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Heaven Holds a Place : At St. Andrew's Abbey in the Antelope Valley, a small cloister of monks opens its doors and its life to the rest of the world.

September 24, 1993|DAVID WHARTON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

VALYERMO — Summer dwindles on the high desert. The sun draws back a little earlier each day, and the monks at St. Andrew's Abbey must hurry to finish their evening game of croquet on the cloister lawn.

Soon after dark, a bell clangs. These men, a little less than two dozen in number, rustle across the courtyard in black robes, gathering for the last communal prayer of the day. Chants echo from a brick and spruce chapel.

Compline.

Then the Grand Silence begins.

Each to his own room, as feature-less as a college dormitory. A desk and shelves and boxes of books that often spill out to the hallway. A single bed. A place for prayers and meditation. Not a word will be spoken, save for prayers, until after breakfast the next morning.

This is a search for God in the quiet hours. In an era of cable television, computer games and cellular phones, the monks of St. Andrew's listen for a "still, small voice" they hope will emerge from their silence. They cherish their home, an unlikely Benedictine monastery on the rim of the Antelope Valley, like a diamond they polish each day with their prayers.

They do not keep this jewel to themselves. It is offered to the rest of the world as a source of inspiration.

This weekend, that inspiration will shine more brightly than usual, as the monks celebrate their 37th annual fall festival. Bagpipes will whine across the grounds. There will be mimes and booths that sell everything from art trinkets to hot dogs. Thousands of visitors are expected.

For the remainder of the year, however, days will unfold delicately amid this scattering of low-slung ranch houses beneath planted cottonwoods and evergreens. The monastery brings youth groups for retreats and invites outsiders to stay in guest rooms on a hill above the cloister. Visitors are extended the unusual opportunity to join in daily prayers and meals, to taste of a life prescribed by the Rule of St. Benedict centuries ago.

"Our basic concept is not so much separation from the world. It is worship and community, to give a sense to the people of what the church can be," says Father Vincent Martin, who helped establish the abbey in California almost four decades ago. "The monastery represents the best, the mystery of the church.

"I call it an 'Island of Sanity.' It attracts people like they are coming for clear water."

The Grand Silence is broken at dawn with songs of praise, voices accompanied by the aroma of incense, at vigils and lauds. Then, there is the snap, crackle and pop of breakfast cereal.

Later, when speaking is allowed, Father Vincent tells a story in the refectory lounge. He uses his hands as if drawing pictures and pauses to touch a listener, to give a feel for what he is saying:

The year was 1929 and a band of monks left the motherhouse in Belgium to bring their tenet of work and prayer to China. They landed in the northern part of the country and established a modest school to train a handful of young men for the priesthood. Famine eventually drove them south. A new home in Chengdu, where they hoped to build an East-West cultural center, lasted only two years before Communists expelled them.

But the Benedictines, Father Vincent says, pride themselves on resilience. He recalls the history of Monte Cassino, the Italian hilltop fortress that Benedict chose as his home 14 centuries ago. It was destroyed by the Lombards and the Saracens and then by the U.S. Army in World War II, only to be rebuilt each time. The abbey's motto is "Struck down, it will live again."

So, displaced from China, the monks determined to find a new life. They chose an unlikely spot.

"California," Father Vincent says. "California looks toward China. And there were no Benedictine monasteries."

The motherhouse approved, sending $50,000 for a new abbey. Father Vincent traveled alone to Los Angeles and looked at dozens of parcels before buying a 720-acre turkey ranch nestled between two ridges in the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains.

His fellow monks arrived from all over the world, one by one.

"The very first time I came here, it was June and it was noontime," recalls Father Werner de Morchoven. "Very hot. Everything looked gray. I said, 'Vincent, this is the place you want us to be?' "

The rhythm of monastic life beats steadily over the desert's irregular breath.

Five minutes before noon Mass, newcomer Jose Julian Taborda rings a bell in the courtyard. As what is called an observant, he rings notice before each of the daily prayers and meals. Taborda wears earplugs.

Inside the chapel, the aptly named abbot, Francis Benedict, sings in a clear voice that echoes from brick floors and an open-beamed ceiling. The monks chorus their response:

Why do you boast of your wickedness, you champion of evil, planning ruin all day long, you master of deceit.

A short bow follows each mention of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. And within this orchestration, minutes of silence follow each psalm, intermezzos for reflection.

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