Why El Retiro is My Personal Amusement Park

Updated: Aug 25


It’s summer 2021 and for those of us in the United States, where the coronavirus is in sharp decline due to the availability of vaccines, this means one word….Vacation!


After being cooped up inside for almost 16 months, where most any so-called “vacation” was limited to distances attainable by car, people are ready to get the heck out of the proverbial Dodge. I have friends who are traveling this summer to such longed-for locales as Italy, Greece, Turkey - the lure of the Mediterranean is simply too great to resist.


And yes, friends are flocking to their favorite vacation spots, including beloved amusement parks that make them smile. After all, during the pandemic we were all suffering in the mundane and ordinariness of our homes - which quickly became somewhat like a self-imposed prison...our own four walls. While many of us are more than blessed to live in California, with its temperate climate and access to such diverse topography - beaches, mountains, forests, vineyards, desert - we were not so thrilled to spend so much time at home, literally in fear that a step outside our door could lead to contracting the virus.


So why have I chosen to come to my personal amusement park, aka El Retiro and/or Jesuit Retreat Center in Los Altos, CA, a mere 20 miles south from my home? Why, after all, is El Retiro my happy state of mind, especially after the pandemic, for God’s sake?


To answer that accurately, we need to travel back 20 years ago, when I first came to this sacred hilltop, on a silent women’s retreat, at the nudging of my then new spiritual director. I’m not sure what exactly she said to convince me, but whatever it was, it worked. See, knowing myself, I would have put up some resistance, including “where will I get the money to pay for it?” and “I’ve never been on a silent retreat before. I like to talk too much, so I don’t think I can do it.”


Though I certainly didn’t know at the time, much less have the words to describe it, the Spirit was at work and despite my best efforts to heed the advice of the evil spirit saying “don’t go,” I found myself at El Retiro on a Friday night in January, surrounded by a bunch of women with grey hair, wearing loosely fitting clothing, dare I say polyester?


“How did I get here?” I asked myself rhetorically after only 5 minutes of being onsite. Honestly the literal “how” remains a mystery to me as well, because I had to come from San Francisco and didn't own a car, and I was pretty sure I didn’t spring for cab fare.


Yet, I went along with the program , finding my way to my own little private room with exactly, no more and no less: a bed, desk, chair, lamp, bathroom (thank goodness no sharing) and the requisite Bible. Now what?


There was a very sparse schedule outlining meal times and talks or presentations by the retreat leaders. Not knowing what else to do , I followed along and showed up at the appointed times to presumably start listening to “the voice of God.” I’m not quite sure if I heard anything from God that first night. Chances are I went to my room, got into my pajamas, and looked forward to a good and quiet night’s sleep.


As I awoke on Saturday, I thought I would do some exploring of the 38 acre grounds, map in hand. After all, I was on this pretty hilltop surrounded by natural beauty. I’m not quite sure what or when it happened, but at some point I began to relax, to breathe, to actually enjoy the silence. You might say I leaned into the silence. I began to relish this new way of being...yes I suppose even I could be silent for a while. My journal pages began to be filled with my various musings and looking back now, I realize I was hearing the soft murmurings of God in the leaves, trees, birdsong and fountains.


Before I knew it, it was Sunday afternoon and time to pack up my belongings and make my way North to San Francisco. But wait...I was just getting used to this and now it’s time to go? Already? Where had the time gone? Couldn’t I just stay a little bit longer and soak up a bit more silence?


Nope...we all filed dutifully out the door after our last mass and meal, being fed literally and spiritually. And then the strangest thing happened. I went to the local Peet's Coffee and low and behold, who was there? My ex-boyfriend who I had just broken up with a few weeks before! What was even more crazy was that while on retreat I had written him a letter (with no intent of ever mailing it), pouring out my heart and explaining to him that I knew our breaking up was the right thing for us. I actually titled the letter “Things to Tell Chris” and then poof! like magic, he appeared out of nowhere. And I got to tell him in person all that I had written to him the day prior.


Wowee! Wow! Wee! Did that really just happen? Was I dreaming, or worse yet, hallucinating? No, I wasn’t. This was real. In retrospect, I have the language for what occurred at that Peets: a grace, the work of the Spirit, a powerful prayer period manifest, a God job.


From then on, I was hooked. This place called El Retiro - translated as “retirement” or “withdrawal” - was indeed a magical place and I couldn’t wait to come back, which I’ve been doing for almost every year since. I even managed to get here in January 2020, by the grace of God, before the pandemic hit.


So why is this place happier and more magical to me than even that iconic amusement park? Because here I get to: think, rest, relax, dream, sleep, be, listen, pray, pour out my soul, breathe, slow down, unplug, hit pause, cry, mourn, discern, be alive, love and be loved, and most importantly, make memories with my God.


Yes, that’s the reason I booked my reservations here, not at an amusement park, as soon as they were open to safely receive guests, because I missed the magic of these sacred and hallowed grounds.


Ellen Kelly is a spiritual director. She earned a MTS from The Jesuit School of Theology

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