ST. ANDREW’S ABBEY

Here’s this week’s arts and culture column:

If, like me, you’re forever in search of a day or two of silence and solitude—do I have a place for you.

That would be St. Andrew’s Abbey, a male Roman Catholic Benedictine monastery, in the high desert an hour and half outside LA. You can either cut through the Angeles Forest, or take the long way around up the 5 to the 114 to Route 138 aka the Pearblossom Highway.

That will land you in the unincorporated community of Valyermo, on which, down a winding back road, St. Andrew’s is located. Pearblossom, Valyermo: pure poetry, and wait till you actually arrive!

Benedictines are known for their hospitality, and one of the Abbey’s main offerings consists in retreats. I’ve done many over the years: a few directed, most private. You get a room with heat, a swamp cooler, a bed, a desk, a patio and a crucifix. (Wifi is available in the Guest Lounge). You get acres of gorgeous desert to explore and roam. At 3600 feet, nestled in the northern foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains, you get four seasons.

Spring is an explosion of colors, textures, and the fragrance of chaparral and sage. Summers are hot, all the better to enjoy the shade of the Lombardy poplars, cottonwoods, and chapel. In fall, the trees change color. I spent Christmas here the year my mother died and woke December 25 to snow. 

The Abbey is named for its mother house in Brugge, Belgium. Several missionary monks who had been expelled from Communist China bought the Hidden Springs Ranch in Valyermo and in 1955 established the monastery. Today, twenty monks make their lives of ora et labora—work and prayer—there.  

You can sign up for a guided retreat at the Abbey and learn more about Hildegard of Bingen, Thomas à Kempis, Henri Nouwen, Teilhard de Chardin, 12-step spirituality, or “Caring for Our Common Home.”

Other 2020 offerings include “Discernment in Daily Life,” “Faith and the Human Condition: The Writings and Relationship Between Adrienne von Speyr and Hans Urs von Balthasar,” and the one I’d be most likely to sign up for: “Poverty of Spirit.”

You can request spiritual direction or the Sacrament of Reconciliation, on weekdays visit the ceramics factory, or simply wander.

You can also come to the Abbey ponder a decision, nurse a wound, plan a project, or process an epiphany. The first time I spent serious time here was in 2000, right after I’d received a cancer diagnosis. Amidst the silence, beauty, and cottontail rabbits, I learned how to pray the Divine Office, a practice that’s sustained me ever since.

All these years later, I’ve begun taking steps to become an Oblate—“a lay person connected with a religious order or institution and living according to its regulations”—at St. Andrew’s.

Recently my brother Ross and I, coming from different directions, made a day trip to the Abbey. He’d never been before and couldn’t get over the landscape, sky and general loveliness. The day was sunny and clear, with a light breeze, and beneath the coolness a layer of warmth from the sun.

If I do become an Oblate, I could choose to be buried at the Abbey.  

The cemetery is situated up a hill with a dirt trail, making a trek there a mini-pilgrimage. As we climbed, below was a valley and all around were snow-shrouded mountains. “Just think, Roscoe,” I told my little (6’4”-tall) brother, “someday you might be carrying my ashes up here!”

We went to noon Mass together, then ate with the monks and other visitors in the refectory. Monks bring around soup to each guest, a moving gesture of hospitality, after which we all helped ourselves from the buffet table. Afterward I had a meeting with Fr. Francis Benedict.

“So what about the Oblateship?” I asked, always eager to do penance, check items off a long, difficult list, prove myself, and earn a crumb of love.

“Just come and be with us,” Fr. Francis replied. “Make a retreat, stay a night or drive out for the day, continue to come to the monthly meetings. Make friends with the other oblates. We just want you to be part of us, of the community.”

Nothing is certain of course. I won’t be eligible even to make informal vows for another six months.

But that was when I knew I’d found a new home, one I didn’t even know I’d been looking for all my life.

What could be more simple, more balanced, more sane, and in its way more difficult, than participating in community? Connection is what we crave and what we will go to any lengths, often unbeknownst to ourselves, to avoid.

Already I felt a little closer to believing perhaps the hardest thing for us fallen human beings to believe: that we’re worthy of love, just as we are.

The Welcome Center, opened in 2008, houses the Conference Center, and Abbey Books and Gifts.

I stopped in to the bookstore before I left, trailing my fingers over the treasure trove of titles yet to be read.

Then, sensing I’d be making this trek often in the coming years. I treated myself to a wall icon of St. Christopher: patron saint of travelers.



5 Replies to “ST. ANDREW’S ABBEY”

  1. I was especially touched by your piece on St. Andrew’s Abbey, personally so. Of course all of your writing has become “classic Heather King” : the marriage of the personal and the universal, the presence of nature exquisitely described, the quest for peace in longing, the deep appreciation of not only “humanity,” but actual people, lightly and sincerely loved. Here also though was your personal aspiration, putting it out there for us, giving us another reason to pray for a woman who has so helped us, but issuing a challenge as well. You know your readers, that so many if not all among us in reading this beautiful writing breathe, ‘That’s exactly what I’d like to do: step clean out of this world, lovable though it is, and finally feel at home. So it’s ok to dream it. ”

    Thanks again, Heather.

    1. Lawrence! I need to hire you as a publicist! What a beautiful description of my work–I could never have written that myself but that is absolutely the essence of what on some level I aim for, or of my heart. Wait’ll you all see my upcoming reflection on “Single Awareness Day”…now that I think of it, kind of a continuation of the St. Andrew’s Abbey piece. Anyway, thank you so much for letting me know that in this LOUD culture of disgruntled voices, my quieter work is reaching at least a few people. On we go…the camellias are blooming in Southern California.

  2. What Lawrence MCDonald just said. I couldn’t have said it any better. THANK YOU. XXOO

    1. I feel the same way, Mary Beth! How lucky are we all to have one another?! Sending love and thanks to you and all in the Columbus, Ohio area–

  3. Wonderful essay !!!

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HEATHER KING