Weekend Escape: Malibu : Friar Tuck-In : At Serra Retreat, visitors travel within while enveloped by lush landscapes and silence : Sounds of silence, nature and Franciscans' wisdom put a healing balm on the soul

My weekend of quiet and reflection and meditative peace began in a thrumming snarl of rush-hour traffic and blue exhaust haze on, first, the San Diego Freeway, then Pacific Coast Highway in Malibu. I hardly ever got out of first gear, and by the time I left that grim mob and turned right onto Serra Road, I was beginning to think that what I needed was a permanent gig with the Trappists and not just a couple of placid days on a retreat with the Franciscans.

But by the time I made it to the end of the winding road that leads to the top of the hill overlooking Malibu Creek, the hustling world was a mile and at least a world away.

I pulled the car into a slot near the eucalyptus grove and smiled as I remembered my frustrated stroll through those trees months before. I had been facing a difficult decision and had been pacing the path, unable to think straight, until suddenly . . . call it a breakthrough, a revelation, inspiration, grace. Whatever happened cleared my mind and calmed me. And I got my answer.

It was good to be back.

It's easy to see why Serra Retreat has stayed in operation all these years. Physically, it's a jewel of a place, set on a plateau tucked into the crook of a canyon and overlooking the sea. It is lovingly and lushly landscaped and the undulating and terraced grounds are dotted with many small benches in well-placed nooks and hollows where one can be alone to soak in the quiet and turn the mind and spirit inward. It's easy to block out the distant hum of traffic on PCH and home in on the calls of birds, the wind in the trees.

Many of the Early California-style buildings were built in 1970, when a fire destroyed the original mansion, built by the Rindge family in 1930 but never occupied by them, and purchased by the Franciscan Friars of California in 1942. But the layout of the place--the fountains, statues, contoured flower beds, ornate tile work, attention to both long views and small places--bespeaks a love of nature and quiet contemplation that were characteristic of the order's founder, St. Francis.


I had signed up for a private retreat, craving a bit of time all to myself. I had been told on the phone that a men's retreat group would be using the facilities that weekend and that I was welcome to join them. I said I would stick to my original solitary plan, and I was assigned a single, private room in one of the four two-story wings in the complex that contains guest rooms.

But when I signed in at the front desk, I was given a schedule for the men's retreat and, curious, I decided to sit in on the orientation meeting that evening after dinner. About 55 men, mostly from Catholic parishes in the Los Angeles area (my own parish is in Santa Ana), had gathered in the center's conference room at 8:15 when Father Howard Hall began speaking. An amiable, slightly aging Barney Rubble in a brown Franciscan robe, Hall recounted the history of the retreat house and introduced the overarching topic that had been chosen for all organized retreats at Serra that year: "the web of life."

I decided to stick with the group.

(Many different retreat groups use Serra throughout the year: men, women, married couples, recovery groups, divorced people, priests and nuns. Hall said private, individual retreats usually are made during the week and that the organized groups reserve the center far in advance on most weekends. However, the groups are open to anyone, regardless of denomination. I was allowed to sign up for a private retreat on the weekend because the men's group had not filled all the rooms and a private room with a queen bed was available.)

Most of the rooms sleep two in side-by-side twin beds (there are 101 guest beds at the center). The suggested donation for a private room and all meals for the weekend is $125 per night. A double room and meals is $90 apiece per night. The rates were recently raised for the first time in four years, Hall said, in part because of several maintenance projects that need doing, such as repairs of rain damage.

I decided to turn in early (morning Mass was scheduled for 7 a.m.), but first I walked past the 2-year-old family chapel, with its windowed walls overlooking the gardens, and strolled down the steps to the end of the promontory known as Serra Point. Beneath a large white wood cross and a statue of Father Junipero Serra, I looked out into the dark at the now-invisible sea, the ribbon of lights on PCH far below and down into the neighborhood surrounding Malibu Creek, where an army of frogs had come to noisy life. The breeze was balmy and the sky lighted with several visible constellations and a crescent moon. There was a feeling of sacredness about the place.

Back in my room--plain and functional, with a queen bed, a small desk and a little attached bathroom with shower and tub (think of a combination of college dorm room and Motel 6)--I read the first four chapters of Pope John Paul II's "Crossing the Threshold of Hope," then quickly fell asleep.

The next day was a leisurely combination of talks by the Franciscan retreat staff and quiet time to be by oneself. I sought out a couple of favorite spots on the hillside with panoramic views of the sea and the hills, revisited the eucalyptus grove at the eastern edge of the grounds with its Stations of the Cross, spent a bit of time in the center's little library reading the collected letters of Pope John XXIII, browsed in the tiny bookstore/gift shop and strolled.

Silence was both a blessing and a small curse, at least for me. During retreat weekends, most meals are eaten in silence, which, to a gregarious eater, is no fun at all. Still, the meals, prepared by a kitchen staff and served in a bright, modern cafeteria-style dining room overlooking the ocean, are substantial and quite good. Contemplation doesn't include culinary deprivation, as such dishes as veal and pasta, scalloped potatoes, coffee, tea, lots of fruit juice (no wine) and abundant vegetables and fresh fruit suggest. It's not the Russian Tea Room, but it's very possible to gain a pound or two.

(On some retreats, almost complete silence is observed throughout the weekend. My weekend was more typical: periods of silence occasionally during part of each day, with subdued conversation allowed at all other times.)

The Franciscan staff members made themselves available for individual chats and counseling. ("Just tap us on the shoulder," said Father Anthony Garibaldi, a little bald friar with a bristling mustache and a yelping laugh who spoke on, among many other topics, the usefulness of guilt and the utter uselessness of shame.) And, at 7:30 that evening, they heard confessions.

I hadn't brought an alarm clock, but the next morning I woke up, cleanly and quickly, at 6:45 and went outside to watch the sun rise over the hillside to the southeast. A thin fog bank rolled in and suffused the entire scene. It was so striking that I didn't even mind eating my breakfast of pancakes, sausage, eggs, orange juice and honeydew melon in silence. Heck, I thought, why sweat the small stuff? A weekend of contemplation, prayer and quiet had mellowed me considerably.

(Inevitable reality: You do have to pay for the weekend, and you pony up Sunday morning during a brief meeting of all the guests, an occasion Father Howard Hall calls "the sermon on the amount." Bring cash or a checkbook; Serra has no credit card billing machine.)

A final turn through the eucalyptus grove, then Mass at 10:30 and a pre-departure lunch--this time decidedly unsilent--and one by one, the guests drifted off down the hill, back to the world of exhaust fumes and loud radios and freeways and deadlines and bills.

Funny. None of it bothered me a bit.


Budget for One

Single room, weekend, at suggested

per-night donation of $125 (includes three meals a day): $250.00

Gas, round trip from Santa Ana: $10.00

FINAL TAB: $260.00

Serra Retreat, 3401 Serra Road, P.O. Box 127, Malibu, CA 90265; tel. (310) 456-6631, fax (310) 456-9417.

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