Archive for December, 2008

The Gratitude of Tragedy

December 28th, 2008

It seemed like just another November morning. Listening with half an ear to Good Morning America the news reported wildfires that had broken out once again in Southern California—my home for the past 20 years. This time one had been burning in Montecito—an exclusive community nestled close to Santa Barbara. Somehow I’ve grown accustomed to the fires—every year they arrive like unexpected guests but always seemed to stay at a safe distance from my life here in Santa Monica.

Diane Sawyer reported the wildfire in Montecito as the Tea Fire. It sounded like a gentle fire with such a civilized name, and it seemed far enough away from Mt. Calvary—my 12-step retreat home up the canyon in Santa Barbara that I wrote it off as yet another tragedy that struck others. For a brief moment I realized that the monks might be in danger, but I went on with my day as usual. My cellphone rang at around 10:30am with a number I did not recognize from one of my fellow 12-steppers who never calls me. “Mt. Calvary burned in the fire. We don’t know how badly it was affected but it was part of the Tea Fire. We’re waiting for more information, but the brothers all got out ok.”

Numbness, disbelief and a ray of hope.  Could this be? “The monastery is miles from Montecito”, I thought to myself. I held on to a small thread of hope for the rest of the morning as my sheltered knowledge of wildfires kept me momentarily safe from the reality of what happened. By noon the news reports confirmed it—“Mt. Calvary destroyed.” That’s all the information I needed and the tears began to flow.

It was May of 1995. In retrospect I’m not sure how I made it up the mountain the first time around but I remember seeing a flyer at a meeting, asking someone about the retreat and mustering up the courage to make my first trek up the mountain. This turned out to be one of the finest decisions I ever made.

Driving up to Mt. Calvary was always an adventure for the newcomer because of its remote location. Once you get to the Santa Barbara Mission, you wind your way up the mountain until you reach Gibraltar Road—apropos of such a cornerstone of recovery and healing. Mt. Calvary has been home to an order of Benedictine monks since 1947 and my fellowship always felt embraced with love, graciousness and humor by the brothers. Capacity for the retreat is thirty participants and almost every retreat has been full since the brothers opened their doors to 12-step retreats in the late 80’s.

In so many ways I’ve grown up there and witnessed so many others grow up beside me. We’ve shared meetings, stepwork, workshops, meals, the “Great Silence”, hikes, stories, movie reviews, tears and laughter.

An opportunity to slow down, listen to my natural rhythm, commune with Mother Nature and be embraced by the brothers of the Benedictine order. All the while cradled on the Mt. Calvary mountaintop with 360 degree panoramic views of magnificent mountains and endless ocean vistas.

Mt. Calvary touched us in so many ways that words can’t quite capture. It seemed to have its own heartbeat and symbolized love, serenity, unconditional acceptance, connection, being and sharing our true selves, growing and deepening. It became my twice-a-year ritual to leave behind my overly-scheduled life in Los Angeles and take a few days to truly retreat to a sanctuary I came to call my retreat home away from home.

I did make a final pilgrimage to Mt. Calvary a few weeks after the fire to witness the ruins of this vibrant entity. With the support of two of my program friends who share similar devotion to Mt. Calvary, we visited the site and checked in one of our beloved brothers whose displaced to St. Mary’s, a convent near the Mission. We honored Mt. Calvary and attempted to say goodbye the best way we knew how.

Yet, Mt. Calvary really hasn’t gone anywhere because I feel it so strongly inside of me. This is the gift. I showed up for it and it was there for me to receive. My gratitude to the brothers of Mt. Calvary and all of my fellows in recovery is immense, and its future remains to be seen.