Refuel Your Prayer Life With a Sacred Art Retreat

Enders Island is an 11-acre island off of Mystic, Connecticut

Iconography workshop. Photo: Courtesy of Enders Island


We Catholics know the value of not only praying with our minds, hearts, and lips, but also with our whole bodies— kneeling, standing, bowing, and crossing ourselves. Creating sacred art is another — albeit more intensive — way to pray. The process of meditating on God while using a brush to make a stroke on an angel’s cloak, for example, has the potential to lift the veil between heaven and earth ever so slightly.

It doesn’t matter if you’re not an artist. I invite you to get out of your comfort zone and unlock a door that has the potential to lead to an encounter with God. Don’t worry about imperfect paint strokes. The purpose of sacred art — particularly iconography — is that it’s a visible expression of prayer.


St. Michael’s Institute of Sacred Art, located on Enders Island, has created a retreat environment that fosters spiritual growth and creativity. The institute offers iconography, illuminated manuscript painting, the art of stained glass, mosaics, watercolor, Gregorian chant, and more. Every discipline, taught in the context of a retreat, has three dimensions: practical, educational, and spiritual. Master teachers give instruction on how to create the artwork as well as teach students about the history and theology behind the discipline. The classes take place within a framework of prayer, daily Mass, spiritual direction, designated times of silence, and fellowship.


Illuminated manuscripts date back to before the invention of the printing press in the 15th century. Books were handwritten and decorated on vellum — a parchment made from goat, calf, or sheepskin — by monks. The ancient texts were referred to as “illuminated manuscripts” because of the glow of the applied gold leaf on letters surrounded by intricate vine designs and vine borders. The illuminists used a traditional palette of blue, red, and green paint hues to set off the gold embellishments.

For the illuminated manuscripts retreat, participants learn ancient illumination techniques that follow medieval traditions. Valerie Weilmuenster, who has been teaching calligraphy and illumination classes at Enders Island for 19 years, instructs students about mixing colors (gouache and watercolor paints), applying gold leaf, making and using shell gold, and more.

Like the iconography course, prior experience isn’t a requirement for the retreat.

Weilmuenster told Catholic Digest, “I have very detailed instruction sheets with all the steps broken down so that students have a positive learning experience. I demonstrate each step of the process before they work on their projects and then give them personal help if needed.”

Jane Bambrick, from Hawthorne, New Jersey, said she became interested in illumination after doing calligraphy for many years. She said the quality of teaching and the environment at Enders Island “leaves a student with a sense of spirituality and accomplishment.”

Bambrick added, “I now have an appreciation and a better understanding of art and religion.”

Illuminated Manuscripts Workshop. Photo: Courtesy of Enders Island
The Chapel of Our Lady of the Assumption on Enders Island. Photo: Courtesy of Enders Island.


If you don’t feel called to visual art, the Institute of Sacred Art offers a Gregorian chant retreat. Gregorian chant, dating back to the seventh and eighth centuries, is another sacred art that invites one into a deeper relationship with God. Named after St. Gregory the Great— though the saint is not its creator — the majority of chant comes from the Book of Psalms. Chant is melody sung in Latin, in unison, and typically without accompaniment. A hallmark of this ancient music is that there is no rhythm, time signature, or meter.

In the Gregorian chant retreat, students learn notation, vocal technique, and the repertoire of Gregorian chants used in the Novus Ordo (new Mass). The course also delves into some of the history, theory, and theology behind chant. Participants make a recording of a sung liturgy. Basic singing ability is the only requirement.

Fr. Tom Hoar, SSE, president and CEO of St. Edmund’s Retreat, told Catholic Digest,

“These are more than just art classes; they’re part of the ministry of evangelization. We’re an 11-acre island trying to touch the hearts and souls of people one at a time.”

Fr. Hoar came to Enders Island in 1993 at a time when many retreat houses were closing. Seeing that there was a real need in the world of sacred art to promote it, to celebrate it, and to treasure it, he and the Enders Island board created the St. Michael’s Institute of Sacred Art.

“Through the history of the Church, art has always been a way to catechize and evangelize because when people couldn’t read, they could still appreciate beauty. I was looking for a way to reach out to people who were not necessarily concerned about their spiritual lives but to draw them in through the beauty of art and to help them understand the creative genius of God,” Fr. Hoar explained.

He continued, “Trying to figure out away to preach and proclaim to the world today is a real challenge in the Church because everything is 30-second soundbites. It’s a tweet and an Instagram. Art captures people’s imaginations; it touches their souls.”

Carving workshop. Photo: Courtesy of Enders Island



DAY CLASS: Six-hour class with material and meal provided. Cost: $50 to $95

WEEKEND WORKSHOP: Friday evening through Sunday afternoon workshop with all materials and meals provided. Cost: $255 to $480.

WEEKLONG WORKSHOP: Includes five days of group instruction, all materials, and room and board. Cost: $985 to $1,135; commuters pay $660.

EVENING ENRICHMENT: Includes 12 three-and-a-half-hour sessions on Thursday evenings, all materials, and 12 three-course chef-prepared dinners with your instructor and classmates. Cost: $780.

NOTE: Please check with the Sacred Art Institute at or call (860) 536-0565 for the most up-to-date pricing information and course selections.

Painting icons — often referred to as “writing icons” — is a way to focus oneself on the supernatural. It entails using an egg tempera medium, red clay, and gold leaf on a gessoed (white plaster) icon board. The icon — with more than 2,000 years of history behind it — is not just a religious-themed artwork; students follow a canon to continue the tradition of Byzantine iconography.

Grace Zazzaro, St. Michael’s Institute of Sacred Art’s Byzantine iconography instructor, told Catholic Digest, “People are trying to find a new way to express themselves — their spirituality — through the sacred arts. I find the icon is an awesome stepping-stone. Ultimately, the icon’s purpose is to invite you into a relationship with Jesus Christ, and so people don’t understand at first why they’re being called to the work, but I believe it’s because of that reason.”


It’s not just artists who are called to experience God by creating sacred art.

“I have a student in that workshop who has never touched a paintbrush in her life, and she’s doing amazing,” Zazzaro said. “If you have the desire and the calling, you could be in a workshop with someone who has done multiple icons.”

Pysanky Workshop. Photo: Courtesy of Enders Island.

Fr. Hoar agreed. “You don’t have to know art to take a class; we have a lot of people who are not artists that come. You do have to be able to quiet down.”

The relaxing quiet was one of the hallmarks of my retreat experience on Enders Island, and I relished it. The rhythm of the burnisher polishing the gold leaf, the hymns at Mass, the music of the waves hitting the island’s wall, and the chiming in of gulls’ voices are forever etched in my memory.

Marie Cabaud Meaney, in the foreword of Looking at a Masterpiece by Madeleine Stebbins, wrote, “Real silence is not merely the absence of external noise or even of inner distractions, but proceeds from the only source capable of fulfilling the human heart: God himself.”

Sacred art is one way to open your heart to a deeper relationship with God.

Mosiacs workshop. Photo: Courtesy of Enders Island

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