Most Southern Californians seeking an oasis of spiritual reflection and psychic tranquility can't follow Henry David Thoreau's example and escape to Walden Pond for two years. But they are an easy drive to a wide array of religious retreat centers and conference grounds, from arid desert monasteries to snow-capped mountain hideaways.
Some, surrounded by verdant gardens and burbling fountains, lie within the city limits of major metropolises yet seem a world away from the hassle and honking of nearby freeway grids.
Here, seekers can spend an hour or two, a day, a weekend or a week or more, in undirected solitude or under the leadership of retreat masters or spiritual counselors.
In all, there are more than 75 spiritual conference centers between Santa Barbara and San Diego. Most are owned or operated by churches or religious organizations but are open to non-members, and individuals and groups are invited to use the facilities--usually for moderate fees or donations--during specified periods.
'Family Vacations' Offered
At Mission San Luis Rey Retreat near Oceanside, for example, where "family vacations" are a specialty, a donation of $150 per person covers lodging for four week nights and 11 meals.
The Roman Catholic Directory for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles lists 21 major retreat centers in the Southland; the Official Guide to Christian Camps and Conference Centers describes 45 year-round facilities in the area, most of them evangelical in orientation.
At least two camps emphasize the traditions of Judaism. The Mt. Baldy Zen Center offers an introduction to the practice of Rinzai Zen. And several retreats relate to Eastern, New Age and eclectic spirituality.
Accommodations are as varied as the settings and sponsors. They range from the Arrowhead Springs Christian Conference Center in the foothills above San Bernardino, where the rich and famous once flocked when it was a luxury resort and spa, to the work-retreat program at the Ojai Foundation.
At Arrowhead Springs, operated by Campus Crusade for Christ, for $66 a night you can rent the sixth-floor suite occupied by Elizabeth Taylor on one of her honeymoons. But at the Ojai Founda tion, established in the tradition of Jiddu Krishnamurti, the late India-born mystic and philosopher, participants are expected to bring their own tents and sleeping bags.
"We concentrate on spiritual practices and the work of community and living on the land," explained registrar Jackie Cusick, noting that weeklong conferences coming soon include "Art, Social Transformation and American Buddhism," and "Womenspeak: A Wilderness Rite of Passage," which "offers women the opportunity to awaken relationship with the goddess . .
Beauty, serenity and opportunities for spiritual growth are hallmarks of most centers.
"We have a clearly stated spiritual purpose," said Brother Lary Pearce, guest master at Mt. Calvary Episcopal Monastery, a mission-style building richly appointed with carved-wood furniture and historic icons.
The monastery, which has a panoramic view of the Santa Barbara coastline, is run by four monks in the Benedictine tradition. Guests and monks dine together and often join in the five daily chapel services.
Not far away, nestled in the secluded oaks and eucalyptus trees of Montecito, is La Casa de Maria, a serene retreat once the home of the Sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Los Angeles. Originally a private estate, the main house--a classic of the early 1930s--has vaulted ceilings, pegged oak floors, beveled bathroom tiles, carved doors and bronze fixtures.
Serves 16,000 Annually
Later, Casa de Maria was a retreat primarily for married couples; now it serves 16,000 persons each year in an ecumenical environment. Beyond a shaded arbor is the jewel of the campus, a small, hushed meditation chapel. On the wall is a circle and cross mandala made of pin-sized holes. Thousands of points of light stream through from outside.
For a donation of $40 a day, individuals of all faiths can come to Casa de Maria to "search for truth, engage in dialogue, realize their own self-worth (and) experience the sacred," said program coordinator Ann Fischer.
Down the coast, three blocks from Pacific Coast Highway on Sunset Boulevard, is the Self-Realization Fellowship Lake Shrine, a daytime-only park for meditation, lectures--or just plain strolling and watching the swans swim on tranquil water.
Dedicated in 1950 by the group's founder, the late Paramahansa Yogananda, the lake shrine features the Mahatma Gandhi World Peace Memorial, where a portion of the India leader's ashes are enshrined, a chapel designed in the shape of an old Dutch windmill, and the Court of Religions, which contains symbols of Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism and Hinduism.