June 3rd, 2017
Monastic communities are by definition counter-cultural. Their members have lifestyles that run contrary to the prevailing values and mores of the surrounding population. This has been the case since St. Benedict founded the first monastery in the West back in the 6th century. Benedictines embrace lives that emphasize personal poverty, obedience to authority, humility, and an intense devotion to God. Their days follow a rigorous schedule of “ora et labora” (prayer and work).
There is a direct connection between Benedict’s centuries-old monastery at Monte Cassino and the Trappist abbey at New Clairvaux in Vina, California. There is a fifteen hundred year lineage. New Clairvaux can trace its heritage back to St. Benedict’s original monastery in Italy. New Clairvaux is a Trappist monastery. The Trappists are reformed Benedictines. Actually, they are reformed reformers. The Benedictines had become somewhat lax in their rules by the 12th century and a group of monks, later known as the Cistercians, attempted to bring the community back to its earlier reliance on prayer and manual labor. St. Bernard was one of these monks, and he founded the Abbey of Clairvaux in northern France (hence the name of Californian monastery, New Clairvaux). A few centuries later, another group of monks decided to reform the Cistercians, because they saw them as slackers. These monks were the Trappists.
New Clairvaux is a monastery in its infancy, relatively speaking. It was founded by monks from Gethsemane Abbey in Kentucky, back in the 1950’s, when the monasteries had a huge influx of novices, and those institutions were bursting with men desiring to be monks. The abbot of Gethsemane sent some monks forth to found a new monastery, and they did so in northern California, near Chico. The monks tried to make livelihood through dairy farming, but that didn’t work out for them. However, winemaking did work. So now, New Clairvaux has extensive vineyards, walnut groves, and plum orchards. The only problem is that they lack monks.
Karin and I were completely unaware of the existence of New Clairvaux until the day before we went to stay there. We were visiting the Earth Abides Catholic Worker farm in Calaveras County when Marcus, a resident of Earth Abides, told us about New Clairvaux. Karin and I had been trying to stay at Catholic retreat houses during our seemingly endless journey across America. Marcus suggested that we contact the people at New Clairvaux and perhaps go there next.
I called the Retreat center at New Clairvaux. I talked to a guy named Will, who then put me on the line with a woman named Michelle (we found out later that Will and Michelle were married, and that worked together as guest masters). Michelle informed me that they had one room left at the retreat house, but we would need to stay there for three nights and two days. The monks required that anybody coming to the abbey make an actual retreat. The house wasn’t to be used simply as a spiritual motel. Karin and I were good with that, so the next day we drove north to Vina.
New Clairvaux is somewhat secluded. It is that way by design. The monks want to be separate from the rest of the world, and they arrange things to make that happen. The grounds have a very Mediterranean look to them. New Clairvaux could easily be somewhere in Italy or Greece. There are towering pines and cedars. We saw orange trees heavy with fruit, and great oleander bushes filled with pink, red, and white flowers. Near the retreat house are massive and ancient black walnut trees. One of them had to be at least six feet wide across the base. There is a church, and a great stone chapterhouse which is under construction. The monks themselves live in a cloister, set apart from the rest of the property. There are outbuildings that house shops and farm equipment. Fruit and nut trees extend outward from the monastery in all directions.
Karin and I met with Michelle. It was early in the afternoon of Friday on the weekend of Pentecost (Shavuot). She informed us that we had arrived a bit too early to check in. However, Michelle mentioned that we could stop at the Oliva Room to learn about the history of the abbey, and that right next door to that was the winetasting room. We told Michelle that we would be back in an hour. After sampling the monastery’s vintages and engaging with random conversations with total strangers, we returned to the guest master office to get settled.
Michelle gave us our keys, and then Will showed us to our room. Will is a short, wiry man. He has white hair and a goatee. Will is officially the “porter”. It’s an old-fashioned title, but it fits. Will cares for the grounds and he is there to get people settled in for their stay at New Clairvaux. Will is passionate about his work. He likes to talk, and that is what we did.
Will said, “Didn’t I just talk to you yesterday on the phone?”
I said. “Yeah.”
“Boy, Michelle got you in here quick! This place is usually booked solid. You know, she is already taking reservations for 2018.”
Will asked us where we were from and what brought us to New Clairvaux. In the course of our conversation, I mentioned that I had been in the Army, and that our oldest son, Hans, was an Iraqi War vet.
Will is also a veteran. He had served in Vietnam.
Will walked us to our room. He laughed and said, “Yeah, I survived the ’60s!”
I asked him, “Do you remember much of it?”
He laughed again, “No, not really.”
Will told us, “When I got back from Vietnam, I just couldn’t fit in. I finally hitchhiked from Philly to Chico back in ’71. I slept in fields for seven days while making the trip. I did that sort of thing for years, well, until I met Michelle. Then my life changed.”
Will talked about the monks: “These guys pray. That is their real job. They keep this world from falling apart. I tell these young guys who are thinking about joining up that this something that is worthwhile. This is life that means something!”
Will showed us our room, and he explained to us how to operate the air conditioner. Our new home was actually two small rooms with a shower/bathroom. The rooms, like most everything else at New Clairvaux, were austere. The walls were all plain cinder blocks. There was very little decoration. The rooms were comfortable, but extremely simple.
Will took us to the dining facility. That too was simple. Breakfast was whenever we felt like eating. We were on our own in that regard. The monks brought hot food to the dining room for lunch and supper, but they just dropped it off and left. Our interactions with the monks were to be at an absolute minimum. Our interactions with other retreatants were going to be the same. The focus was on silence. Peace and quiet were paramount here.
Monastic life is based on a rigid schedule of prayer and work. The monks gather for prayer seven times a day. They start at 3:30 AM with Vigils. Then at 6:00 Am is Lauds. Then Terce, Sext, None, Vespers, and finally Compline in the evening. The prayers consist primarily of the recitation of the psalms. Karin and I attended the prayers with the monks and got into their rhythm. We also went to Mass with them.
We had time. Being at a retreat house means putting the brakes on life for a couple days. A person is Internet-free, and suddenly there is time to read or walk. There is time to eat and sleep. There is time to think and feel. There is time to just be. I took to walking along the gravel roads that led past the groves of fruit trees and past the vineyards. At certain points I could make out the snow-capped mountains in the distance. If I got restless, I walked.
Hans called. It was early on the morning of Pentecost. I was walking past the straight lines of walnut trees when my cell phone went off. I saw it was Hans, so I answered the phone.
“What’s up?” I asked.
Hans yawned. He said in his Texas drawl, “Not too much. I didn’t hardly get any sleep last night.”
“An Army buddy called me in the middle of the night. I’m not even sure who he was. He woke me up from a sound sleep, and it took me a while to understand him.”
“Why did he call?’
“He wanted to tell me about a guy who went to Iraq with us. The guy killed himself yesterday.”
Hans sighed. “Well, the guy decided to get crazy. He pulled out the twelve gauge, and he shot his wife and girls, and then he shot himself.”
I could hear my feet crunching the gravel on the road as I walked.
Then I asked Hans, “How many died?”
“What was the guy’s name.”
There was a pause, and Hans said, “Joe.”
“Where was he?’
Hans got irritable. “I don’t know. He was still in (the Army). He could have been anywhere.”
“Did you know him well?”
“For a while we were close. We used to barbecue together and stuff. Then I lost track of the guy.”
Hans went on, “After the call, I went to the gas station and bought me a twelve pack of Limeritas. I drank those until I fell asleep. Dad, you know, my mind was just racing. That was the only way I could get it to stop.”
“Yeah, I know. I’ve been there.”
Hans yawned again. “Well, I’ll let you go. I just wanted to tell you about what happened.”
“Okay. I’m glad you called.”
Hans said, “Okay. Bye. I love you.”
“I love you too.”
I stopped walking. I looked at the trees. I breathed.
“Fuck! Doesn’t this shit ever end!?”
I went back to our room. I told Karin about Hans’ call. We went to Mass.
Sunday Mass at the monastery usually has more people in attendance than at any other time. The section set aside for lay persons was almost full. I was tense. Karin knew it. She can always tell. I emit nervous energy like a furnace does heat.
During the service, the congregation always prays aloud to ask God for help. The prayers are sometimes called “petitions” or “intentions” or “prayers of the faithful”. Generally, there are a series of standard requests that we ask of God. Each prayer ends with: “Let us pray to the Lord!” The response from the entire community to those words is: ”Lord, hear our prayer!” The petitions usually end with prayers from individuals in the congregation, personal requests.
At Mass the deacon recited the list of petitions. People dutifully, and perhaps without listening, responded to each request with “Lord, hear our prayer!” The petitions are all worthwhile, but they are also somewhat impersonal. It is easy to grow numb to them. It is easy to respond without thinking.
Then the priest asked if anybody in the congregation had a personal intention.
I spoke up: “For a young man named Joe. An Iraqi War vet. He shot his wife and kids, and then he killed himself yesterday. Let us pray to the Lord.”
There was a pause. Very brief. Perhaps no longer than a heartbeat.
Then, all at once, “Lord, hear our prayer!”
I shook for a while after that. Karin squeezed my hand. I went through the rest of the Mass feeling a kind of disconnect. I was there, but not entirely. I received communion. We sang the closing hymn. Karin and I left the church in silence.
I think that sometimes people go to monasteries expecting that God will magically keep the outside world at bay. It doesn’t always work like that. Sometimes the world kicks in the door, and screams, “I’m baaack!” The monastery is an oasis, not a fortress. It is a place to heal, not a place to hide.
Karin and I left the monastery the following morning. Michelle and Will asked us about Hans and about his friend, Joe. They really cared. I think the other people at the church cared too.
That’s good enough.