Photo By: Nestled in the Los Altos foothills, the Jesuit Retreat Center’s 38-acre campus offers a serene environment for those who seek to escape the pressures of daily life.
A mere five-minute drive from downtown, the Jesuit Retreat Center of Los Altos seems 100 miles removed from suburbia and Silicon Valley life in general.
Time moves a bit slower at the 1920s-era campus on Manresa Way, and its Jesuits still spread the word of St. Ignatius – a mission that has remained essentially unchanged over the past 470 years.
“We have a very satisfying ministry here,” said Father Bernie Bush, who has led retreats at the center over the past 20 years. “We have a very organized spirituality. We teach people to do what we do – help people find God.”
And to think the Jesuit order started with a cannonball nearly 500 years ago. That’s when Spanish soldier and inner Iñigo de Loyola suffered severe leg injuries from said cannonball in a battle with the French.
Facing 12,000 soldiers to his handful of troops, de Loyola nevertheless committed to fight until his last breath. The French were so impressed by his courage, they not only spared his life, but also removed him from the field of battle for medical treatment.
The soldier nearly died, but a miraculous recovery left him a new man. As he found God in his convalescence, the now self-named Ignatius introduced a then-radical concept: developing a personal relationship with God. Ignatius urged followers to “find God in all things.”
A tiny and frail man in appearance, Ignatius’ iron will and influence were extraordinary. By the time of his death in 1556, he had attracted 1,000 followers and his Society of Jesus opened 33 colleges during his lifetime. The Spiritual Exercises that Ignatius wrote, based on his own experiences, are still practiced today.
A retreat in Los Altos
Understanding that finding God is more achievable in a quiet, stress-free environment, the Jesuits opened El Retiro San Iñigo, as the center is named, in 1924. The center has greatly expanded in the years since, now comprising 38 acres in the foothills above Los Altos.
Retreats are what the center does – 84 rooms accommodate up to 101 guests. A wide range of individuals and groups and ages – religious or not – gather at the center with the same overall goal: to escape the pressures of everyday life and de-stress and recharge.
“It’s one of the very few places you can go where it’s so quiet,” said Tom Powers, the center’s executive director.
Still, nothing – including the retreat center – exists in a vac- uum. The center must pay its bills and, like many nonprofit groups, it struggles financially. Powers wants to spread the word that space at the center is very much available most of the year. The center is usually booked solid between mid-June and mid-August. Silent retreats, some as long as 30 days, often are scheduled during the summer.
“For us to survive, we rent out space during the week to nonprofits,” Powers said.
Many schools use the center, Powers said, particularly area Catholic high schools. But so do service clubs – the Rotary Club of Los Altos holds makeup meetings the first Tuesday of every month at the center, as well as its annual Christmas dinner.
People have the option of visiting retreats with or without spiritual direction. The Jesuits at the center direct retreats throughout the year that cover a variety of topics. Father Kevin Ballard has scheduled a silent retreat for men May 3-5, titled “God Gave Us the Computer, and Smartphone, and ….”
“The computer is not the enemy,” Ballard said. “It’s a place where you can find real connection.”
Bush will offer a technology-themed retreat, “GPS to Heaven,” May 31 to June 2.
He sees it as a modern-day metaphor for spiritual direction.
“People are dying for something significant in their lives,” he said.
He got the idea from another event, “GPS for the Soul,” that covered surface-level topics like deep breathing.
“There’s a whole lot more (to reflection) than that kind of stuff,” Bush said.
Touching on these and other issues of the modern world is the way the Jesuits have reached out in recent years to attract participants.
“It’s a shift, but it’s a good shift,” Powers said.
Taking it a step further, Powers said he would like to see Silicon Valley’s high-tech companies sponsor retreats at the center for their employees.
“What I’ve tried to do here is bring retreats out to new audiences,” said Powers, who will have served as executive director two years in June. “We’re reaching out more to women and younger people.”
With its beautiful grounds, spacious rooms and scenic dining area, the retreat center’s life-enriching benefits are not taken for granted by the Jesuits.
“The physical beauty of the place is wonderful,” Ballard said. “It’s hard to stay grumpy here.”
The Jesuit Retreat Center of Los Altos is located at 300 Manresa Way. For more information, call 917-4000 or visit www.jrclosaltos.org.