A RETREAT CAN OFFER different succor for different needs. It may be a step back into the self and the past, or a step forward toward the future. It can stimulate personal discovery and growth. It can require total silence or include structured religious guidance with group discussion and perhaps shared ethical concerns, or simply the opportunity for individual solitude and reflection. Some concentrate on holistic health.

Retreats may be operated by religious orders, or be ecumenical, non-denominational or non-sectarian in approach. Although advance inquiries are advisable, retreats are usually open to those of all faiths or no faith provided their rules are respected by guests while on the premises. They welcome visitors for a day, a weekend, a week, and sometimes for longer periods, usually providing simple, wholesome meals along with accommodations.

They can reinforce faith, build hope and--especially considering the unworldly rates often charged by many hotels at this time of soaring prices--transmit a sense of charity.

All have quiet surroundings, and many are located in scenic areas which facilitate communion with the god of nature; a few even dangle devilish delights like swimming pools, tennis courts, and other recreational activities before believers and non-believers.

The following is a representative sampling of retreats that take guests, with emphasis on inviting areas within a short drive of Washington. It is not an all-inclusive listing.

Missionhurst Mission Center, 4651 N. 25th St., Arlington (528-3800). This is the mother house of the American Province of the Congregation of the Immaculate Heart of Mary Mission Society. A predominantly Catholic spiritual retreat for religious groups, the center accepts individuals when space permits (30 persons at most), weekends or weekdays. Room and board, $22.50 per day.

Yes Educational Society, west of Strasburg, Va., 90 miles from Washington (703-241-1434). A nonprofit organization involved with holistic health and "personal and social transformation," Yes will sponsor "about a dozen" retreats at their villa this summer: "everything from nature photography to herbs as preventive medicine to therapeutic massage on weekend getaways," Friday-Sunday. Small groups, 12-15 persons, and individuals. From $65 to $125, depending on program.

Christian Brothers Spiritual Center, Route 85 South, Adamstown, Md., about 45 miles from Washington (301-874-5180). Affiliated with the Catholic church, the center welcomes teens, adults and family groups (individuals can come at any time on a space available basis). No smoking in the dining room. Accommodations for 37 people in single rooms, with a minimum of 20 for groups that can run their own retreats for 10 days or longer, or request that conferences be conducted (reserve one year in advance for group weekends). Overnight charge for lay person, $23, includes meals; other rates for groups.

Dayspring Retreat Center, 11301 Nealsville Church Rd., Germantown, Md. 20874, about 25 miles from Washington (301-428-3258). A Christian, ecumenical, silent retreat affiliated with the Church of the Saviour. For prayer and meditation, suitable only for adults: "no drinking or smoking, no bookings for conferences, seminars or workshops." Accommodations for 18 people, minimum of 9 for groups, some stay 10 days to two weeks. Rate, $40 Friday-Sunday afternoon (to Christmas), includes simple meals which are "not strictly vegetarian but natural."

Wellspring, same address as Dayspring above, (301-428-3373). Affiliated with the same church but operating as a separate conference center offering orientation sessions, special events, "workshops aimed at enriching church life." Accommodations for 50 guests with 17 rooms in three buildings, with a minimum group size of 10. Individuals welcome if space permits on a $17-per-day basis, bring your own food (small refrigerator in cabin). Groups, $105 per person for a 4-day session, includes food. No alcohol, no smoking, groups are encouraged to do their own cooking, and must help with table setting and dishes as well as prepare rooms for next occupants. Reserve well in advance.

Holy Cross Abbey Guest House (the Trappist Monastery property), Rte.2, Box 253, Berryville, Va., (703-955-3124). Located on 1,200 acres 60 miles from Washington, the retreat has four single and two double rooms. A few spaces are available from now until December (call guestmaster for information on time periods--separate for men and women--in midweek and on weekends). Small groups or individuals should inquire about what activity is scheduled for the days they want to visit. All are welcome, and can attend mass, arrange for one-to-one direction, or be left alone. Guest house is one-half mile from the monastery and most people prefer to walk the grounds rather than drive. No set rates, donations accepted. Meals are provided (breakfast is self-service). First retreat for married couples will be held June 18 (full), and when new guest house with "at least 20 rooms" is built the abbey will permit mixed retreats.

Christian Counseling & Teaching Center, Box 157, Syria, Va. 22743, (703- 923-4670). Interdenominational, suitable for teens, adults, family groups and individuals but no smoking or drinking. Can house 32 adults in double rooms with private bath and 50 teens in dormitories (bring your own sleeping bags); groups who want to book weekends should reserve six months ahead. Daily charge averages $20 per person double or $16 in dorms, including three meals. The center will arrange work for individuals who cannot pay. About 96 miles from Washington.

Manresa, Manresa-on-Severn, Annapolis, Md. 21404 (301-974-0332). A Jesuit house on the Severn River, 50 miles from D.C. All are welcome, but the retreats are contemplative and basically silent (including during meals), and do not provide recreational facilities. Offers 60 rooms, 25 with double or twin beds and 35 single. Rates $60 for weekend including meals; during week, one-day retreat is $10 with lunch; 6-day retreat, $120 for priests and sisters, $150 for all others.

Marriottsville Spiritual Center, Marriottsville, Md. 21104 (301-442-1320). Interdenominational retreat affiliated with Sisters of Bon Secours, a Catholic order, situated on 300 mostly wooded acres 20 miles west of Baltimore and two miles north of Route 70. Not suitable for children; groups accepted first with individuals on a space-available basis for day, weekend or week. Primarily single rooms, dorm-style baths. Can take 75 guests overnight. The special individual retreat rate is $20 per person with three meals ($7 for a day visit with lunch). Group rate upon request. Staff direction, if requested. Outside the Washington Area:

Christ in the Desert, Abiquiu, N.M. No telephone, but if you write the guestmaster ahead of time, and make your way there, you will be welcomed. For meals and bed, a daily contribution is expected.

Old Mission San Luis Rey, San Luis Rey, Calif. (714-757-3659). This 200-year-old mission on 20 acres, 15 miles from Oceanside on Route 76, is run by the Franciscan order. Planned program for children; adults can attend seminars on stress, alcohol abuse, budgeting during a tight economy. For recreation there's tennis, volleyball and a pool. Cost for one week: $100 for a family of two adults, plus $20 a week for each child, including accommodations and all meals. Weekends, $50 single, $85 per couple. Room for 108 visitors.

St. Andrew's Benedictine Priory, Valyermo, Calif. 93563 (805-944-2178). A desert retreat on 70 acres adjacent to the Devil's Punchbowl, a state park. Can take 70 guests, single or double, at $22 a night per person including three meals. For weekends reserve a few weeks in advance. Visitors can participate in services held throughout the day, beginning at 6 a.m., or choose solitude and nature walks.

New Skete Monastery, Cambridge, N.Y. 12816, (518-677-3928). An Eastern Orthodox group of monks operates the guest house, which is surrounded by woods. Space for 3 or 4 persons, men and women, in three rooms. The guests interact with the monks, take their meals in the dining room. No fixed charge--a minimum of $15 daily in the donation box is suggested. Services morning and evening.

Hundred Acres, New Boston, N.H. 03070 (603-487-2638). A Catholic monastery affiliated with the diocesan house of Manchester and situated in a large old farm house on 100 acres 3 1/2 miles from New Boston. It exists on donations and is run by Father Paul, a monk who left the Trappist monastery to establish a place for people needing a contemplative atmosphere for a period of time. Guests can attend mass, read, and take long walks.