The Center for Spiritual Renewal in Montecito is part of the compound on El Bosque Road that includes the adjacent and commonly-owned non-profit retreat center, La Casa de Maria.
El Bosque means “woodlands” and the 26-acre grounds are studded with towering live oaks and other gorgeous old-growth trees. Footpaths meander through citrus orchards, an organic garden, and on to a hiking trail that goes miles into the Los Padres National Forest.
Everywhere is a tucked-away bench, overhung with hydrangeas or bougainvillea or toyon, on which to ponder. My first night, I sat overlooking San Ysidro Creek and watched the sycamore trunks turn molten gold in the setting sun.
The house, the former novitiate for the Sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, is baronial: nine “distinctive fireplace mantels” imported from Italy, huge bathrooms with majestic sinks, teak-paneled ceilings, wrought-iron staircases, a library. Outside one spacious terrace faces south, another east.
Though the tradition and spirit are Christ-centered, the Center is ecumenical and interfaith.
Stays are generally from Tuesday night through Sunday morning, or some smaller portion thereof. Three beautifully-prepared meals are provided in the room rate. Tuesday night no dinner is offered but the kitchen is stocked with yogurt, breads, nut butters, fresh fruit from the garden, juice, coffee and tea. Or you can bring whatever food you like and store it in the fridge.
One dinner consisted of chicken grilled on the back patio, roasted Brussels sprouts and sweet potatoes, and a salad of “massaged” kale, pecans, and sheep’s milk cheese. Everything is organic and gluten-free and vegan selections were also available.
Personally I’m a freegan—if it’s free, I’ll eat it. Also I’m a very early riser and a coffee hound so I was relieved to discover I could creep down to the kitchen at 5 am to make my own personal pot.
One logistical tip for noise-sensitive types such as me: there are several downstairs bedrooms, some with shared bathroom. The upstairs bedrooms are twenty bucks more and 100% roomier, and more importantly, quieter. The downstairs room I’d booked was immaculate, charming and had a lovely view but was also hard by the administrative offices and the kitchen.
When I asked if there might possibly be another room available, the staff could not have been more accommodating or more pleasant. I got whisked up to Room 6 which had a gorgeous view of the mountains and a little balcony.
When I went out there to sit for a bit, a blue jay alit on the railing less than two feet from my face and perched there for a good thirty seconds. I was convinced the creature had sensed my calming, Christ-like love; later I learned he was actually hoping I’d feed him. Still, to observe the slightly-raised black patch around his eye, as if it had been basted on from a separate bolt of cloth, was thrilling.
“Gentle quiet” is observed. No-one’s going to glare at you if you say “Good Morning,” in other words, but let’s not stomp around braying into our cell phones—which don’t worry as there is no cell reception, or no T-Mobile anyway, and no wifi. (You can walk down El Bosque Road a quarter of a mile if you really need to check your phone).
On the second floor is a Blessed Sacrament chapel, open 24 hours a day, where Sister Pauline (who has lived at the Center for 47 years) leads Centering Prayer daily. Retreatants are encouraged to stay on the grounds but I did leave to attend 7:45 am daily Mass at Our Lady of Carmel, a seven-minute drive away.
The Center also features a sand tray and, for a small extra fee, yoga, massage, or Embodied Personal Practice.
I stayed three nights and two full days. My time at the Center was restorative.
Two books I picked up while there and opened at random. One was Legacy of the Heart: The Spiritual Advantages of a Painful Childhood, by Wayne Muller. “[W]hat if suffering and death are simply given to us,” Muller wrote, “just as joy and wonder and hunger and ecstasy are given? What if pain is not an injustice, not something to be figured out, not someone’s fault?”
The other was Karl Rahner’s Spiritual Exercises. Here I was drawn to a chapter called “The Hidden Life of Our Lord.” Thinking of my friends back home—many of whom consider my Catholicism a perplexing aberration about which the less said, the better—I read: “We do not need any special psychological talent to perceive that remaining in the temple must have brought about a tormenting loneliness in the child Jesus….[I]t must have been very painful for the heart of Jesus that He could not explain His conduct to His mother, and that she did not even understand Him when He told her what He was about.”