Tuesday, November 29, 2016


I have a dear Catholic friend named Diane who, about a year ago, invited me to go on a retreat with her to a Benedictine monastery in Valyermo, California, just over an hour from where we live. It was somewhat out of my comfort zone but exactly the type of interfaith experience I have learned to value, so I accepted her invitation. The earliest my schedule and the retreat schedule matched up, however, was the second week in July, so I had to wait a while.

It was worth the wait, and in fact I think I will go again if given the opportunity. I found at least ten things that visitors need to see/experience when at St. Andrew's Abbey in Valyermo.

St. Benedict, who lived in Italy from c. 480-543 AD, is often called "The Founder of Western Monasticism" and is the Patron Saint of Europe. The Benedictines observe a strict daily schedule revolving around gathering in the monastery chapel five times a day for prayer. Guests are not required to attend all (or even any) of those prayers, but I tried to go with Diane (who went to them all) to two or three each day. The focus on prayer is one of the things that makes visiting St. Andrew's a unique spiritual experience.

Resounding peals of the bell standing outside the chapel call the monks and guests to prayer four times a day. (Out of respect for sleepy guests, the monks don't ring the bell for the earliest prayer at 6:00 AM, which I confess I never attended).

                                                                 This is the daily schedule:
6:00 AM: VIGILS (The first communal prayer of the morning)
6:30-7:30: Lecto Divina (Contemplative scripture study)
7:30: LAUDS (Morning prayer)
8:00: Breakfast (Eaten in total silence, called "Grand Silence")
8:30-11:30: Assigned labor or study (This was the first of our two daily session of lecture/discussion for the retreat)
12:00 PM: Conventional MASS
1:00: Lunch with guests
1:30-4:00: Assigned labor or study (Session two of retreat lectures and discussion)
4:00-5:30: Study, rest, exercise
5:30: Lectio Divina
6:00: VESPERS (Evening prayer)
6:30: Dinner (in silence)
8:00-8:30: Community recreation
8:30: COMPLINE (Night prayer)

The Benedictine liturgy and music focuses on the Psalms, which the monks sing through completely (even the more violent or salacious psalms) every month or so as part of their prayer services. One of the monks is the "lead" singer or cantor (I'm not sure if that is the correct term). He sings his part, and then the other monks and congregants sing other parts, sometimes a capella, sometimes accompanied by a small organ.

The Valyermo chapel, which was originally the horse stable on the ranch that was here, is small and simple. The monks--always wearing their long black robes--sit facing each other on either side of the simple stone altar, and visitors/congregants sit on the long benches in the foreground.  I tried to find a time when the chapel was empty so that I could take some better pictures, especially of the unique crucifix, but I NEVER found it without at least one person inside praying (a testimony to the devotion of visitors), so I had to stand at the back and sneak my pictures.

I finally purchased a postcard of the wonderful crucifix hanging behind the altar and took a picture of it. It was carved by the famous New Mexican artist Jose Benito Ortega (1858-1941). According to the postcard, this piece is considered "a classic of Southwest Spanish-American Folk Art. An angel is collecting the blood of Christ, which is reminiscent of old iconography in France and Spain." The details on the crucifix merit a close look, particularly the sensitive, kind face of Christ:
Each retreat has a theme, and the theme of mine was "The Holiness of Work: A Spirituality of Full and Creative Engagement." The description of the retreat read: Work is a necessity in every person's life. The role of work is a positive engagement in one's life project including its social and altruistic dimensions. Though work can be a burden to carry, it is also a means of supporting self and others in a way that enhances personal dignity and creativity. In the story of creation, God saw that what He had made and done was good. Not only is work necessary, it is good, and it is a path of holiness that ought to be seen as an investment and participation in God's work of creation, re-creation, and regeneration.

Good stuff, right? I was just about to start a new job, and this was the perfect topic for me. The retreat lasted three days and was led by Father Francis, who had served as the abbot of St. Andrew's for sixteen years, from 1992 to 2008. (By the way, a monastery led by an abbot is called an abbey.) His lectures, held in a very comfortable common room, were a thought-provoking blend of scripture, theology, and everyday life applications drawn from his own experience and from his reading. I was impressed by the breadth and depth of Father Francis's knowledge, and I took pages of notes. I was also impressed by how welcome I felt. (One of the Benedictine "rules" is one of hospitality.) I'm sure it's not a common thing to have a Mormon woman at a Benedictine retreat, but my religion didn't seem to matter, just my desire to learn and participate.  

I think daytime-only guests are welcome to visit, and I think spending a few hours here would be worth anyone's time. As part of the fee for the retreat, however, I was able to stay in one of the guest rooms, which (to my relief) had a private bathroom and a swamp cooler. The unusual crucifix on the wall with Christ's arms raised in blessing above the cross was made by the Valyermo monks. More on that later.
The simplicity of the room added to my experience. This is a place to read and think and study, not to watch TV (there is none) or be on the internet (there is no wi-fi).

The common area is also very nice, and the food, all cooked and served by the hospitable monks, was quite good. I loved the painting on the dining room wall depicting the Garden of Eden:

Valyermo is in the western tip of the Mojave Desert--very dry and ornamented by yucca trees and cacti. This was the view from the private patio outside my room:

But the severity of the Valyermo climate does not mean there is no beauty:

A walk around the property reveals many unexpected treasures, such as this Mary and Christ child nestled among the juniper bushes:

Or the whimsical murals on the common building, painted in the style of the crucifix in my room:

The monks live in former farm buildings that have been converted into small apartments and which are located on the far side of the chapel. 

"Valyermo," a contracton of the Spanish words valle and yermo, means "barren valley."  It was founded in 1955 by monks who had been serving in China but were expelled by the communists in 1952. They made their way to California and purchased Hidden Springs Ranch, located here in Valyermo, for $50,000. A natural spring on the property makes this otherwise arid spot very unique.

The literal and symbolic centerpiece of Valyermo is a cool, shady pond that invites visitors, both human and avian, to rest along its banks and be refreshed:

This beautiful scene reminded me of John 4: 6-15 where Jesus arrives at Jacob's well after a hot day in the desert and is given water by the Samaritan woman. He tells her that he is "living water," and that those who drink water given to them by Jesus will never thirst.

Because of the founding monks' ties to China, over the years several Chinese monks have joined the monastery. A Chinese garden is tucked away at the far end of the pond, accessed by this distinctly Asian bridge:

Another treasure is on the hill I could see from my room:

If you are Catholic, you need the Stations of the Cross in your cathedral. God's creations are the only cathedral in Valyermo, so the Stations of the Cross are outdoors. A trail leads worshipers past this odd, disembodied foot to a desert version of Jerusalem's Via Dolorosa:

Each station is marked by a sign. I like the simplicity of the pitcher and basin that represent Pilate washing his hands:

This next one is my favorite. I love the ladder propped up against the cross, the linens draped over the crossbar, and Mary and Jesus in a Pieta pose:

I don't recall seeing a Station 15 before, and I like that the resurrected Jesus is a fully fleshed figure rather than the minimalist outline of previous stations:

At the farthest end of the St. Andrew's property and on the top of a hot, dry, windy hill lies the monastery cemetery. A large sculpture entitled "Eye of the Needle" reminds visitors of the need for selflessness, referencing the scripture "It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter into the Kingdom of God."

An uneven dirt road separates the cemetery into two parts, one for the monks of St. Andrew's and one for oblates, or those worshipers who have committed to live by the Rule of St. Benedict as best they can in the secular world. My friend Diane who brought me here is a Benedictine oblate.

Mary the Queen of Heaven watches over the graves:

I walked up here with Diane on the first day, then twice more on my own on subsequent days.

The concrete cross marking the grave of a monk is covered with stones, signifying that it has been visited and the monk has been remembered; on the other side of the cemetery, the grave of a married oblate couple is identical to the monk's:
Although a sharp contrast to the living waters of the cool pond, this too is serenity:

Monasteries need a source of income in order to be self-sustaining, and for Benedictines in particular, work is important because productive labor is part of the Benedictine Rule. Some California monasteries make wine, others produce honey, and still others press their own olives for olive oil. All of these are sold in the St. Andrew's gift shop.

St. Andrew's own product, however, is ceramics, and there is a large ceramics factory just below the cemetery at the far end of the property. Unfortunately, it was closed because I was there on the weekend, so I didn't get to see any of the craftsmanship.

All of the designs were created by Father Maur, a French monk who studied art in Ghent. He was ordained in Belgium in 1958. When he visited St. Andrew's in 1965 for the first time, he was asked to help them establish a ceramics factory. He came up with original designs for St. Andrew's after ten months in Mexico studying folk art. The monastery website notes, The hallmark of his designs are the large, wide open eyes of his saints, madonnas, and angels, expressing wide-eyed wonder at the beauty of God, his creations, our world and its beauty, seen simply, as through the eyes of a child. His artwork is not only simple, it is also joyful, humorous, and kind. It touches people where they 'are', not where they 'should be'.

Father Maur spent five months a year for the next 36 years creating new designs for St. Andrew's. Today there are 425 different designs for sale in the gift shop, in 600 shops around the world, and by mail order. The monks create 40,000 pieces each year, and each one is created by hand. In a February 2013 Los Angeles Times article about the death of Father Maur, I learned that among the many collectors of Father Maur's ceramics is Jerry Johnston, a columnist for the Salt Lake City Deseret News, the newspaper I grew up reading.

The designs include stories from the New Testament:

 Depictions of various saints:

Figures from the Old Testament:

And Christmas designs, which you can see by the empty spaces (in July!) are one of their best-sellers:

I succumbed to the Christmas plaques, and bought this one:
How could I resist?

Near the guest rooms is a grove of trees that my friend Diane called "Father Eleutherius's Garden." Father E. was from Bruges, Belgium, and was one of the monks sent to China in 1936 to establish a monastery there. After being expelled from China in 1952, he eventually ended up at Valyermo. A few years after his arrival, he began to cultivate a garden that included roses, herbs, cacti, poplars, and giant sequoias. He dug up sod from the monastery pastures to create a carpet of grass under the trees. A brilliant man, he taught at Claremont Graduate School for almost 40 years. He finally retired at age 92, after which he wrote four books (in French). He died at age 100 just two days after celebrating mass at a nursing home.

Like the pond and the cemetery, Father Eleutherius's Garden is a wonderful place for reading and meditation. There are benches that can be moved around to catch the sun or find some shade:

The brilliant blue of the sky highlights the almost unnatural green of the trees:

Can you see why I loved my monastic retreat? Spending three days at St. Andrew's was a sweet experience, the ultimate get-away from the stresses and pressures of everyday life.

I was first introduced to poet and essayist Kathleen Norris when I read her book Dakota: A Spiritual Geography, which is about her move to her grandparents' farm in South Dakota and her discovery of her own spirituality. About twelve years later, although a Presbyterian, she became a Benedictine oblate, and now she spends a lot of time at an abbey in Minnesota and another abbey in North Dakota. The Cloister Walk is Norris's insightful description of the Benedictine Rule and what it is like to immerse herself in the Benedictine community, how its ritual enriches her spiritual life, and how the liturgy deepens her understanding of and relationship to God. It was the perfect book to read during the three days I spent at St. Andrew's Abbey. Here are a few quotes from the book:
In a marriage, in a small town, in a monastery, it is all too easy to let things slide, to allow tensions to build until the only way they can be relieved is in an explosion that does more harm than good. Benedict's voice remains calm--persevere, bear one another's burdens, be patient with one another's infirmities of body or behavior. And when the "thorns of contention" arise in daily life, daily forgive, and be willing to accept forgiveness. Remember that you are not the center of the universe . . . . 

I wonder if one of the reasons I love the Benedictines so much is that they seldom make big noises about being Christians. Though they live with the bible more intimately than most people, they don't thump on it, or with it, the way gorillas thump on their chests to remind anyone within earshot of who they are. Benedictines remind me more of the disciples of Jesus, who are revealed in the gospel accounts as people who were  not afraid to admit their doubts, their needs, their lack of faith. "Lord, increase our faith," they say. "Teach us to pray." They kept getting the theology wrong, and Jesus, ore or less patiently, kept trying to set them straight.

Maybe monks and poets know, as Jesus did when a friend, in an extravagant, loving gesture, bathed his feet in nard, an expensive, fragrant oil, and wiped them with her hair, that the symbolic act matters; that those who know the exact price of things, as Judas did, often don't know the true cost or value of anything.


  1. Very nice to get a bigger picture of your experience. Love the concept and I'm glad you had an opportunity to attend.

  2. What a fantastic experience! I do love the rituals and symbols of Catholicism. The Stations of the Cross is perhaps the simplest and most easy to understand that I've seen.