sincere entreaty about your day-to-day relationship with the divine -- whatever "divine" means to you.
The 67-year-old nun works as the administrative coordinator of the Institute for Spiritual Development in Burlington. Founded in 1982 by Sister Judy Fortune, the Institute was set up as a joint ministry of the Vermont Sisters of Mercy and Trinity College of Vermont. Its goal, Sister Claire explains, is to provide spiritual guidance to people who want to renew or deepen their spiritual life but aren't necessarily "into" organized religion.
As Sister Claire points out, 57 percent of Vermonters identify themselves as "unchurched" -- that is, they're unaffiliated with a religious congregation or house of worship. Although this puts the state's per capita religiosity among the lowest in the nation, Vermonters also tend to describe themselves as spiritual people with strong personal connections to a higher power.
"Vermonters have this independent spirit that carries over into their spiritual life," Sister Claire explains. "We remind people that spirituality is for everybody. It doesn't belong to the churches or the minister or the pastors or rabbis. It's everyone's life journey."
Sister Claire is a Roman Catholic, but she emphasizes that her role as a "spiritual director" at the Institute is not to urge people in the direction of one faith or belief system. Her job is to "walk beside people" as they discover their spiritual path. Like her fellow Sister of Mercy Ann Duhaime, and Sister Maureen Welch of the Ursuline Order, Sister Claire brings to the Institute a diverse intellectual and spiritual background.
Brought up in a Roman Catholic household, she had relatives who were Southern Baptists, a great uncle who was a Mason, and family members on both sides who were Algonquin Indians. Sister Claire has studied yoga, Tai Chi and meditation, and she spent 22 years teaching world religions and human development at Rice Memorial High School in South Burlington.
"Some of my friends say, 'You're a Sister of Mercy, you're half Buddhist, you're half Benedictine, and you're half Oriental," she jokes. "I think we need to be open to all the treasures out there."
The offices of the Institute for Spiritual Development are located in Burlington's Hickok & Boardman Building on Shelburne Road, but its true spiritual center is found in the tiny Vermont town of Benson, about a mile and a half off a dirt road. This is the site of the Lumen Christi House, a retreat nestled on 31 acres of secluded countryside in the lower Champlain Valley. Formerly a small Benedictine monastery, Lumen Christi overlooks a pond, pastures, woods and meadows. The bright and airy quarters serve as a haven for people of all faiths and backgrounds who are seeking peace, solitude and spiritual renewal.
"Seeker" is a word often used to describe the people who come to Lumen Christi, though it may be the only characteristic its visitors have in common. Former drug addicts, ex-cons and prostitutes have stayed there; so have rabbis, Buddhists and corporate CEOs. Though more women than men avail themselves of its programs, the house attracts the young and old, rich and poor, folks with decades of religious training or none at all. What unites them, Sister Claire explains, is a desire to discover, or reconnect with, their spiritual path.
"More than ever, there's an increasing spiritual hunger," she says. "With all the world events that are happening, they're wanting an anchor, something to hang onto, something that will get them through all this."
That "anchor" looks different from person to person. The Institute's schedule reveals its holistic approach: "Reiki Training," "Yoga Retreat," "Advanced Centering Prayer," "Meyers-Briggs Indicator," "Spirituality in the Workplace." A class called "Advanced Enneagram" explores the 4500-year-old Sufi belief system about the nine basic human personality types. Another offers a week of silent meditation and quiet contemplation; there's virtually no talking the entire time.
Sister Claire emphasizes that the Institute isn't about promoting "spiritual dabbling -- a little bit of this, a little bit of that." Instead, it aims to help people connect with an authentic spirituality that's meaningful to them on a daily basis.
Among the 60 to 70 people who come to the Institute each month is "Terri," (not her real name) of Charlotte. Terri says she first discovered the Institute for Spiritual Development in the early 1990s, at a time when she was searching for deeper meaning in her life. The 46-year-old mother of two was baptized as a Mormon, but never had any religious training or upbringing. Nevertheless, she says, "I always felt that yearning to find God in whatever way I could."
Now a recovering alcoholic, Terri says it never bothered her that the Institute was run by Catholic nuns. The sisters offered her spiritual guidance that was entirely nonjudgmental and unconnected to the tenets of their particular faith.
"You can go to therapy, which is great, but you don't get all the other pieces of the puzzle," Terri says. The Sisters of Mercy are smart, gifted, empathic, compassionate and extremely intellectual women. "They get it," she adds, "especially for someone like me, who's got it all going on."
The biggest help, she says, was the training she received in "centering prayer," a form of daily meditation that helped her develop a personal connection to a higher power.
"If I want to have a relationship with you, I have to spend time with you," she explains. "If I want to have a relationship with God, I need to spend time with God."
Sister Claire emphasizes that that the Institute for Spiritual Development is not a crisis center, a social service agency or a counseling service; for those needs, the sisters will make referrals to other professionals. Because some spiritual searchers are facing other issues, the Institute's staff has been trained to recognize the difference between "the spiritual dark night of the soul" and true clinical depression.
Jo McClellan of Underhill has been involved with the Institute for more than 20 years. The 74-year-old McClellan was raised in a devoutly Catholic household. But, like Terri, she felt something was missing from her life.
"It's so hard to describe. It was a yearning for something deeper than the surface things I had -- church on Sunday, work in my parish," she says. "They just hit that spot in me and provided me with a place that's safe. You can be outside the box. You can also be inside the box. It's that accepting of who you are as a person."
McClellan spent so much time at Lumen Christi that she was eventually hired as a weekend cook. Since then, she's seen a wide range of people come through its doors. Among them is a group of women from Connecticut who take a retreat there once a year. Some are in drug and alcohol recovery, others are former prostitutes, parolees or victims of domestic or sexual violence.
"I'm always happy to see that they're still alive," McClellan says. "The first thing they said when they got here was, 'It's so quiet here! I don't hear any gunshots. No one's pounding on my door.'. . . And they always go away refreshed and renewed. It's such a healing house."
But the Institute for Spiritual Development isn't just for the emotionally or psychically wounded. It's also for people who want to get serious about their spiritual development. Among them is the Rev. Barbara Allen Purinton. For the last 17 years, Purinton has been pastor at the Richmond Congregational Church. Since 1991, Sister Claire has been Purinton's "spiritual director" -- someone Purinton goes to for spiritual guidance and grounding. With a congregation of 350 people, Purinton says it's essential that she also tend to her own spiritual wellbeing.
"I've discovered over the years that ministers need ministers. Having a spiritual director, for me, is about making sure I'm accountable for my own spiritual growth," she says. "I can't get up there on Sunday and tell people to listen to God if I'm not listening to God myself."
The Institute has been invaluable to Purinton over the last few years, she says, especially after her husband and daughter were called up for military deployments -- Purinton's daughter was sent to Kuwait, and her husband is the chaplain for Task Force Saber. He just returned from Ramadi, Iraq.
Purinton, who is also one of the Institute's 14 adjunct staff members, has spent a lot of time at the Lumen Christi House -- including three weeklong, silent retreats.
"It's time to just be still. You don't realize how much noise there is in our world," Purinton says. "It's time and space for things to be heard. Like the sound of a spoon stirring a cup of tea."
Though visitors come to the Institute from different backgrounds and are often traveling wildly divergent paths, they all seem to arrive at a common destination.
"In that setting, I've sat in a circle with a Jewish woman, an Episcopal priest, a Catholic nun, a couple of Catholic lay people and someone who is unchurched, and we were all talking about the same thing," McClellan says. "It boggles your mind that you're all on this journey, and yet the religious boundaries don't make any difference at all."