There’s No Place Like Home

The Entrance to La Casa de Maria Retreat and Conference Center
The Entrance to La Casa de Maria Retreat and Conference Center

Traditionally, today is the saddest day of the year for our family. Barring any major tragedies during the year, the third Monday of July breaks our collective heart open and grounds us back into reality. It is our first day home from Family Retreat.

As I was packing last Saturday, I posted on Facebook that we were headed to “The Happiest Place on Earth,” and I wasn’t talking about Disneyland. La Casa de Maria Retreat Center is a perfect gathering place, nestled in the hills of Montecito, just outside Santa Barbara, CA. Even Oprah thinks so. One of her favorite vacation homes is just a few miles away. The weather is a perfect 75 degrees most days with cooler nights. The fog rolls in off the Pacific Ocean to blanket your morning walks and prayers, but burns off before lunch to warm the rest of your day. Ancient trees soar overhead; a creek trickles by and gentle wildlife surrounds you.

For one week each year, our family, along with dozens of others, gathers for what has frequently been described as a glimpse of “Heaven on Earth.” From Sunday evening until Friday at noon, there is Sabbath and there is God. From the moment of arrival, we are new family, Family Camp 2013 gathered together in the spirit of Love. There is neither catholic, nor protestant, sinner, or saint, leader, or follower, woman, or man, married, divorced, or single. In this holy place, we are “all in all” in God. One man, a Christian pastor and new to Family Retreat, looked at me after a few days and said, “This must be a bit like heaven. Look at the abundance.” And it’s true. There is an abundance of Love, of food and laughter, rest and activity, fun and friends (who quickly become like family). There are ideas to fill your head and stories to change your heart. There is the palpable presence of the Holy Spirit at work, though the name of God is not on every tongue. What need is there for words, when actions speak so much louder?

At Family Retreat, everyone belongs. Older children care for younger and the young care for the old. Technology is mostly missing and as a result, parents, teens and toddlers engage with each other and move beyond their comfort zones. Children roam free on the acreage, independent, but safe under the eyes of dozens of concerned adults.  IMG_0060_2There is no speaker-driven lecture series, or one set of answers. There is no prescribed set of Bible verses, as interpreted by one pastor, or faith tradition. There are stories told, personal truths shared, music played and a multitude of gifts and personalities on display. A volunteer team of returning families does their collective best to present a new theme each year, a framework of ideas about God and Christ and Love and how to become better, stronger families, more able to survive and thrive in the world and the many pressures it applies to us all. Instead of breaking us apart, Family Retreat teaches us how to stay together and hopefully gives us the courage to return to our “other” homes and live out our heavenly values there, for the other 360 days of the year. It gets harder and harder as time goes by, which is why so many families return year after year.

Apart from what it feels like, Family Retreat is also heavenly in the sense that it is ecumenical in the best sense of the word. We celebrate the best of each tradition, from the Catholic mass to Protestant music, liturgical and free-form prayer. We gather to be one Church and to worship God, focusing on what we have in common, instead of what could divide us. And just like heaven, Family Retreat welcomes all types. IMG_0094Though there may be a few “angels” among us, most of us are just real human beings with too much flesh and a lot of blood, coursing through our veins. We have dreams and disappointments, joys and sorrows, demons we struggle with. We are unique, but we share a belief in the creative power, healing presence and ability of Love to bear all things, believe all things, hope all things and endure all things. We trust that Love will never fail to do its work, if we are present and open to it.

One of my favorite songs is U2’s “Walk On,” a song about the end of a life and a soul’s journey to heaven. They say Heaven is “a place that has to be believed to be seen.” Family Retreat at La Casa de Maria is one of those places. No matter how often we tell other people about our second home in Montecito, no matter how many times we invite them to join us, very few have ever accepted the invitation. They simply can’t believe such a place exists, or that they would feel comfortable there. Perhaps they prefer the security of the Law to the messiness of Love. Perhaps it is simply a matter of logistics, or maybe, just maybe, it sounds too much like a cult whose Kool-Aid we’ve been drinking.

IMG_0040Let me assure you, there is no Kool-Aid, just Minute Maid fruit punch and Coca-Cola products in the cafeteria drink machine. There is a swimming pool and a tennis court, a consecrated chapel and a Peace Garden. There is a ping-pong tournament and a talent show. There are family meals, but no dishes to do. There is farm-fresh produce and home-grown wisdom and this blog is my invitation to you. Come and see for yourself how average men and women, children, old and young, families, big and small, can find a glimpse of “heaven on earth” by the grace of God and the power of Love.

If you’ve experienced Family Retreat, use the comments area below to share your stories, or memories. Help me spread the good news!


Leave a Comment

  1. Since we have been coming to Family Retreat since 1988 ( with a few years off in the middle) we obviously think it is the best time a family can spend together. It took a kind of “miracle” to get our family here the first time, but once you are here, your children are usually “hooked” on the idea and will clammer to come back. That is one reason why there are so many young adults still coming with their families….It is all connection and joy!


  2. I am so grateful to have experienced this life changing place. The families became my family. My forever family in the eyes of God and the spirit of life . Life everyone should be part of and experience. Every family should be part of this wonderful place and get filled up with love and the holy spirt of Gods love.


  3. Family Camp is Simple yet Beautiful; this place is full of Love Wisdom And the Spirit of God!
    My mom always finds places on Earth!
    I miss all of you guys!!!!!


  4. Family Camp is heaven on earth and after spending 13 years of my childhood every summer at La Casa I can say it was and still is my favorite memories. I can’t wait to bring my husband and daughter there someday. Give us a couple years but we will be there and so will my sister and her family. The expanded King family will be there to join the Bush families before you know it!


  5. right on ali !! That totally covers it  

    Kathryn Schlesinger

    >________________________________ > From: #Signs of Love >To: >Sent: Monday, July 15, 2013 7:54 PM >Subject: [New post] There’s No Place Like Home > > > > >alison kirkpatrick posted: ” Traditionally, today is the saddest day of the year for our family. Barring any major tragedies during the year, the third Monday of July breaks our collective heart open and grounds us back into reality. It is our first day home from Family Retreat. ” >


    • What an excellent expression of the feelings that we also share for a week of heaven on earth. have shared many times that going to Family Retreat has been the BEST single decision that my wife and I have aver made for our family an for ourselves: It is deep; it is rich; it is fun; it is growth with amazing themes and laughter and tears. It is relationship and sharing: It is relaxation, reflection and regenerating. It is La Casa de Maria Christian Family Retreat. Love to all!!!
      Mike Murphy (Murph)


  6. Family Retreat at Casa de Maria was instrumental in the development of our family, our closeness, resilience and communication. It provided fun, relaxation, reflection and the tools we needed once we “came down the mountain” after that one glorious week. It wasn’t fancy, wasn’t perfect and changed a little with the families every year. But the one thing we always had was a community of believers that put God, family and friends above all.

    We “outgrew” the format as children began college and working but we all still think of La Casa as a holy, peaceful loving place where for one week a year nothing mattered but each other.


  7. I’m so happy my Mother-in-Law sent me the link to your blog! It’s amazing that we have been “away” from Family Camp for many years now, but when I read your words, I feel like I’m right back where I belong. La Casa will always be my Home Away From Home, and I feel so blessed to have experienced the love and community in Christ for over 13 summers. I remember my first trip as a couple with my now husband, and I spent most of the drive up to Santa Barbara describing La Casa and what it meant to me. I always knew I would take my future husband to these grounds, so he could see first hand the amazing location where my foundation in Christ was developed. I love that we got to experience that moment, albeit a brief one, and I can’t wait to bring my family back (always a King, but now a Middleton), along with my siblings and their families. Soon, so soon. Until then, much love from our family to yours!


  8. Sounds amazing!! Do you know of similar retreats in other parts of the country? We are in Florida and spend time every summer in NC. Thank you!


    • I wish I did but not off the top of my head. Have you ever heard of or attended The Wild Goose Festival? I think it’s in N. C. and all my favorite pro speakers and theologians are there and I’ve always wanted to attend. I don’t know if it’s about families, but I know there are “kid-friendly” activities. Not quite the same thing, but if you do ever get a passel of tickets to So. Cal, we’d love to see you at La Casa…


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