Being Fully Alive

Retreat Centers are always in beautiful places. Serra Retreat Center is on the top of a mountain in Malibu overlooking the ocean and looking down on the mansions of the rich and famous, like Mel Gibson and Dick VanDyke. I think that Serra was a mansion donated to the Franciscans, who turned it into a retreat center. For several years, I enjoyed taking my chaplaincy students to this white stucco and mosaic edifice surrounded by pink bougainvillea on the mountaintop for daylong retreats. One time, a Buddhist student, who honestly had not been exposed to much Catholicism, asked me about the Franciscans, “Don’t they make promises or something?” I was very happy that he was interested in learning about another tradition. “Yes, they make vows about poverty, chastity and obedience.” He was silent for a while and then replied, “Well, if this is how they do poverty, I’d like to see how they do chastity.”

There is something about being surrounded by beauty, which helps us to be quiet and get in touch with what is going on inside us. Sometimes it takes an escape from the everyday routine and solitude to face oneself and empty out one’s insides. Journaling helps me to let it all out and see things more objectively on the page. I gain some emotional distance from whatever is happening in daily life. Clarity and calmness often follows. I am able to lift my sight and breathe in the beauty.

In our everyday world, we may not be able to easily find grace, but we may be able to place ourselves in a position to receive it. Retreats are such places. We may encounter not only our own interiority, but also the divine within us. Augustine said, “God is more intimate to me than I am to myself.” For me, I can often encounter the still, small voice of God within, after I have settled into silence, as I described above. Listening, I may be reminded of a line from a poem, song, scripture or hymn. This usually applies to a situation which I am facing. A person may come to mind and how I could practically help them or simply surround them with light and love in my heart. Sometimes, I just sit or walk in silence.

A retreat is a place of withdrawal or seclusion. On retreats, I often encounter God as Beauty in nature. The grounds of retreat centers offer places of healing because of their beauty, like the vista of the vast dark blue ocean meeting the great lighter blue sky from the Serra mountaintop. The awesomeness of sky and sea express Beauty, artistry and creativity. My small self is brought into perspective in the larger natural world. Whenever I take time and truly see Beauty, I am impressed and awed.

What is the point of going on a retreat? Irenaeus from the second century said, “The glory of God is the human being fully alive.” As we grow, we can become more and more awake and alive to Beauty, to Spirit. It is worth taking some time apart to get in touch with oneself and Beauty in nature. In fact, if I could give you a prescription, this is the one I would give to you.