By William E. DeWitt
My destination was a region in Southern California known as the High Desert. Located about seventy-five miles northeast of Los Angeles, the High Desert is to be distinguished from the Low Desert by its higher elevation and lower temperatures. Even so, this weekend would be typical for July in most any desert setting – clear, arid, and very hot.
I had been looking forward to this weekend for months. Luckily, I was able to “sandwich” it between back-to-back business trips to California. Instead of flying back home to Indiana after the first week in Los Angeles, I decided to spend the weekend in California on a spiritual retreat before going to Oakland the next week. After a quick Internet search, I settled on St. Andrew’s Abby, a Benedictine Monastery in Valyermo, CA.
Why St. Andrew’s? After all, I’m Baptist, not Catholic. I don’t know, really. Perhaps it was because of its secluded location and the spiritual nature of the desert. As you know, Jesus, John the Baptist, Paul, and other Biblical figures spent time in the desert. Maybe it was because I have always been intrigued by monastic life. Not that I ever wanted (or felt called) to be a monk. I have always been intrigued by the life of a fighter pilot too, but I never wanted to be one. Intrigue alone is sufficient.
St. Andrew’s Abby was established in 1955 by missionary monks who had been expelled from China. The founding members bought a ranch in Valyermo and transformed it into the spiritual oasis that it is today. Currently, 20 monks reside at St. Andrew’s, and the Abby welcomes people of all faiths to enjoy the peace, silence, and solitude of monastic life. Guest facilities include 17 modestly-furnished private rooms with bath, a large guest lodge, and a library. Meals are served home-style and shared with the monks in a large dining room just off the guest lodge.
Guests are encouraged to join the monks in daily prayer; and I did, even arising for Morning Prayers at 6:00 am on Saturday. My first monastic experience, however, was shortly after my Friday afternoon arrival when I gathered with the monks and other guests for Evening Prayers at 6:00 pm. We assembled in the monastery chapel which is just a short walk from the lodge.
After the prayer service, all the guests returned to the lodge and waited for the doors of the adjacent dining room to open for dinner at 6:30 pm. I noticed that the monks had left the chapel quickly and entered the dining room through a private outside entrance. I assumed that they did this in order to be seated first. After all, it was their house and they did “outrank” the rest of us. What a surprise I had coming to me!
When the doors were finally opened and we entered the dining room, I was immediately struck by both its grandeur and its simplicity. It was a large, rectangular room constructed of concrete blocks on three sides with a large row of windows on the fourth side. The windows gave us a unique view of the desert as it sloped gently upward and away from the building. Inside the dining room were eleven highly-polished, wooden tables that were neatly arranged in symmetrical formations.
Each table had six place settings already laid out. The ceiling was supported by wooden beams that gave the room a rustic look. One of the longer concrete block walls was beautifully adorned with seven large, religious paintings arranged as a mosaic along its entire length. The shorter wall behind the monk’s table had a single crucifix.
For me, the most interesting and surprising thing about the dining room was that the monks had not preceded us to the meal after all. They arrived ahead of us to both greet and serve us as we arrived. Later that weekend, my surprise would turn to embarrassment when I discovered that the monastery’s motto read simply “Each guest is as Christ”. My embarrassment would eventually lead me back to a prayer that I have prayed often – “Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner”.
After dinner, I decided to walk around the monastery grounds to enjoy the beautiful scenery and relax a bit before Night Prayers at 8:30 pm. The Abbey is located on 764 acres, and though it is in the middle of the desert, it is richly populated with apple orchards, grape vineyards, and a wide variety of beautiful trees and flowers. It is truly a desert oasis. Although the temperature was still warm from the day, the desert breeze blowing through the trees and rustling their leaves that first evening reminded me of the fall of the year in my home state of Tennessee.
Along the way, I passed one of the monks who appeared to be on a walking meditation. He was a small man who looked to me to be in his 70s. I recall having seen him at dinner, working in the kitchen and dining room as well as sharing in the meal. Like me, he had very much enjoyed the ice cream that was served for dessert. In fact, his portion of ice cream had been much larger than mine.
We passed briefly, but we neither spoke nor acknowledged the other’s presence. I do believe that we connected spiritually, however. If he and I were both communing with God through Christ, and I believe that we were, then the Spirit in me is the same Spirit that is in him. For through Christ we both have access by one Spirit unto the Father (Ephesians 2:18). Besides, we both have a mutual fondness for ice cream, which some would say is a spiritual experience in itself.
Later that first evening, while I was relaxing in the lodge, I decided to read about the monks of St. Andrew’s on the Abby’s webpage. Oh yes, the lodge is equipped with wireless Internet access. Because I was on a business trip, I had my laptop with me. While reading about the monks, I made an interesting discovery. The monk with whom I had just crossed paths was not in his 70s after all. He was 84 years old, and had spent 27 of those years in a Chinese Communist prison camp for his Christian faith. Following his release from prison, he joined the monastic community at St. Andrew’s.
Saturday would be my only full day at the monastery, so I wanted to make the most of it; not “doing”, just “being”. My aim was to relax, read, meditate, pray, and just take in the beautiful surroundings. It was a wonderful time and the perfect interlude between my two work-weeks in California. Sunday morning came all too quickly, and then it was time for me to leave. It would be a long drive to Oakland, about 380 miles. Shortly after leaving, I called my wife, Nola, to let her know that I was “back in the world.”
She laughed, because she knew exactly what I meant.