I find I am most excited about the Advent and Christmas seasons around Nov. 7. Then, the First Sunday of Advent hits, the calendar starts filling up, I start feeling a teeny bit of the stress. I imagine the Holy Family felt fleeing Herod.
Times like this it’s good to know that right here in greater L.A., nestled in the San Gabriel foothills, is a spot where you can possibly get away for a day or two: Mater Dolorosa Passionist Retreat Center.
The mission-style retreat house, dating from 1949, is set on 30 acres of beautifully landscaped, Old California-style grounds. The Center is best known for its very popular ministry of group and silent weekend retreats.
But if space and staff permit — call ahead and be flexible — you can rent an individual room for $55 a day. For $65 you can spend the night. For $95 you can spend the night and eat three meals.
Retreats mean different things to different people. Some folks look upon them as times and places to bond with their friends. To me, a retreat means silence and solitude. That meant for my one-night stay that I opted to eat in my room. I packed a small coffee maker, cheese, dried fruit, crackers …
A heavenly rain was falling all along the 210 East. I rolled in around 10:30. (You can arrive as early as 10 a.m.) The center is set on a rise, affording gorgeous views of the flats below. I was assigned a lovely south-facing room on the second floor. Below, a bank of olive trees had leaves of delicate green and silver. Deer grazed.
I unpacked and settled in. “What does your heart yearn for this Advent?” the priest had asked in his homily that morning (Mass is offered at the Retreat Center on Tuesdays only, 8:30 a.m.).
Having risen at 3:38 a.m., my heart longed for a nap. This goes wildly against my Yankee upbringing and the Catholic “curse of responsibility,” as my friend Father Terry calls it. But with the cozy shroud of fog and the sound of pattering rain, I lay right down, read for a bit, and fell asleep for an hour.
I can’t say complete silence reigned. Several retreatants talked at full voice in the hall. A bus of high school students arrived around 4. But for the most part, the quiet was beautiful and deep.
The Passionists arrived in 1923. They gave their first retreats under a giant Moreton Bay Fig Tree. Four priests and a brother still live on-site. The grounds are hard against the San Gabriel mountains (where the Center’s property extends another 53 acres). In the drought, the wildlife, desperate for water, have been coming down to nose around.
One of the handouts reads: “WILDLIFE ALERT!! Mountain lion, bear, bobcat, & coyote are active on the property. Extreme caution should be taken while outdoors...”
Dawn, dusk, and at night, the handout continued, are the most dangerous times. It was raining! The animals would have their own drinking water at the moment, I figured.
So I started out at dusk for a brisk constitutional, bombarded by sensations: The smell of wet eucalyptus, mesquite, desert shrubs. Piles of red and yellow leaves underfoot. The mountains wreathed in mist. Huge old agaves. A bone-white statue of Christ, spot-lit in the gathering dark.
Then it started pouring. Soaking wet I arrived back in my room, fetched my breviary, and repaired to the chapel to sit before the Blessed Sacrament and say Evening Prayer.
I had the chapel to myself. Throughout the grounds and buildings, including above the altar, are large statues of Christ in agony: the kind of statues that when you’re young you consider baroque and overdone and as you age, realize are hardly bloody enough.
What does your heart yearn for? To be kinder. To know how to love. To not feel so afraid.
A sound night’s sleep and up again at 3: winter hours. I didn’t want to miss anything. Coyotes bay. First light. A little work. Morning Prayer in the chapel. Raindrops on the plumeria. The tall old trees alive with goldfinches.
The sun was out and later I took a long stroll: the Sacred Heart Plaza with its Garden of Seven Sorrows and Amphitheater, the Cemetery with its Juan Diego Shrine, the Grotto with its Memorial Garden Wall and Pillars, the St. Paul of the Cross Pergola and Streams. The Stations of the Cross, one of the Center’s big draws.
Two “coffee centers” are available with tea, instant coffee, sugar, and Splenda. A third-floor library features comfortable chairs and lamps. They have wi-fi.
“Come away by yourselves to a deserted place and rest a while,” Christ invites us (Mark 6:31). Before, after, or during Advent. Or Lent. Or any time of the year.
I left around 1 and on the way back to Silver Lake, met my friend Christine at the 101 Noodle Express for lunch. But that’s another Christmas story.