By Amy Wenk
amywenk@reporternewspapers.net

Everyday life features so many distractions — gridlocked traffic, unending e-mail, the blaring television, chatty co-workers — that little time remains for personal reflection.

A nearby place offers a timeout — a spot to slow down, contemplate in silence and improve your spiritual well-being.

The Ignatius House Jesuit Retreat Center is far from the noise of daily life yet close to home in Sandy Springs. The center is on 20 acres off Riverside Drive, perched on a bluff overlooking the Chattahoochee River.

“The Ignatius House provides such a unique atmosphere, it is hard to ignore the beauty and tranquility that you find here,” said Atlanta resident Christine Smith, who first took a respite at the center in August 2007. “Every time I leave, I am blessed with a new sense of perspective and optimism about myself, my life and my relationship with God and others.”

The experience

Visitors of all faiths gather almost every weekend at the Ignatius House to explore and evaluate their spirituality. The center offers about 45 conference-style retreats a year, each with a different theme. The excursions begin with supper Thursday or Friday and end after Sunday Mass and lunch.

“You and I, to stay healthy physically, need to exercise physically,” said Robert Fitzgerald, the center’s executive director since 1996. “To stay healthy spiritually, you need to exercise spiritually, and best (are) the spiritual exercises of St. Ignatius. The exercises and the retreat invite us to more, to a closer unity with God, a closer relationship with God.”

As a group, guests listen to presentations about religious experience and personal growth. Between the talks, the participants take individual time for reflection and are encouraged to walk the property.

On the acreage, a waterfall flows into a meandering creek. Trails abound in the wooded landscape, and several decks overlook the river, offering quiet spots to take in the natural world.

“The peaceful atmosphere was very helpful in realizing the beauty of everyday life,” said Heather Stewart, 24, a Midtown resident who has twice visited the Ignatius House.

In their free time, guests are welcome to visit the outdoor chapel, which was built at the bottom of a cellular tower and features a soaring stained-glass cross. Or they can worship at one of two indoor chapels, study in the library or visit the Trinity Book Shop. In addition, Stations of the Cross are scattered along the lawn, offering a walking meditation on the end of Jesus’ life.

Opportunities for one-on-one spiritual direction are available with the priests during the retreat.

“Spiritual direction is a chance to find out where God is working in your life,” said the Rev. Mark Mossa, a newly ordained priest who led a young-adult retreat in August.

The Ignatius House also offers directed retreats in July. For five, eight or 10 days, participants embark on an individual prayer experience under the guidance of a Jesuit director, who offers daily counseling and Scripture suggestions. About 42 people attended the directed retreat this year, Fitzgerald said.

Both types of retreat require participants to remain silent during their stay. The one exception is the young-adult retreat held each year, which integrates small group discussions while encouraging moments of silence.

“A retreat attempts to wake people up,” Fitzgerald said. “A retreat is done in silence, not because silence somehow is magical — it is just silence — but in order to listen, we have to be silent. And so the invitation of a retreat is to let God self-communicate and self-reveal to each of us individually as God chooses to reveal and to communicate, knowing what we most need at that time.”

The Ignatius House also holds a prayer group every Wednesday, as well as Mass each Sunday. Additionally, a Day of Reflection is held on the first Saturday of each month at the Jesuit residence.

The center’s origins

There are 24 Jesuit retreat houses in the nation. The Sandy Springs center is the only one in Georgia. The next nearest location is in Louisiana.

The Sandy Springs facility has offered spiritual retreats to the community since 1961, but the history of the center dates back to 1957, when a woman gave her home and land to the New Orleans Province of the Society of Jesus.

Suzanne Spalding Schroder donated her two-story summer home and land on the condition the property be used as a retreat house. Her house is now the residence of the four Jesuit priests who live at the site.

On Dec. 18, 1960, a newly constructed retreat center was blessed and dedicated to Schroder. The two-story brick building included 49 bedrooms with private baths.

In 2000, construction of a larger dining room and kitchen began; that work was completed a year later.

Atlanta Archbishop Wilton Gregory dedicated the new St. Ignatius Chapel in September 2005.

Who is Ignatius?

Each retreat at the Ignatius House employs the spiritual exercises of St. Ignatius Loyola, the founder of the Society of Jesus (the Jesuits).

Approved by Pope Paul III in 1540, the society is today the largest religious order of the Roman Catholic Church, with more than 10,000 priests, brothers and trainees.

The major outreach efforts of the Jesuits are retreat work and education. Jesuit means “yes, Jesus” in Latin, a response Ignatius expected from all members of the society no matter the holy demand.

But Ignatius was not always a devout man. Fitzgerald said he was Spanish royalty who first found his identity with the military.

“He was a rather vain person, quite honestly,” Fitzgerald said. “He loved to dress up with the military. He loved to be the dashing soldier with the women.”

When his leg was shattered at the Battle of Pamplona against the French, Ignatius was sent to recover in a Spanish monastery. To pass the time while he healed, Ignatius requested romance novels to read, Fitzgerald said. He was supplied instead with a book on the lives of saints, “The Imitation of Christ” by Thomas à Kempis and most likely the Bible.

“As he fantasized about saving the damsel in the romance novel … he would think, ‘Well, what a great thing to be a hero,’ ” Fitzgerald said. “But he then began to fantasize to be a soldier for Christ. And those fantasies — those imaginations — became much, much stronger and lasted much longer, and Ignatius began to wake up.

“There was a fire in his heart — a fire in his authentic person that really was where he was being drawn, and so he began to journal these experiences, and out of that came the Spiritual Exercises.”

In 1522, Ignatius went to Manresa, Spain, where he lived as a beggar, praying seven hours a day in a cave outside town and attending daily Mass. Enlightened while sitting by a river, he drafted the Spiritual Exercises, which the pope approved in 1548.

The exercises are set out in a brief manual and are divided into four stages, which originally stretched over 30 days. The handbook presents corresponding prayers and meditations for each phase.

The same notions are today condensed but still focus on the consideration of God’s generosity and the reality of human sin, as well as the life and teachings of Jesus.