You Can’t Bury a Monastery


My grandmother, Betty Grishkewich (now 90 years old) and me at Mount Calvary Monastery circa 1997.

At 6:00 am the Benedictine monks of Mount Calvary Monastery began their first morning service, Vigils.  It was a simple service.  Their voices rose out of the small, wood-laden chapel in Santa Barbara, CA, with the sun.  There was always a thick cloud cover this early in the morning, so the city of Santa Barbara was hidden from view, and the monastery often seemed to be floating out of a cloud as it sat high in the mountains.

This is where my grandmother took me each year for a short retreat in the middle of September.  It was a retreat house that belongs to the Order of the Holy Cross, a group of Benedictine monks who vowed to live their life finding the divine in the everyday.  The monks were men who had had other lives, but had chosen to be in this guesthouse now. They were different ages and had different vocations.  There was a casual astronomer, who pulled his telescope out on clear nights.  There was a painter, who had an art studio a short walk from the guesthouse.  Some of the men played instruments; one played the cello.  Some of them had been married or had lived in New York or Africa, in the other guesthouses.

One of the tenants of being a Benedictine monk is hospitality, so the guesthouse is open to the public.  For around $60 a night, you could arrive after lunch, and check yourself into a sparse room with two single beds, a desk, and a chair.  There were usually several religious images in frames in the room; and there was always a small window that opened to the fresh, damp Santa Barbara air and a plain, functional curtain that you could draw over it.  Each room fell off of a long hallway that connected to the main building.  The floors were a rich, dark wood.

I went to Mount Calvary while attending UCSB as an undergrad, just after I had begun my first teaching job, in the days after September 11, 2001, the year the monk’s put in a wonderful labyrinth, two weeks after my father-in-law passed, and while I was six months pregnant with my first child.

My last time there, I remember we had an especially clear night, so after our meeting we are able to go out to star gaze.  One of the brothers quietly and reverently guided us through the night sky.  We were humbled as we stood near the stone wall that separated us from the mountain’s cliff, listening … astonished at the heavens.

On November 13, 2008, a fire starts in Mar i Cel, an open space preserve in Montecito.  Because there is a special tea house on the preserve, the fire is named the “Tea Fire.”  210 homes were destroyed.  The monastery burned to the ground.

Here is an excerpt from Rebeca Cathcart’s New York Time’s article about the monastery:

“Two small artist’s studios near the main building were intact. An icon of Christ that Brother Brown had been painting with pigments made from egg yolk and mineral powder was still on a desk. A cello sat a few feet away, unharmed. In the chaos of wind and fire, a sheriff’s deputy had moved another monk’s telescope outside, where it remained unscathed. ‘In the midst of all this destruction,’ Brother Brown, 46, said Tuesday, ‘miracles happened all over the place.’”

Many things were lost in the fire:  sun porch, art, couch, kitchen, chapel, 15,000 books, labyrinth, bread, tea, garden. But, many things were also not lost.

Today I will go to the new location of Mount Calvary Monastery, something I have been been meaning to do for a long time. The new location is not at the top of a mountain, but near the Santa Barbara Mission instead. Although I know it will be different, I hope to feel something of the connection I had to the original property, because in my heart, that property is still very much alive.

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