I spent the first week of Advent at St. Andrew’s Abbey, the Benedictine monastery in the unincorporated community of Valyermo (Spanish: “Barren Valley”) located an hour and half northeast of LA in the Mojave Desert.
My history with St. Andrew’s goes way back. In 2000, four years after I came into the Church, I was diagnosed with breast cancer. Who to turn to? How to face my mortality? Where to pray?
At the time I was barely acquainted with the “retreat” concept, but to get away by myself in silence and solitude proved to be a tremendous balm.
Without knowing much of monasticism, I was nonetheless drawn by the abbey’s generous spirit, bountiful table, and stunning natural beauty: the cottonwoods, Joshua trees, and chamisa; the deep blue sky; the birds.
It was at St. Andrew’s that I first learned of the Liturgy of the Hours aka The Divine Office, and that laypeople were also invited to pray the psalms and Scripture readings throughout the day.
In the desert, and afterward with the guidance of spiritual advisers, I decided how to approach my cancer — a decision about which I wrote an entire book. Suffice it to say, I’m still alive and thanks be to God.
Over the years I made many other retreats at St. Andrew’s: some guided — “The Contemplative Life,” “An Introduction to the Desert Fathers” — but most of them private: three days here, four there. Grieving, I limped to the abbey alone for the Christmas of 2012, the year my mother died.
I never much intruded on the monks, but as I aged, they aged; and if they didn’t know me, they nonetheless became dear to me.
Slowly the idea took root to become an oblate at St. Andrew’s. “Oblates of Saint Benedict are Christian men and women who strive to live in the secular world according to the spirit of the Rule of St. Benedict. They are not monks or nuns, but they draw inspiration from the Rule and from their ongoing affiliation with a particular Benedictine community for the task of living out the Gospel of Christ in their families and workplaces.”
The vows are of Stability, Reformation (Conversion) of Life, and Obedience.
I started the process in early 2019, attended several meetings, and met a couple of times one-on-one with Father Francis Benedict, my adviser. Early the next year came COVID, lockdown, and the disruption of life as we knew it.
My passion to become on oblate didn’t die out but it simmered for a couple of years on a back burner. It reignited this past summer, during three months that I spent in Ireland.
How I long for a “spiritual home!” I was recently granted Irish citizenship through my paternal grandmother and though Ireland is a wondrous land, it’s not my land. I have roots there but it’s not my deepest home.
I grew up on the coast of New Hampshire, a place that is forever deep, deep in my heart.
But Southern California, if anywhere, is my home. I was confirmed and took my first Communion at the Church of the Blessed Sacrament on Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood. I quit my job as a lawyer to follow my vocation as a writer in LA. I’ve written for the archdiocese for almost 10 years.
Part of my commitment as an oblate would be to pray in spiritual communion with the monks, wherever I might be: vigils at 6 a.m., followed by a period of lectio divina, then lauds at 7:30, Mass at noon, vespers at 5 and compline at 7:30.
I live alone and work alone and though I have a fairly serious prayer life, it’s kind of on my time and my schedule. I want to give all of myself but I also want to research this painter, or film, or book right now! I want to let my mind wander and explore this very interesting moral dilemma. I want to look at the birds and give thanks. There’s nothing wrong, at all, with any of that.
But if we want to give all of ourselves, maybe the deepest thing we can give, especially those of us in the West, is our schedule.
On Dec. 8, the feast of the Immaculate Conception, I was “invested” as an oblate novice. If all goes well, in a year or so I’ll take final vows.
On a hill above the abbey is a cemetery where the monks are buried. To the side is a section for oblates.
I climbed that hill often during my Advent visit. Surveying the surrounding hills, I kept thinking about how, the very first time I came on retreat at St. Andrew’s, what struck me was compline: the last “hour” of the day.
The beautiful old-school hymns: “Day is done, but love unfailing dwells ever here.” The Canticle of Simeon: “Lord, now you let your servant go … your word has been fulfilled” The Salve Regina. A sprinkling with holy water before we leave and pass our separate ways in the dark.
The monks’ blessing reverberating in my heart that first night and, as it’s happened, through the years:
“May the all-powerful Lord grant us a restful night and a peaceful death.”