First of all, WOW. I have way more photos of this place than I can fit into one post, even after editing a ton for this one. I’m going to have to do several posts to get them all in, so here’s hoping I can continue to find things to say about the Villa as I share them. That said, let’s take a look at what I’ve got so far, shall we?
Entrance to the Villa de Matel
The Villa de Matel is the Motherhouse of the Sisters of Charity of the Incarnate Word – a Congregation that began in 1866. It sits on about 70 acres off South Wayside and is generally closed to the public except for special events such as holidays (where choral concerts are presented in the chapel) and the occasional funeral. The Ruah center consists of two floors in one wing of the convent, and is available to any group or individuals who wish to spend time there in silent reflection.
Being a generally secluded spot to the outside world, a retreat here can be magical if you commit yourself to the experience; I have been going to the Villa since the 90s, when a friend suggested it to me as a place to vacation without having to spend a lot of money. The Ruah center asks for donations, requesting that each person who stays there give as much as they are called to give by putting their gift in an envelope and leaving it in a box on their way out. So, when I was in my twenties and broke, I could get away for a few days without going more broke to do it.
The experience has changed since I first started coming here; I admit that back then it was more for a cheap vacation than any sort of spiritual guidance. And the act of being silent, back in the 90s, was far more radical and difficult than it is now, when I no longer talk to people on the phone (choosing to text instead) and have access to technology, and therefore the outside world, at all times. Retreatants are encouraged not to bring cell phones, but honestly, that’s not practical in today’s world, and while I have on occasion encountered guests who openly break the rule – like this last time I visited, when a woman would go into her dorm room at night, which was right next to mine, and make multiple phone calls, of which I could hear EVERY SINGLE WORD because the dorm walls are thin and small and packed closely together – most people, like myself, have them with them in a silent mode, and keep them tucked away somewhere instead of using them in any way (although I will use it to take occasional photos).
iPhone shot of the entrance to the convent
Also, when I first starting visiting Ruah, it was not mandatory to meet with a spiritual advisor, but at some point that changed and became a requirement. I can understand that, though; the center has a purpose, which is to assist people in drawing closer to God, and they feel it is their duty to guide and assist their guests in doing so. Plus, it’s basically spiritual counseling that gets added into your stay without any extra fee, so it’s honestly pretty wonderful, unless you are uncomfortable with Catholicism or religion, in which case this probably isn’t a place you want to spend a few days at anyway. And by the way – being Catholic is NOT a requirement; all the literature about Ruah encourages people of all faiths to visit. I am not Catholic myself, and it has never been a problem in any way.
Even the stairwells are lovely – this one is from the third floor dorms to the second floor retreat area
Usually your meeting with the advisor is scheduled to coincide with your arrival; I have been going here for years and meeting with the same advisor every time, so the last time I went I was allowed to check in a day early (my advisor’s day off) and hold off on meeting with her until the next morning (another cool thing this time was that, for the first two nights, I was the only retreatant and had the entire two floors to myself). On a usual stay, though, you’d meet with your advisor, she would ask what you hope to get out of your stay (and man, did I get mine an earful this time!), then she would provide you with guidance in the form of Bible verses, other books or excerpts as recommended reading, and prayers. I’m often amazed at how much Ruah offers to people while asking for so little in return – just the counseling alone would cost over $100 an hour in the outside world, spiritual or not!
Once that is done, you are free to walk the entirety of the 70 acres; the center is in an old part of Houston that has huge Magnolia trees (and huge tree roaches, but welcome to Texas) and even a few hills, and over the years they’ve carved out some beautiful walking trails through what would feel, if it weren’t for the rush of very close-by traffic, like the heart of a beautiful old forest. Closer to the buildings the landscaping is meticulously maintained and symmetrical, with invitations everywhere to stop and appreciate the beauty in the form of benches and swings.
I used my phone to film the scene from this swing – the video is below. You can see what I mean about that traffic; part of what is so interesting about this place is how serene it feels while being smack in the center of an incredibly urban part of town, with a major highway about a mile away – birds, cicadas, and LOTS of traffic! For as long as the Villa has been here, the Sisters have been involved in serving the primarily Hispanic community that surrounds it, offering everything from spiritual guidance to ESL classes and job training.
Unfortunately, every time I’ve gone to Ruah has been during the summer, when the oppressive heat prevents me from spending much time walking the trails. A random wander around the grounds in the morning or evening is OK, but even then the humidity is stifling, and I like to stay close to the casa so I can get back to air-conditioning ASAP. It is my intention to make a trip back in the fall, so I can experience it at a time I can appreciate the outside spaces more than I’ve been able to in the past.
These shots are still in the more manicured areas of the grounds; I didn’t take any photos of the nature trails which appear more natural and wild. Maybe next time.
I’m an indoors sort anyway, and a sucker for a beautiful structure like this one. The areas of the second wing where guests are invited to wander are beautiful even without the care the Sisters put into making them places of silent reflection and worship.
My favorite room is the Oratory; the light coming through the windows is bright and pleasing, I love stained glass and the shape of those windows (you can see them in the entrance photo at the top of the post), and it’s small enough to feel cozy. I never use the chairs, but pull out some of the floor pillows provided and sit on the floor in front of the altar, propped back against a wall (this space is small and was hard to photograph, even with my wide-angle lens, so apologies for the weird framing and angle here). I bring my iPad full of books to read, a notebook and a pen, and sometimes if I’m alone I just babble to myself or to God or whomever I think might be listening.
The Oratory – a “happy place” I can picture in my mind if I need to de-stress
Next to the Oratory is an Icon Room, where people go to sit in a chair, light a candle, and reflect upon whichever icon they choose. This is a form of prayer that was foreign to me when I first came here, and I never much used this room until recently. The chapel has always spoken to me, which really isn’t that hard when it’s so beautiful, and eventually I made the connection between my love of staring at those stained-glass windows and the little icons people would stare at while sitting in a chair. Since making that connection, I’ve used it quite a bit and found it healing; however, getting a photo of it was difficult. There were either people in there or nearby (I do not like to take photos of the interiors when others are present; even though it’s not disallowed I feel like it’s a distraction people don’t need) or I couldn’t get a decent angle because each chair is partitioned off from the others, creating all these tiny spaces in an already small room. So this is the best I got:
Stained-glass window in the chapel
There is a Centering Prayer room next, where the Sisters meet in the evenings to pray. If you are on the second floor at this time, you can hear them chanting and singing, and it’s lovely. Aside from holding this room for centered prayer sessions (something with which I am still unfamiliar) it acts as another space retreatants can use to sit and reflect – the view out the windows of the front entrance is particularly lovely, and I find this a nice spot to sit at night once it’s dark outside; I switch on one of the little lamps and sit down in a rocking chair and feel completely at home. This could be due in part to the fact that my grandparents and great-grandparents all had homes in this area when I was a kid, and so much of the construction and the grounds reminds me of them (not that their houses had near the level of architecture the Villa has, but still. They all reflect the era in which they were built – and the Magnolia trees in this part of town are always in my memory). For some reason, I bypassed this room on my photography jaunt, but I did take a video out the window with my phone during one of the many rainstorms that popped up while I was there:
At one end of the second wing is the chapel, which we’ve already seen – you can enter at the balcony level and take the stairs down to the first floor. This is a real treat, since the chapel is not open to the public, but as a retreatant you are free to move about or sit and reflect at any time (although it’s pitch-dark and creepy as hell at night, so while the doors are open 24-7, I don’t recommend it). At the other end of the wing are a few more meeting and prayer spaces and a beautiful balcony – another place I haven’t ever been able to use much due to the heat.
These two rooms are used often for group retreats, meetings, and classes that are held at the convent; I’ve only been here once when these were being used and off-limits to other guests, but I know they use them often. The first one is another cozy spot to sit and read and relax; it’s quite homey and the views are beautiful.The second space is obviously more of a formal meeting area, so to me it’s just a thruway to other parts of the building, but when I first started coming here, it was an art room that guests could use. It had watercolors, pastels, easels, books, and all sorts of crafty and creative stuff lying around; I really enjoyed spending time in the room then, but I suspect it had to be converted to accommodate for an increasing need for group spaces and classes.
This is another room that was hard to photograph due to the dividers cutting it all up into smaller spaces. Each shuttered-off section has an old, comfy recliner and a boom box sitting next to it, complete with old-school headphones and CDs and even cassette tapes (!) to choose from and listen to, while you kick back and enjoy the views. My first few times I came here, I lived in the relaxation room and even fell asleep one time and stayed most of the night down there instead of in my room – but back then it was in a different location that looked over another of my favorite spots, and it was smaller, darker, and cozier than this one. Ever since it moved I haven’t much felt myself drawn to the space anymore, but each time I visit I am called to certain places over others, so that could change at any time.
Ah yes, the balcony. This has to be one of the money shots of promoting the Villa – it’s just lovely, and I think it visually sums up the whole space nicely. It’s clear that every single plant is given a lot of attention – this is Houston, in July, and none of them are dead! – and all those randomly-placed chairs almost demand that you sit down, slow down, stop fussing about, and pay attention to the trees and the sky. The rooftop you see in the near distance is another building on the grounds – it is a heritage center that was not here when I first started coming, and that I’ve never been inside. I keep meaning to ask my advisor about it when I come and forgetting to do so, because it doesn’t appear to be open to people on retreat, and I’ve been too timid to pop my head in and see.
Another favorite spot – the cloister. They actually call this the “Cloister Walk,” which feels odd to me since cloister means walkway already, so isn’t that calling it a walk walk? Anyway, this is another sweet spot in the whole place – tough to enjoy in the summer, but covered enough that it’s tolerable, and I was lucky that every day I stayed the weather did that Houston thing it does so well, which is start out bright and beautiful, then turn into a gray stormy downpour in the span of 20 minutes before brightening back up in the late afternoon so everything’s completely dried out by dinnertime. This is the BEST PLACE EVER to be seated during a rainstorm. Don’t believe me? Watch it in action here (I’m just bummed I couldn’t get any thunderclaps on video – they kept eluding me until i gave up):
Also, some of those windows you see in the photo on the left side used to belong to the old relaxation room, so when you sat in a recliner you looked out at this view instead of the entrance to the convent. Not that there’s anything wrong with the convent’s entrance, as it’s as lovely as the rest of the place, I just preferred this view and, as I said, it was dark and shady whereas the new room is incredibly sunny and bright.
If you go through those doors at the end of the Cloister Walk, you are back at the chapel, and have come full-circle through Ruah. As a sidenote: I attempted several times to do a video walk-through of the place so you could get a sense of the scale and location of the rooms, but the videos took up too much space on my phone, and I kept hitting record, making the entire walk, and finding out after the fact that it stopped filming after the first room. Then, I deleted enough data to be able to record, and I screwed up and filmed the whole thing without turning my phone the proper direction, so I said to hell with it and decided I’d just bring my real videocamera next time and do it properly.
You can walk this labyrinth while the bell tower in the chapel (probably not the right term) looks on
I stayed three nights, and with that I got two days of spiritual guidance (an hour each time), free reign of the place for the first two days (it is also a convent, remember, so free reign just means no one else at the retreat center part of the building), and three fairly boring but square meals a day. I don’t want to reveal what I paid, but if you did this yourself you would, before you check out, pay whatever you felt called to pay at the end of your stay, no strings attached. And at least for me, I go away feeling much more centered and at peace.
Statue guarding the entrance to the Sister’s cemetery
As I said earlier, this doesn’t even scratch the surface of the photos I took during my two trips there this summer. I’ll be working on them for quite some time, so more will be forthcoming.