When I was a kid I used to go hiking with my friend and his dad Saturday mornings. We’d set out early enough so that when we arrive there was hardly anyone there and by the time we’d leave in late morning the park would be coming to life. I enjoyed those quiet early morning hikes when the air was still cool and the day had hardly stated and here we were walking down these wide, dirt paths along a wooded hillside.
Being young boys of elementary school age we used to invent some adventure with danger was always lurking around the bend. His dad was quiet and he’d always be somewhere in the background, watching us but at the same time giving us the freedom to run and roam and discover. Woods are amazing places. After entering and a few bends and turns in the path you turn around to see nothing but trees, no sounds but the birds and squirrels and God knows what else.
I remember one hiking trip especially. We were in the heart of the forrest and we heard a sound. It turned out to be an animal but we weren’t sure at first. Who knows what we thought it could have been.
“For a minute there I thought it was like a dwarf or something”, my friend said.
“A dwarf?” I asked.
“Yeah, like in Snow White and Seven Dwarfs.”
“Yeah, what were those dwarfs doing just living there in the woods like that?” I asked jokingly.
“Oh, that’s easy,” he replied. “They were monks”.
“Yeah, that’s these people who live in woods and live very simple lives and eat stuff like peanut butter and fruits and vegetables.”
That was the first time I heard about monks. I would only discover many years later that that wasn’t the best description but I’m often reminded of those hikes when I go – of all places – to the monastery Saturday mornings. First of all, just as that description of monks was way off so is me calling this place a monastery a bit of a stretch. Technically, it is registered as a monastery but with no monks, no full liturgical life, it’s a monastery only by name.
It’s located in the rocky hills of Escondido. The drive is seemingly mundane. I reach Valley High School with the large soccer field where there are already three of four games underway. Then comes a very nice and somewhat upscale subdivision. I drive to the end, pass the metal gate into the avocado orchard which turns to dirt roads that swerve around the hills, taking me up and down and up and eventually I look down the steep hill to see a small, white chapel. By the time I arrive, get out of the car and look around it’s as if I’m miles and miles from civilization. It’s peaceful and quiet. I look around and see nothing but the dry hills. Oftentimes during liturgy I remind myself where I’m at, how this divine service is transported to this dry and dusty landscape out in nowhere. Before liturgy starts as I’m getting everything ready I think of those hikes in the woods that I enjoyed so much and wonder to myself how I ever ended up here. How that Saturday morning mention of monks intrigued me so much; how they seemed so mysterious and fascinating.
Typically after liturgy we have lunch. Everyone brings something and we sit and talk and eat and enjoy the quiet stillness of nature. We haven’t had peanut butter yet.