By ANDREW NELSON, Staff Writer | Published April 29, 2010
Women handed boxes of tissues to one another as they dried tears and dabbed swelling eyes. One by one, the dozen women sitting in the circle confessed what they were leaving behind as their retreat together ended. “My hurts.” “Negative energy.” “Satan.”
“I just feel free. I feel at peace with myself,” said one.
Said Melissa Peña: “I hope to remain just as close to God. I hope the meditation, everything I learned here sticks with me in my everyday life.”
Everyday life for these women means living in shelters for recovering addicts.
The Ignatius Retreat House recently hosted the women for a two-day, one-night break from the shelters. The women attended workshops, led peer counseling, prayed the Stations of the Cross and relaxed in the leafy, lush property overlooking the Chattahoochee River.
“They’ve lost their community (because of drug abuse). It is kind of bringing them back into community and to be community” for each other, said Maria Cressler, the executive director of the retreat facility.
Waiting in their private rooms as the women arrived were flowers in a vase, letters of encouragement written by strangers and a gift bag.
Tara Stallworth, 41, has been in treatment since March for her addiction to prescription pills. “I knew I’d die,” said Stallworth.
To walk around the trees, gaze at the river and marvel at the smallest flower were blessings, she said. Stallworth, a mother of two who said she is a former teacher in South Georgia, laughed at how in the past she’d have complained about a misplaced leaf on a lawn. But now, the same leaf fills her with wonder. Stallworth said she is “coming back alive through nature.”
The environment is “quiet enough to hear God speak back into our lives,” she said.
The invitation for retreat was an unexpected treat. She arrived with no expectations since the experience was new, said Stallworth, who is a Christian and married to a church pastor.
“I feel revived. I want to incorporate (the retreat activities) into my life,” she said.
The retreat is part of a national Catholic movement from the Chicago-based Ignatian Spirituality Program. It combines portions of the 12-step program used by groups like Alcoholic Anonymous with the principals of Ignatian spirituality developed by the Jesuits. During these retreats, people confront fears and rebuild trust, hear witness reflections, have time in nature and prayer. In 2010 the Atlanta retreat center is donating the resources to host eight of these retreats for men and women.
“When you meet them, you realize they are just like you with hopes and dreams. They have the courage, the strength, … they are women of faith,” said Maureen Ingalls, a spiritual director at the retreat center and a member of Our Lady of Lourdes Church, Atlanta. “If they get as much out of the retreat as I do, wow!”
Roxanne Wilhem, a parishioner of St. Ann Church, Marietta, said the retreat isn’t a one-time experience. A gathering in May is scheduled to bring the women back together, she said.
The retreat is a powerful experience in part because the women “lack an opportunity to grieve” and this time allows them to think, said Wilhem, a nurse. “They are just so full of joy and grateful to be here. It’s so obvious it’s bubbling over.”
Peña, a mother of three, drank herself into blackouts when she abused drugs and alcohol. For the 30-year-old, the retreat was new. “It’s been very touching. I feel more at one with myself, with God, in tune with nature,” she said.
The time away from the shelter where she lives gave her time to reflect on her past, she said. “I couldn’t think about it because there was so much noise,” she said.
During her day there, Peña, along with the others, spent some time painting as a way to deal with past hurts. Her painting illustrated herself coming out a dark place and arising to God. She showed God’s grace in her life falling like rain and reviving life to her heart.
“The whole experience I treasure the most,” she said.