May 04, 2016

Photo Essay: The Monastic Life at St. Andrew's Abbey

I didn't really know what I'd find at St. Andrew's Abbey, but I was intrigued by the idea of Benedictine monks—or, any monks, really—cloistered away in the middle of the desert, along the San Andreas Fault.

And besides, I kind of like the idea of God's children devoting themselves to a life of service, making and selling things like beer and preserves and fudge and pumpkin bread.

In the case of these Mojave monks, it's local raw honey, olive oil, ceramics, and, oddly, printer ink/toner. I opted for some wildflower honey.

When I arrived, I told the gift shop volunteer that it was my first time, and I asked what there was to see (besides, of course, the gift shop). "Oh, lots," she said. "And you are welcome here."

First, she sent me up to the chapel. I wasn't expecting much more than a humble place of worship...

...but when I walked in, to my surprise I encountered the stained glass work of Roger Darricarrere, a French sculpturist who pioneered the use of the dalle-de-verre technique here in the U.S.—especially Southern California.

That's the "glass slab" style of architectural glass that I first discovered in a church in La Cañada Flintridge...

...its rough-hewn appearance a result of the colored glass chunks being cleaved with a hammer rather than being cut precisely.

Since Darricarrere couldn't get the same kind of glass in Southern California as he could in France, he ended up making his own "chunk glass" by melting down bottles and adding oxide colors.

This style—a far more mid-century modern take on a medieval art form—feels simultaneously abstract and geologic...

...which I guess is appropriate for its proximity to the longest and scariest seismic fault in the state.

There's an almost molecular entropy to it, the original chemical bonds having been shattered...

...and the resulting pieces then having reassembled to show all the bubbles and swirls and cracks and imperfections.

It is a raw and unrefined variation on art glass... befitting the desert itself...

...and the wayward souls who may wander in to admire it.

I'd also been pointed to the duck pond behind the chapel, which seems to me like a necessary element of any place that's considered a retreat. But when you're visiting St. Andrew's Abbey, you have to remember that there are monks that actually live here—as well as pray and make stuff.

This Roman Catholic monastery was actually founded in 1929—but in China, by an abbey in Bruges, Belgium. They were kicked out of China in 1952 by the Communist Regime, so in 1955 they relocated to Valyermo, where they would join the Archdiocese of LA as the first Benedictine monastery in California. And they would be facing out toward China.

And so they moved into the former Hidden Springs Ranch, where the monks converted a stable into their chapel and a dairy barn into their living quarters.

Into the hillside above the duck pond, they built a meandering installation of the Stations of the Cross...

...from Jesus' first fall all the way to his crucifixion...

...surrounded by a variety of joshua trees and yucca (including the appropriately-named "Lord's Candle" plant) rising from the dry desert up to the heavens.

As an aside, the woman from the gift shop had said to me, "Oh, and there's a little cemetery up the hill behind the ceramics studio, if you're the kind of person that likes graveyards."

"I am definitely that kind of person," I said.

This is where the abbey's founding fathers are buried...

...and where the monks living at the abbey today will be buried when their time comes.

They've made a lifetime commitment to St. Andrew's...

...which, I guess, is nothing compared to their commitment to God, which extends into the afterlife.

And then there are the Oblates—those living out in the secular world who have offered up their lives to God, making them part of the abbey's "extended family." Some of them get buried here, too.

There are people out there—some living hours away—who are so devoted to the Benedictine mission of prayer and work that they keep to the same prayer schedule as the monks, wherever they may be at the time.

It's a nice place to spend the ever after, surrounded by art, perched high above the desert.

The sky even seemed bluer up there.

But, since I'm still among the living, I could only stay up there a short while before I had to descend back down to my own personal reality—devoid of seclusion, austerity, and asceticism, but with plenty of contemplation.

Related Posts:
Photo Essay: The Lighted Windows of La Cañada Congregational Church
Photo Essay: The Way of Sorrows

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