Archive for November, 2018

gratitude of tragedy

November 12th, 2018

It’s been a tragic week here in Southern California with the Thousand Oaks bar shooting and then the Woolsey fire burning. I feel compelled to share an article I wrote ten years ago after the “tea fire” in Montecito and Santa Barbara.

The Gratitude of Tragedy (November 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 sheltered life here on the westside of Los Angeles.

Diane Sawyer reported a wildfire in Montecito called the Tea Fire.  It sounded like a gentle fire with such a civilized name, and it seemed far enough away from Mt. Calvary—my 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 phone rang at 10:30am with a number I didn’t recognize.  “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 and disbelief.  How 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 limited 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 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 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 healing.  Mt. Calvary has been home to an order of Benedictine monks since 1947, and the brothers’ generosity of spirit is unparalleled.  Capacity for the retreat is thirty participants, and almost every retreat has been full.

Having participated in more than twenty retreats at Mt. Calvary, I’ve seen myself grow up there and witnessed so many others grow up beside me.  We’ve shared meetings, 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 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 heart and soul. To me it symbolized love, serenity, unconditional acceptance, connection, sharing our true selves, growing and deepening.  It became my ritual to leave behind the overly-scheduled, frenetic life in Los Angeles and take a few days to retreat to a sanctuary I came to call my 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 structure.  With the support of two close friends who share similar devotion to Mt. Calvary, we visited the site and checked in with one of our beloved brothers 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 it lives on 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 retreat family is immense, and the future remains to be seen.

Update, November 2018: The monks moved to St. Mary’s and eventually purchased it from the Catholic diocese, and the one remaining nun at the retreat house returned to Wisconsin. It’s been renamed Mt. Calvary and carries the spirit of the original site with a slightly different vibe. I remain so grateful to the monks who have kept the retreat house alive. And I still make the trek at least once a year for sanctuary and serenity.