On a ridge above Ojai, with an infinity of hills falling away, a thinker meditates by a canvas tent.
Miles away, on a grassy sweep in Simi Valley, Jewish couples cluster in a circle and intertwine their contemporary stories with tales from the Torah.
This time of year nature provides the perfect backdrop for those seeking spiritual renewal.
Church, synagogue and communal worship has its place. So does a weekend camping trip. For the world-weary, a religious retreat combines elements of both, yet is something much more: a guided pause, a spiritual regrouping, a chance to sift through the clutter of life and reclaim one's soul.
A world of wall-to-wall entertainment, consumer goods and almost limitless noise makes the soul rumble like an empty stomach. It's no wonder the county's spiritually oriented camps are booked full by spring each year, according to leaders of local retreats.
"We're so atomized and separated," says Rabbi Scott Meltzer, who conducts workshops for newly married Jewish couples at Camp Alonim in Simi Valley. "We see ourselves divorced, completely separated from the world of the Bible."
Not a way for humans, who are spiritual creatures, to live, Meltzer said. Retreats are one way to reunify the sacred and the secular and help participants cope with the daily grind.
No matter the nature of a person's faith, good retreats share key elements, says Rabbi Arthur Gross-Schaefer, a law professor at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles. He occasionally serves as scholar in residence at Ojai's 100-acre Camp Ramah.
Foremost, the setting should be rustic--an exchange of man-made scenery for natural wonders.
Staying overnight away from home is also important, Gross-Schaefer added. A change of physical and psychological environment can free participants to let go and open themselves to new experiences.
And finally, people need time to reflect on spiritual matters.
"People have a desperate need to connect their . . . soul, their very essence, if you will, to the larger soul--or God--and to other people," Gross-Schaefer said.
Dennis Santos, who runs youth retreats for the Catholic Archdiocese of Los Angeles, said he can accomplish more with a child in one weekend retreat than in a year of youth group meetings.
Teens on retreat don't feel they are under the wings of their parents, he said. They can take chances.
And Sue Liljenberg, director of Healing Hearts Ministries in Bonney Lake, Wash., said it's worth the long trip to Rancho del Rey in Oak View to train counselors to help women who have had abortions. She said there is more force in one weekend training session than anything else she has tried.
"We used to meet once a week for eight weeks--it was just too hard," she said. "Here, you've got three days of rest and uninterrupted time and the ability to focus on the subject."
No matter the theme, ceremonies, disclosure and intense communication in group retreats serve to strengthen ties among participants.
In his retreats at Camp Alonim in Simi Valley, Meltzer has newlyweds share how they became engaged, then each reads aloud a tale of a couple from the Torah. The exercise illustrates how each marriage is tied to centuries of Jewish tradition.
Some alumni of Meltzer's retreats say the experience changed their relationships.
"Oh, God, there were so many things," said Sandy Bernstein, 29, of Torrance, who spent a weekend this spring at the Simi Valley center with her husband, Gaston. "It was a remembering of what are the things we set out to do as a couple."
Meltzer suggested participants add at least one Jewish tradition to their home routine to strengthen their religious values. Bernstein chose to light candles on Friday nights.
In contrast, individual retreats use meditation and prayer for spiritual renewal.
At the Ojai Retreat, a rambling ranch house on the crest of a hill, individuals can rent one of 12 rooms for up to a month. The telecommunications-free environment is aesthetics-rich, giving participants a place to hear themselves think.
While the retreat is a separate organization from the nearby Krishnamurti Foundation, its library is crammed with books by the metaphysical thinker and tends to attract those familiar with his writings.
"It's been all along a theme of self-improvement," said Shirley Ramgren, one of a handful of employees who run the facility. "We have yoga groups and breathing seminars, but I think mostly people come here to get away from the roar of the city."
Youth retreats, in contrast, are often run like summer camp--with the requisite hiking, swimming and short-sheeting of beds--because social acceptance, not religious values, is a burning issue for teens, Santos said.
His three-day and seven-day retreats for Catholic teens are heavy on peer counseling, so kids can talk to each other about their lives and God.
Diana Finn, 17, of Oxnard attended a retreat run by Santos at Rancho del Rey. Walking through a meadow far from parents and talking with other teens made her feel she wasn't alone, she said.
"We'd have 'prayer partners' and do special things for them over the retreat, like let them be first in line for lunch," she said. "That there was someone that did those things for you, that was a really cool thing."
Some retreat centers restrict group use to nonprofit groups, such as Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts, and those who share their religious beliefs.
Robert Farrow, operations director of Rancho del Rey, said while his facility's board of directors respects other religions, the camp's mission statement requires the facility to serve Christians.
Other centers with a religious affiliation rent to all-comers, such as Wilshire Boulevard Temple Camps and Conference Center on Pacific Coast Highway, just a mile within the county line. The Jewish camp's 200 acres tumble down a chaparral-covered Malibu hillside that offers a panoramic view of the ocean.
The setting draws requests from Muslims, Christians and even corporate groups. A Jewish summer camp for kids at the center also is popular.
"We have all sorts of groups that want to come up," said Mark Miller, associate director of the camp south of Mugu Rock. "We just got a message from a group of Christian surfers asking about prices."
Spiritual Retreats in Ventura County
Several groups operate facilities to let people get away from the daily routine and provide a setting for prayer and spiritual reflection.
Camp Alonim, operated by the Brandeis Bardin Institute (Jewish)
1101 Peppertree Lane, Simi Valley 93064
Average cost for two adults, two nights with meals: $450
Camp Ramah (Jewish)
385 Fairview Road, Ojai 93023
Average cost for two adults, two nights with meals: $350
Meditation Mount (interfaith)
10340 Reeves Road, Ojai 93023
No overnight activities. Donations requested to attend conferences.
Meher Mount (western and eastern interfaith)
9902 Sulphur Mountain Road, Ojai 93023
Average cost for two adults, two nights without meals: $80
Ojai Foundation (interfaith)
9739 Ojai-Santa Paula Road, Ojai 93023
Average cost for two adults, two nights with meals: $100
Ojai Retreat (interfaith)
160 Besant Road, Ojai 93023
Average cost for two adults, two nights with meals: $160
Pine Mountain Buddhist Temple & Meditation Retreat (Buddhist)
Anticipated opening date: July 15
905-3550 or (661) 322-9016, Ext. 08103, to leave messages
941 Lockwood Valley Road, Maricopa 93252
Average cost for two adults, two nights with meals: Donation requested
Rancho del Rey Christian Center (Christian)
655 Burnham Road, Oak View 93022
Average cost for two adults, two nights with meals: $170
Wilshire Boulevard Temple Camps & Conference Center (Jewish)
11495 E. Pacific Coast Highway, Malibu 90265
Average cost for two adults, two nights with meals: $250