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A Benedictine Greeting to Autumn

September 21, 1986|Zan Thompson

Music will float through the trees as if the high-desert breeze itself were plucking the strings. But the signature sound of the Benedictine, St. Andrew's Monastery canticle to autumn, is laughter. This community of Valyermo, snugged into a valley in the hills of the high desert, this weekend will celebrate the 30th anniversary of its fall festival.

The Benedictine monks, who were refugees from China, had started building their monastery the year before. There were a few tumble-down farm buildings, which the original St. Andrew's monks transformed into living quarters and a chapel, by dint of hard work and some luck.

The Benedictines had been practicing their tenet of Work and Prayer for a number of years, say 1,500. St. Benedict was born in AD 480. When a group of men has been following a way of life that long, if I'm off a century or so it doesn't make much difference.

The Valyermo Festival will be Saturday and next Sunday on their ranch near Pearblossom in the Antelope Valley. The gates open at 10 a.m. and the day's festivities will end at 8:30 p.m.

The Valyermo Festival, celebrating the gifts of autumn, is so eagerly anticipated that last year the monks were almost smothered by success. There was a wait to get into the parking areas and lines for all of the food stalls.

Father Prior John Borgerding says they have solved those problems this year. He and Father Werner de Morchoven, who has always been chairman, have spent weeks working with traffic consultants and promise it will be easy to get to the monastery grounds. The road into the monastery will be four lanes wide and the parking staff will be quadrupled to accept the $3 parking fee that is the only charge. There is lots more parking; the old peach orchard went to double the parking space.

Within the monastery grounds, there will be art and photography exhibits, old- and new-book stalls, food stands and restaurants, pony rides, a corral of domestic animals for children to pet. Hamburgers, hot dogs, Belgian waffles, soft drinks, beer, the roast beef palace and the Cafe Continental will sustain festival-goers.

As always, one of the most popular offerings at the Valyermo Festival will be the plaques of Father Maur, a fine artist whose serious gifts are leavened with humor and whimsy. He draws sketches of angels in all kinds of pursuits, and dozens of saints recognizable by dress or what they are holding. Then the monks, headed by the kiln-master, produce the plaques all year long.

Father Maur is a renowned painter of monochrome studies. Last August, I went to Valyermo to spend the night in their guest quarters and was privileged to renew my friendship with Fathers Maur, Werner and John. Father Maur had just come from a one-man show of his work in Antwerp, Belgium, near the mother house of the Benedictine order at Bruges.

One afternoon when the clear high-desert air was shimmering with silver waves of heat, Father Maur was seated under a tree at a card table, with a handkerchief tied at all four corners on his head. He looked up and grinned wickedly: "For six months of the year I'm a serious artist and for six months a year, I play with dolls."

When you see the wide-eyed impish looks on the faces of the angels on the plaques, it is easy to see where Father Maur gets his inspiration.

The monks do a great deal more than prepare for the festival. The loftiest scholar takes his turn in the kitchen, cooking or serving meals to his fellows. They travel all over the world to study and to teach.

The guest-master when I was there was Brother Asaac, a laughing young man who grew up in San Pedro. He is Italian and German. His grandfather was a member of the San Pedro fishing fleet all of his life. The young monk chose Asaac as his Benedictine name because it means God's laughter. Just after we met in August, he left for Florence to study at the language school. In October, he will go to Rome to study Theology at the Collegio Sant'Anselmo.

Father Molaise will teach a course through Chapman College in November called "Yeats, the Poet and Sligo."

The monks balance their impressive intellectual lives with the most down-to-earth pursuits. Father Prior John Borgerding is an excellent mechanic and keeps the monastery's fleet of aging cars and trucks breathing and roadworthy.

It is a particular treat to be able to visit the monastery for the night. The silence is palpable. A soft blanket. The only movement outside is that of the cottontail rabbits settling down for the night.

That's a rare privilege, but a glimpse of the monastery and its devotion to prayer, laughter and work can be had at the festival. This is the only fund-raiser the Benedictines have all year. It supports their summer camps and summer academic courses open to all. They have a Boy Scout camp and youth camps to offer the city children. Between 3,000 and 4,000 guests were at Valyermo last summer. Their newest project is a youth center that they are planning now.

Try to get to the festival early in the day--or late in the afternoon. St. Andrew's Priory is reached by freeways to Pearblossom in the Antelope Valley. Then follow the signs.

One sign you will see inside the festival grounds was lettered by artist Babette Edelston. Her watercolors will stand on easels beside a pond where she has planted a sign reading: "Please do not walk on the water."

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