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Hidden jewel: Jesuit Retreat Center of Los Altos provides a sanctuary for the soul

Goat yoga
Megan V. Winslow/Town Crier
Designed by a past retreatant, the labyrinth at El Retiro offers a peaceful spot for reflection and meditation.

Although the Jesuit Retreat Center of Los Altos has been a place of worship, healing and discovery for 94 years, it remains a mystery to many.

Local residents may know of its existence - perhaps they’ve seen the discreet sign on University Avenue, or perhaps they’ve even worked there or known someone who has. A smaller number have taken a brief trip into the unknown - a leap of faith - and signed up for a retreat.

Located at 300 Manresa Way, off University Avenue, the retreat center - also known as El Retiro San Iñigo (the St. Ignatius Retreat), or simply El Retiro - has been offering spiritual guidance and time for personal reflection and relaxation since its founding in 1925. The park-like campus, currently comprising 38 acres, provides trails, gardens and shrines for quiet meditation and communion with God and nature. Some of the Spanish-style buildings date back to the 1920s, including Rossi Chapel (1928).

Taking in the spectacular view of the valley below, one would never guess, without knowing otherwise, that between the treetops in the foreground and the peaks of distant eastern mountains lies a busy - and often stress-inducing - center of business and technology.

The Jesuits, or the Society of Jesus, are a Roman Catholic order of priests, founded in Spain in 1534 by St. Ignatius of Loyola. Today, there are approximately 16,000 Jesuits worldwide, including Pope Francis. Jesuit spirituality emphasizes "finding God in all things" and serving a world in need "to the greater glory of God." Jesuits may serve in a variety of roles - as pastors, teachers, doctors, lawyers and many other professions - in addition to operating 24 retreat centers in the U.S.; the Jesuit Retreat Center of Los Altos is the only one west of Denver.

Retreating from daily routines

People have gone on (or "made") retreats for millennia, providing Moses, Jesus and many saints, as well as ordinary people, a time of rest and prayer. They’re still popular today, for those looking for a break from their daily routines to decompress and recharge.

"We want to provide an attractive place, an amenable place for people to come and find God, and find themselves in the process," said Father Chi Ngo, executive director of the Jesuit Retreat Center of Los Altos.

Retreat content varies but may include presentations, meetings with a spiritual adviser, prayer, meditation and other activities, as well as time for private reflection.

El Retiro attracts visitors from the western U.S. and increasingly - with the prominence of the internet and the center’s web presence - from around the world.

The dozens of retreats offered each year vary from silent to nonsilent, and from divided by gender to coed. Some focus on religious themes, such as Ignatian spirituality, and the Christian holy times of Advent, Christmas, Lent and Easter. Others are geared to specific audiences such as legal professionals, scientists, veterans or those in recovery. Some focus on young adults, and others on women, such as February’s Women’s Weekend of Renewal or the upcoming Three Women Named Teresa (Teresa of Avila, Therese of Lisieux and Teresa of Calcutta). Retreats vary in length from one to 30 days, with weekend retreats the most common.

Larger retreats include those led by Guy Consolmagno, director of the Vatican Observatory; Tom Weston, a renowned recovery counselor; and Greg Boyle of the Los Angeles-based Homeboy Industries. Another popular one is held for lawyers, judges, attorneys and others in the legal profession.

For those with little time to spare, one-day retreats can provide a quick pick-me-up. These include Ash Wednesday and Palm Sunday retreats, as well as the Busy Person’s One-Day Retreat.

"People are so tired and stressed out," Ngo said. "(It’s) just a time for them to come and rest and decompress a little bit. … More and more people are attracted to (the one-day retreats) because it’s doable for them with their busy schedule."

Also appealing to the overextended crowd, and geared toward the tech industry, is a weekend retreat titled Finding God in Silicon Valley Things, coming up in May.

"The Valley has invented so many things that are life-transforming," the retreat description states. "Many of the people who create these things are people of faith. And with the speed of life here, they rarely have time to reflect on the impact their work can have on their faith or how their faith can impact their work."

Many faiths

Retreat participants are not all Catholic. According to Ngo, on some retreats, nearly one-third are non-Catholic, though most are Christians.

"We find that Ignatian spirituality is amenable to people of many faiths, not just strictly Catholic," he said. "So we welcome everyone to come and experience God, and a sacredness here."

Ngo described the purpose of retreats as "a time to rest, to rediscover, to get regrounded and be touched by God’s presence and God’s love. And people find themselves renewed, even after just a short break, like a weekend getaway."

Perhaps the best testimonial is a returning customer.

"Most of our clients, patrons, are repeat offenders," Ngo said with a laugh. "Some are regular - every year they go on one or two retreats, one long one and one short one. We find that those who come and experience what we offer, they want to come back, and they often bring a family member or friend."

For a schedule of upcoming retreats, visit jrclosaltos.org. Costs vary, generally $280-$310 for weekend retreats and $560 for five-day retreats. The Busy Person’s Day of Retreat April 6 is by donation. Overnight retreats include meals and room with private bath. In addition to the organized retreats, personal, self-directed retreats also may be arranged.

As most of the retreats are held on weekends, the facilities are also used as a conference center for a variety of businesses, schools and organizations. Overnight lodging is available for up to 98 people, with meals and snacks.

Volunteers are welcomed, both short- and long-term. Opportunities range from front desk and clerical help to working in the trails and gardens.

For more information, call 917-4010 or visit jrclosaltos.org.

Women’s Weekend of Renewal

Twenty-one participants and two leaders gathered Feb. 15-17 for the Women’s Weekend of Renewal, a retreat that was both uplifting and emotional. Some had been on this particular retreat before, or other retreats; for many, this was the first. Mostly from the Bay Area, with one from the Midwest, the women ranged in age from their 20s to their 80s.

They brought a host of different reasons for being there: grief and wondering what was next in life; wanting to explore their spirituality and draw closer to God; or wanting to unwind and detach from daily stresses.

Skilled retreat leaders Mary Abinante and Cindy Robertson, along with host Father Andrew Rodriguez, offered compassion and sparked creativity and healing. Activities included group prayer and Mass, guided meditation, movement, music, art projects, nature walks, pre-dinner wine and cheese socials, and sharing. There was laughter; there were tears.

When asked to share a grace they had received during the weekend, participants offered words such as "gratitude," "peace" and "community." ◆

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