St Andrew's Abbey, Valyermo, California, USA

St Andrew's Abbey, Valyermo, California, USA


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Mystery Worshipper: Yarddog
Church: St Andrew's Abbey
Location: Valyermo, California, USA
Date of visit: Monday, 4 June 2007, 6:00pm

The building

The chapel is a small, plain wooden structure with low ceilings and a quiet feeling about it. Two small stained glass windows bring color to the space. The pews are short and the kneelers are set in the floor.

The church

The monastic community at Valyermo was founded in China in 1929 and worked there until being expelled by the communists in 1952. In 1955 the community relocated to its present site. The monks conduct retreats, conferences and workshops, furnish supply clergy for parishes in the area, and maintain a thriving ceramics industry, selling their wares both online and in various shops. The chapel is the center of the abbey's Benedictine monastic life and is always open to the public for all services.

The neighborhood

Valyermo is located in California's Antelope Valley, in the region also known as the High Desert, northeast of Los Angeles. With a population of only 450, the town is noted primarily as the site of St Andrew's Abbey. The abbey is a lush, green oasis in the desert, and the contrast between the two immediate areas is stunning.

The cast

The Very Revd Joseph Brennan, OSB., prior, led the services, assisted by other members of the community.

What was the name of the service?

Vespers and Compline.

How full was the building?

Nicely full.

Did anyone welcome you personally?

One does not expect to be personally greeted when popping in on the liturgy of the hours at an abbey chapel. But the monks were helpful with the worship material, and before and after the service I chatted with other visitors as well as with the abbot, the Rt Revd Francis Benedict, OSB., some of the other monks, the folks at the welcome center and the development office. All of them were totally engaging and very warm to a visitor on his first day of retreat.

Was your pew comfortable?

Not particularly but it served the purpose.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?

Quiet, very reverent. There was a real, palpable sense of the holy.

What were the exact opening words of the service?

At both services, one of the monks chanted the opening words, but I'm afraid I didn't quite catch them.

What books did the congregation use during the service?

Books were provided at the entrance to the chapel, with one book on display open at the correct page.

What musical instruments were played?

Organ as needed.

Did anything distract you?

Nothing distracted me. Everyone was there because they wanted to be.

Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?

It had the ease and quiet nature of worship in a Benedictine monastery. The male voices were pleasing to the ear and the rhythms were sturdy and sure. There was a distinct monastic feel to each service, especially compline, which marks the beginning of the Great Silence.

Exactly how long was the sermon?

There was no sermon at either service.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?

No one thing stands out. There was an evenness to the whole experience, which was one of reverence and holiness.

And which part was like being in... er... the other place?

Well, those pews...

What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?

As I was on retreat, I was expected at dinner, which was served after vespers. Several other folks who were also on retreat walked with me back to the hall. They were very engaging – totally – with the exception of one gentleman, a priest, who seemed a bit put off by my tattoos. But I've experienced that before.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?

Retreat centers are not generally known for gourmet dining, but St Andrew's has very good food! In fact, it was great! And as is customary in monasteries, someone read during dinner – the story of a certain stone carver in 12th century France and the impact of his work on other artists and cathedrals in his home area.

How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?

10 – I will return for retreats often, as St Andrew's is closer to home than other retreat houses I have visited in the past.

Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?

I am not Roman Catholic, but I am very ecumenical. I respect the rules of the Roman church with regard to non-participation by non-Catholics at communion. I wish it were otherwise, but it is what it is. The monks and the place itself, however, made me both glad to be a Christian and to be alive.

What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?

The beauty of the place and the personal warmth of the monks.

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