Transitions to Transformation

Walking a path to healing at La Casa de Maria

By Leslie A. Westbrook

Photo by David Dobreski


e all have challenges in life.

I’d certainly had plenty of my own in recent times. I had been on a roller coaster of grief and had been all over the map, both physically and emotionally, after losing more than 20 loved ones over the course of just two years.

Sometimes you just have to say to yourself, “Stop the world, I want to get off!” And I knew just the right place to go.

Few healing places near at hand provide the silence and gentleness of The Center for Spiritual Renewal at La Casa de Maria Retreat Center. The facility is housed in a historic, elegant, antique-filled mansion set on 26 acres in the heart of Montecito, and it is in a category of its own.

Perhaps it is the quietude and the gentle care of those who look after guests from all walks of life. The nourishing meals and the beautiful setting also contribute. There is something deep here that is rarely found elsewhere.

So I made my way to La Casa de Maria for two nights of healing.

Upon arrival, I was shown around, given the ground rules and meal times before being helped upstairs to my quarters. I immediately collapsed onto the huge bed and soft pillows for an afternoon nap. My room had a beautiful hand-carved walnut ceiling and windows that overlooked a giant eucalyptus tree. Doors also open to a porch above the lovely central courtyard. An antique desk, comfortable wing-back chairs, Persian carpet, vintage bathroom and large walk-in closet added to the splendor.

At dinner, several other guests and I gathered in the kitchen; and our very talented chef, Chantelle Cheng, explained the beautiful meal that lay before us, which included vegan and gluten-free dishes. There were couscous, a squash and chickpea tagine, beef kafta, organic chard from a local garden and ginger cake for dessert. We all joined hands as “Sister” Pauline — a former Catholic nun who has been active here since 1947 — led a pre-dinner prayer. The interfaith Immaculate Heart Community oversees the retreat, which is open to one and all, regardless of religious or spiritual inclinations. People come here for healing, yes, but also to renew and celebrate a special occasion in a contemplative setting or even just to read or write.

I fell asleep easily to the clicking of crickets and awoke to gentle birdsong. In the early morning, I tiptoed quietly across the creaky oak floorboards, down the stone staircase with its magnificent grille work, stepped into an overcast early morning and proceeded to the labyrinth that is on part of the grounds surrounding the retreat house.

Across centuries, walking a labyrinth has been associated with the mysteries of life, death and resurrection, and represents our passage through time and experience. The center suggests that it is good to pick a word or intention upon entering. The word “transition” came to mind. As I walked silently on the eucalyptus-tree bark shards and rock-lined path, I thought of my beloveds who had transitioned from this world. My own transitions, as I faced and questioned my own mortality, came to mind as well.

The brochure at the entrance to the labyrinth states: “Surrender to the journey with an open mind and open heart” and lists three stages of the process. “Purgation” – letting go of distractions. Next, “Illumination.” A new thought entered my mind, loud and clear, like a bell: Transformation.

For the third and last stage, I was to join with the sacred as I exited the walking path. I continued my silent walk to another part of the grounds and was drawn to a large marble sculpture with the title “Transformation.” Was it serendipity? Or had I merged onto the right spiritual highway? Had I joined the sacred? Perhaps.

I returned for self-serve breakfast — a spread that included steel-cut oats, fruit, hard-boiled eggs, homemade granola and toast — and then retreated back to my excellent digs to face the quiet for a few hours. A balcony in the ballroom has been transformed into a Jungian sandbox, where visitors are welcome to explore their internal symbolic world through the placement of figurines and totem-like artifacts found on the surrounding shelves. And there were enough books all around to fulfill a lifetime of questing.

My full day of quiet included a self-serve healthy and delicious lunch and a healing massage followed by a refreshing dip in the pool and a laze in the warm afternoon sun. I watched an amber-colored sycamore leaf roll across the ground and then land in the pool and float on the surface. When is the last time you turned off your cell phone and watched a leaf?

Our last supper was another delicious, healthy feast that included chicken saltimbocca, a beautiful salad and green beans.

The next morning, we said our goodbyes and exchanged hugs. Most times, during my two-night stay, I hardly saw another soul except at meals. Even so, several of us forged a bond.

I had rested in the splendor, comfort and sweet embrace of La Casa de Maria and I did encounter spiritual renewal. How did the healing come about? I believe by being quiet and stepping off the spinning globe for a few moments and listening.

And, yes, even praying.

While La Casa de Maria and its Center for Spiritual Renewal may truly be a little bit of heaven on earth, you don’t have to come here to find inner peace. But once you unplug, it certainly comes easy. 

La Casa de Maria
800 El Bosque Road
Santa Barbara, CA 93108

The retreat recommends that visitors who use the labyrinth as a tool for meditation “surrender to the journey with an open mind and open heart.”

C. G. Jung once said,“Often the hands know how to solve a riddle with which the intellect has wrestled in vain.” The Jungian sandbox and its many totems and figurines allow for hands-on therapeutic exploration.


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