I’m in Los Altos in the great, golden state of California with a group of Maryknoll Missioners and I must say in seventh heaven.

Directly across the Cristo Rey Drive lies the 4000-acre Rancho San Antonio Open Space Preserve, which contains 24 miles of trails: gorgeous wide trails of soft dirt that wind beneath towering stands of live oak, bay, and sycamore; that at times parallel gurgling streams and brooks; that are lined with all manner of blooming trees, shrubs, herbs, and wildflowers; and in many places are devoid-ish of people. I have made my way over each day and walked, 5, 6, yesterday 7 miles.

Los Altos is in the Bay Area, 45 minutes or so south of the San Francisco Airport. The weather has been LITERALLY PERFECT. I’m reminded all over again of how, why and when (forever) I love California. Some guy emailed me awhile ago to thank me for my writing and added a congratulations for moving out of LA–“Let’s pray the whole state falls into the sea sometime soon,” he said, at which I mightily bristled!

I replied, “Oh no, California is far too gorgeous and wild and wonderful and weird a place, and also has zillions of human beings in it (I did not add, By the way Mr. Catholic), ever for God to let it fall into the sea!” I know he meant well but this is what comes, if you ask me, from reading too much of the “news” and thereby thinking we “know” a place in its entirety…

In fact, I’m pretty sure I’d move back in a second–not to LA, but somewhere like…well, like Los Altos, which is only the wealthiest community apparently in the entire United State of America. So how about a studio, close to a church, quiet, with miles of walking nearby that I could use for a base to adventure and explore the neighborhood, country and world?

No seriously, I loved Sister Wendy Beckett‘s setup–she had a hermitage on the grounds of a Carmelite monastery but was not a member of the order. And for a certain period of her life, at least, she would periodically take off to visit museums all around the world in order to film PBS shows and write about art. Then she prayed for seven or nine hours a day.

I would instead read or play the piano or watch movies or garden for much of that time, and also would chafe at wearing a habit, and also am not holy and deep as Sr. Wendy was. But other than that, I’m just like her, and could write on spiritual matters, art and culture for the people who were putting me up, and also gladly pay rent. So if anyone has any ideas, let me know! Somebody’s got to be looking for a resident hermit–who leaves half the time.

Which brings me to the Maryknollers themselves, who are knocking me out with their generosity of spirit, kindness, intelligence, wit and total humility in spite of the fact that most of them have spent 50 or 60 years in some remote (or on the other end of the spectrum, overcrowded) region of Africa, South or Central America, or Asia. Usually it sounds like in places that were boiling hot, humid, infested with mosquitoes, snakes, bats, and/or deafingly loud nocturnal frogs, and plagued by poverty, illiteracy, disease, and/or gang warfare. Helping with healthcare, education, the building of churches, hospitals and schools. And of course, always, providing the Sacraments: the Mass, Confession, baptisms, weddings, funerals.

Today my dear artist friend who lives elsewhere in the Bay Area is going to fetch me–I’ll spend the night at her place and tomorrow, we will journey to the San Francisco pier and board the ferry to THE ISLAND OF ALCATRAZ. Which among other features has beautiful gardens, started by the max-security prisoners decades ago and, as of 2003, restored and maintained by the collaborative effort of the Garden Conservancy, Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy, and National Park Service. That should yield a juicy arts and culture column.

Finally, from my real contemplative hermit friend in Maine, Brother Rex, this wonderful reflection:

Waiting: From trying to pray well, [St.] Clare [of Assisi] learned a lot about loving God. For one thing, she learned that love involves an enormous amount of waiting. You waited for your beloved to come upon the mountain tops; you waited just for a glimpse of him bouncing across the valley of your loneliness, and like a gazelle he was restless and seldom stayed long with you. And if you were too dependent on his visits, his tangible presence, then most of the time you felt lonely and frustrated, and your thoughts were preoccupied with the beloved and his next coming. And so you learned to live as independently of his felt presence as possible. You learned to expect little and greet every visitation as a gift, a surprise that would happen when you least expected it.

 You prayed for his coming, but you were wise not to let your longing, your loneliness interfere with living, with what had to be done from moment to moment. You kept giving even when you felt nothing in return. And most of all, you learned to trust your beloved, to know deep within that love did do not depend on your experience of his presence. In fact, most of the time his love was a felt absence that prepared the heart for the ecstasy of meeting once again.

 Life with Jesus was a drama of finding and losing, of separation and reunion. The price you paid for ecstatic union was the loneliness and heartache of continued separation, of wondering if he had abandon you, had ceased loving you. With the Lord, Clare experienced at times the ecstatic union of mind and heart and soul and body; the intervals between his visitations caused her more pain than she could think about. She tried not to remember the intervals; they would, after all, continue to recur without her dwelling on them. She tried to live in the present, hoping and praying, but not depending too much on the coming of her beloved. And by living in the present, Clare gradually learned that the contemplative life is not a living for ecstasy but a simple faith that knows the Lord is always present whether or not his presence is felt any tangible way.

–Murray Body, OFM, from Clare: A Light in the Garden


  1. Thank you for this column! I’m not gonna lie, I’m a little envious that you get to hang out with Maryknollers surrounded by all that beauty. Alas! The Maryknollers hold a special place in my heart. When I was a small, Catholic schoolgirl, I picked up their missionary pamphlets in the back of our church. I remember thinking how exciting their lives must be and I would love to be a Maryknoll missionary. When my dad got wind of that, he wouldn’t let me take home any more pamphlets. It’s just as well. I would have made a terrible missionary. But I have followed them over the years and sometimes donate to their work. Enjoy your travels!

    1. HEATHER KING says: Reply

      I, too, so admire missionaries of all kinds, Elizabeth, but would have made a terrible one myself…wonderful to see how they’re provided for if they wish upon retirement as well…anyway, it’s been a huge blessing to be here and will take me days to “process!”

  2. dianamaryllouise says: Reply

    I appreciate the beautiful flowers and your love of California. California and other states are rabidly proabortion. It could prove useful to the pro life cause if there was some mention of the dangerous, radical, proabortion policies in California that are so dangerous to mothers, babies, young girls and women and families.

    1. HEATHER KING says: Reply

      Hi Diana, well I was able to enjoy even more of the beautiful flowers and to deepen my love of California, creation, all of life, and people when I visited Alcatraz today with a dear friend! Wishing you a splendid summer–

  3. “devoid-ish of people” – great phrase!

    1. HEATHER KING says: Reply

      Caffiene-generated, like so much of what I write…thank you, Susan!


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