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Rhododendrons and Silence: A Search for Meaning Among Coastal Redwoods

July 20, 1986|Kay Mills | Kay Mills is a Times editorial writer.

WHITEHORN, CALIF. — Monasticism implies solitude. Not isolation, but time apart for searching the soul and pointing it toward a religious end. For those who are not even vaguely religious, monasticism still can be a symbol of the examined life. For a visitor to a place like Redwoods Monastery in far Northern California, the challenge is to go home and think again about life's meanings.

In that context, monasticism can have influence in worlds far removed from the rhododendron and wild irises that spring up around Redwoods Monastery, far from the deer that graze at dusk and the winds that blow through the majestic redwoods that surround this spot of solitude.

That is not a journalistic beginning. The journalist would write: "Ten women who belong to the Cistercian order of the Roman Catholic Church meditate, pray, study and record their dreams in journals to know themselves--and ultimately their God--better while living in an isolated valley 22 miles outside Garberville. They earn what money they need--and their lives are simple--by baking altar bread. They accept guests on retreats. They also try to protect a grove near the Sinkyone Wilderness from logging, help Navajo women working to save their homes and contribute to Amnesty International."

But ordinary journalism doesn't tell the whole story. A visit here has more to do with rhododendron and times of silence than with the hard facts of how the women make their bread. It takes those silences to help adjust from the pressures of the outside world. Early each day there is meditation, for the monastery women and guests alike, in the stunningly simple, almost Oriental chapel. Then there is worship and breakfast, taken in silence. Work begins soon after 9.

Mother Myriam Dardene, 66, the abbess at Redwoods and one of its founders, is uncomfortable with questions of what makes this monastery unique. It is remote, but so are other monasteries. It is a community of women, but there are three other Cistercian women's monasteries in the United States--in Massachusetts, Arizona and Iowa. Its members wear ordinary street clothes, but that's hardly news. They concentrate on study of the Scriptures as do other monastics. Their abbess believes that a "good ritual, good liturgy, is good medicine," that "it helps people bring their questions, problems, small and greater crises, to the word of God, to a religious . . . sounding board."

The remoteness attracts people on retreats seeking time to pray or work through transitions in their lives. But there is a twist on self-examination that may not occur at typical monasteries, places where men intone Gregorian chants and work in the fields. These women use some of the modern psychoanalytic tools toward spiritual ends.

"That's true, yes," said Myriam (all the women go by first names). It was this interest in self-knowledge, a term she prefers to self-analysis or psychoanalysis, that pulled a journalistic visitor briefly into the cloistered world.

Self-knowledge "is a traditional path in any type of monasticism," Myriam reminded her visitor. Depth psychology--exploring the unconscious--helps in enlarging this knowledge of the self. Only through understanding themselves better do the women feel they can understand their religious role more fully.

Myriam, a short woman with salt-and-pepper hair, speaks in a melodic Belgian accent, weighing her words. She is precise, philosophical, yet properly wary of the jargon one lapses into when talking about the soul and the unconscious.

She refuses to be pigeonholed in a particular school of psychology. It is clear, though, that she has been influenced by the work of Carl Gustav Jung and by the San Francisco's Guild for Psychological Studies, which examines the links between the teachings of Jesus and the way people make value decisions. The women at Redwoods seek to be in touch with their unconscious, otherwise, Myriam said, "there is a big chance that it will get us by the neck during the day" in the form of some inexplicable behavior.

"I think it's important to the future of monasticism to include in the totality of the person both the conscious 'I' and the unconscious in the process of self-discovery." It is important, she thinks, because this merging of the conscious and the unconscious provides a more encompassing way to know the human soul and the sacredness of God, part of the fundamental search of people in monastic life.

Myriam, whose conversation is rich in allusions to literary figures such as Christopher Fry or Gabriel Marcel, most often quotes the Bible. She recalls Jesus telling his disciples that nothing which goes into a man defiles him, only that which proceeds out of him. People must not repress their unconscious but rather attempt to understand what it is saying to them. "If we do not change ourselves as individuals," she says, "who will change the world?"

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