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, 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. There 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. Though 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.
Let 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!