When so much news of the church and nation is grim, let’s turn to something positive: the uplifting effects of retreat houses. I’ve given retreats in many of these centers, and benefited personally from many others. They are often located in scenes of natural beauty, so we can draw near God without books or rituals, with spontaneous delight in creation. Often people, especially those in ministry or parents, arrive at these centers like the “walking wounded,” exhausted, frazzled, frustrated, depleted.
And then the quiet healing begins. It takes a while to adjust to the reality of no meals to prepare, no people to care for, no home to clean, no obligations to meet. Within us is divinity, beyond routine, drudgery, expectations, noise, bills, traffic and deadlines. In a retreat setting, that luminous one can emerge—source of wisdom, guardian of memory, forgiver of wrongs, restorer of losses. Gradually, our child-like exuberance emerges. We sense we are being held and carried in arms of infinite tenderness.
Then we start seeing what’s around us with the proper astonishment. One of my favorite places has always been Sacred Heart Jesuit Retreat House near Sedalia, CO (www.sacredheartretreat.org). Long paths wander from the lily pond to the gazebo and around 250 acres in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains. Since moving to CA, I’ve found other refuges here, like the Franciscan San Damiano, (http://sandamiano.org) artfully shaped around a courtyard with fountain and native plants.
My latest discovery is Villa Maria del Mar in Santa Cruz, http://www.villamariadelmar.org located directly on the Pacific Ocean. Some rooms have full ocean views, and the beach is just a staircase away. “The sound of many waters” praised by the psalmist saturates the place; the dining room and meeting room have sweeping sea views. The Holy Name Sisters who own it are a cheerful and hospitable bunch; no wonder so many parish groups schedule their getaways here.
Since people often ask about food (crucial to fuel the spiritual journey), it’s excellent—locally sourced, fresh, with vegetarian options. The salad bar and selection of fruit are outstanding—coming from nearby fields where artichokes, melon, garlic and strawberries grow in abundance. The cookie jar is always full; the hot chocolate/cappuccino machine never fails.
I’ve always suspected one reason we respond to the magnificence of mountain or ocean it that it tangibly represents our inner vastness. Who can stand before the gleaming sea, powerful and playful, silken and mysterious, and not be awed? “Ah,” we may remember there. “I’m part of God’s creation. I too can gleam.”
Sadly, many retreat houses are closing. They’re expensive to run, and must pay many staff salaries. The demographic of people who take 3-8 days away is aging. Some survivors offer creative, innovative programs for young people; others open their doors to a wide variety of groups needing meeting space. But to lose them all would diminish us as a people. Where would we go to renew, refresh, replenish, restore our relationship with God?