December 1, 2017

Living History at Saint Andrew’s Abbey

Listening to a moving sermon—hiking in an arid terrain—writing in your journal beside an idyllic pond—going more than 12 hours without speaking—sharing a communal supper with classmates and teachers—performing songs for an audience of monks—making connections with people you thought you’d have nothing in common with…

For most of us, these impressions might not add up to anything in particular. But for people who have gone through fifth grade at Oakwood elementary school during the past four decades, these disparate images make up memories of something very specific: the time they took an overnight field trip to a monastery in the Mojave Desert.

Every year, our 5th graders visit St. Andrew’s Abbey, a religious community vowed to the Benedictine monastic teachings and way of life, located in Valyermo, just southeast of Palmdale, as part of their social studies curriculum. On October 26, our current fifth grade class boarded busses bound for the abbey, equipped with the knowledge of monasteries they had learned in class. They were excited to experience hands-on how this tradition has evolved during the past thousand plus years.

Fifth grade students at Oakwood start the year looking at the rise of the Roman Empire and the reasons for its fall as a means to understand what was happening in Western Europe before the era that will become their focus for the year, the Medieval period. The opportunity to zoom in on the Middle Ages allows the students to deeply explore a culture and many of its facets that go beyond mere dates. Philosophy, art, architecture, literature, religion—all are examined closely in this course that asks the big question, “What makes a civilization?”

St. Andrew's Abbey in Valyermo, CA

Longtime 5th grade teacher Judy Kohon has led this trip for almost 30 years and explains that this is an opportunity to take learning out of the classroom and visit a place that is at once contemporary and historical:

“After the Roman government fell, the Christian church rose and came in to help the people, and the development of the monasteries was very important to keeping education alive. This trip is really the culmination of our study of monks and monasteries and the importance of the Church. The monks were the ones who hand wrote the books, illustrated the books, and kept the learning and knowledge. They learned new ways to farm. They gave people a chance to get away from the chaos that was happening in the Roman Empire at that time. Monasteries developed as places of safety and education and learning, and a lot of positive things were going on there.”

And, while a monastery in 2017 California is quite different from a Medieval monastery at the turn of the (first) millennium, the trip to St. Andrew’s offers the students an opportunity to observe both the continuities and the changes. According to Judy, the visit is framed as follows: “We say, ‘Look, these are Benedictine monks living in modern times. We’re talking about it in the Middle Ages. Can you see what they’re still doing, following the rule of St. Benedict? Let’s see what their day was like. Can we say it was very similar to what was done in the Middle Ages? How has it changed? Let’s bring ourselves to be part of that era. What’s that like?”

The students’ exploration to find answers to some of these questions and to experience aspects of the monastic lifestyle continued when the students arrived at St. Andrews. In keeping with the Benedictine tradition the students had learned about in class, St. Andrew’s monks have five services each day—6:30am Vigils, 7:30am morning prayer (Lauds), noon Conventual Mass, 6:00pm evening prayer (Vespers), and 8:30pm night prayer (Compline). Over the course of their visit, students attended four services. Arriving in time to join the monks for their midday mass, students were welcomed to the Abbey by a powerful sermon about the need for love in today’s world. Many students noted how interesting it was to have the opportunity to observe the monks practicing their faith, whether that faith was similar or different to their own beliefs.

Another high point for the students was escaping their familiar urban environment and immersing themselves in nature. After the service and a delicious lunch, the group went on a hike at the Devil’s Punchbowl, where a Los Angeles County park ranger explained that the area’s ominous name dates back to native people’s observing at the edges of the canyon mountain lions, an animal that symbolized demon spirits. She also taught the students about other wildlife unique to the area, such as the rattlesnake and honey ants, and introduced them to two living specimens, a barn owl and a desert tortoise.

The high desert ecosystem at 3,600 feet altitude has been home to the monks of the St. Andrew’s Abbey since 1955, the year the monastic community relocated to Valyermo after being expelled from China by Mao Zedong’s government in 1952. This fascinating history and the arid Mojave surroundings certainly add to the feeling of the Abbey as a welcoming oasis for the monks. They extend their warm hospitality—a core value in the order of St. Benedict, founded in the year 500 A.D.—to their guests as well. After their hike, the students returned to find cookies and tea to help them stay energized for the many activities ahead.

So many of the students and teachers who have experienced the 5th grade monastery over the years recall the peaceful, serene moments as their favorites, and the chance to completely unplug and have some contemplative space was, again, a big part of this year’s trip. After refueling, they headed to the pond for quiet, individual reflection with sketchbooks and cameras, led by art teacher Christy Shelton. Enjoying this quaint body of water under a canopy of trees that contrast so starkly with the rocky terrain of the earlier hike, the students spread out around the periphery of the pond that contained bright orange koi fish and slow moving turtles. Despite some initial loud protesting from ducks and a wading visit from one of the monk’s German shepherds to cool off, the students were able to quietly compose poetry, sketch, and take pictures as the sun moved lower in the sky.

While it’s true that this group of students had never been to the monastery before, the relationship between Oakwood and St. Andrew’s is a longstanding partnership of mutual respect. From the students being shown to their rooms past the many murals and mosaics on the grounds, to the Scottish Brother who included the students of Oakwood in the blessing during their evening prayer, the evening’s activities highlighted this friendship.

Such thoughtfulness was again on display as the 5th graders went from mass into a high-ceilinged space for a family-style meal served by the brothers. The students returned to their tables with heaping portions of spaghetti and meatballs, mounds of stewed greens, and bread baked hours earlier by the monks. They enjoyed their meal at long rows of set tables between one wall spanned by a multi-paneled painting depicting the Assumption of Mary and an enormous hand-constructed glass wall crossed with heavy wooden beams and textured glass. The peaceful, communal setting was perhaps only matched by the large bowls of chocolate brownies and vanilla ice cream topped with whipped cream. Ask anyone who has been on this trip about the highlights of the experience, and you are bound to hear about the delicious food.

A long-standing tradition of this trip is for the students to not only experience the heartfelt generosity of the monks, but also to learn to repay such kindness with the gift of song. After dinner they moved into the lounge and found their places, laid out their sheet music, and picked up their instruments. When the room was silent, a single student’s voice rang out in the room singing acapella the first verse of Kumbaya, followed by the rest of the students coming in loud and strong to the accompaniment of Lisa Pimentel’s acoustic guitar. The students performed four songs with a set list ranging from Jackie DeShannon’s “Put a Little Love in Your Heart” to “Times Like These” by the Foo Fighters.

Students enjoying a dinner prepared by the monks of Valyermo.
Oakwood fifth graders perform a dance.

After the songs, the Oakwood fifth grade stood, joined hands in two concentric circles, and performed an intricately stepped dance, moving around one another with careful spins and coming close together in a tight group with arms held high. With one round of the dance completed, the monks were invited to join. Many happily obliged and quickly learned the steps with the ready help of our students.

Unlike a trip to a place that attempts to recreate a historical time period—such as Williamsburg, Virginia or Old Town, San Diego—this experience traces a line between an order founded in Medieval times and a modern community. Students over the years have shared stories of going into this trip expecting the monks to be unrelatable, only to come away from the experience feeling a real bond with the brothers who opened their home to them. According to this year’s sixth graders, one of the monks, when asked about his favorite music, replied “Lady Gaga,” much to everyone’s surprise. Another student last year said he had a chat with a monk who is really into extreme sports, and another relayed, “They might dress differently than us, but they have computers, they check the news, they are really funny. They are people just like us.”

These conversations and encounters are not only great human moments, but also important teaching moments, says Judy: “We want them to think about choices.” She tells the students, “I don’t think any of you are going to choose to be a monk, but people make choices. Whatever choices people make in life, we have to be open-minded and flexible.” She urges them to ask themselves, “What are the choices the monks are making? Why do these men make these choices today? What does it look like? How has it modernized? What is still the same?” And, according to the teachers, one of the characteristics that the community of St. Andrews really appreciates about Oakwood students is that they are knowledgeable about monastic life. “They know the history, and they’re very open to their lifestyle,” says Judy.

This openness and sense of curiosity showed in the next item on the evening’s itinerary, which was one of the students’ most treasured parts of the trip: a question and answer session with the monks. Helped by their teachers, the 5th graders had prepared questions in advance, such as:
-What is the biggest misconception about monks?
-Why did you choose to be a monk?
-What was your life like before you became a monk?
-What profession would you do if you weren’t a monk (or what job did you do before this?)
-Have you practiced this religion your whole life?

One by one, the brothers opened up to our students, sharing thoughtful responses. One monk shared that his favorite part about being a monk was the silence, quiet, and sense of peace. Another said that his favorite place in the monastery, other than his bed, was the kitchen. One brother told the group that, before he became a monk, he worked as the personal servant for the Queen Mother in the United Kingdom. Another monk, when asked what his favorite part of the day was, answered that it was when the sun was about to set, that the light of the abbey between day and night made him happy.

Brother Peter Zhou Bangjiu reading his poetry to the students.

Towards the end of the session, a monk named Brother Peter (Zhou Bangjiu), who has spoken with Oakwood students throughout the years, stood up to address the group. He told them his incredible story of joining the monastic community during its early years in China and then being imprisoned for his faith for 27 years—from 1955 to 1981—after the communist takeover. Following his release from prison he left China to rejoin the St. Andrews community in Valyermo. A prolific writer who has recorded his struggles in poetry and prose, Brother Peter treated the 5th graders to a special reading of two of his poems. The first, entitled “Parting Words to my Fetters,” written in Nanchong Prison in 1971, reveals his incredible bravery and strength in the face his prolonged imprisonment.

What came next was a truly remarkable moment, and a surprise to all. For his second poem, Brother Peter chose a verse that he’d written in 2011: “Welcoming Warmly This Year’s Graduates, Fifth Graders, From the Oakwood Elementary School.” Over the years, Oakwood students have made a lasting impression on Peter. His gift to this group was this poem, written in a classic Chinese poetic style, that encourages the students to continue striving, “Studying diligently, / Cultivating character and intelligence; / Building up the body and the mind, / Pursuing the truth and the goodness.” While the Q & A session is always a special time of connection for both the monks and our students, Brother Peter created a moment that students are sure to remember.

In social studies class, the students learned of the concept and purpose of the vows taken by Medieval monks, and after joining the monks for their last service of the day, Compline, they tested their own sense of discipline during the Great Silence. This period of no talking that extends from the evening prayer through the following day’s breakfast is a challenge for Oakwood students. Each has his or her own strategy to survive this mini vow of silence, including bringing along a notepad on which to write to notes to friends or just going to sleep. “The idea is for the kids to challenge themselves to see what it might have been like during a very significant period of reflection when the monks didn’t talk,” says Judy. Like so many of the activities during this trip, the Great Silence is another way for the students to step out of their comfort zone in order to experience that which they had learned in the classroom.

When the students woke up in the morning, the silence continued and lasted through the next service (Lauds or Morning Prayer) and breakfast. Then, finally freed of this vow, the words excitedly came pouring out as the students packed up their things before taking a hike to the Eye of the Needle. This journey to a breathtaking natural site where the Abbey’s cemetery is located was both beautiful and solemn and, according to more than one student, additionally bittersweet because they didn’t want this trip to be over!

Tri-fold projects completed by the 5th graders showing the monks' three-fold rule: work, study, and pray.

When the students study Medieval monastery life, they learn about the three-fold rule—work, study, and pray—a rule that these Benedictine monks still follow. Over the course of the 24 hours, they’d witnessed prayer first-hand and had talked to the monks about their studies. Before getting on the bus to depart, our students saw how the monks followed the work part of the three-fold rule. Located on their grounds is a gift shop where they sell ceramics that the monks make on site following a tradition of Benedictine craftsmanship and labor. The students, who had just spent so much time in the company of the monks, were amazed by the vast number of ceramics they’d created (their website showcases over 800 distinct styles). Many of the students had a hard time choosing which item they wanted to purchase, but it was wonderful to have the chance to not only support the monastery, but to take home a small piece of it as a memory of their trip.

An example of Valyermo ceramics.

“Hands-on learning has always been a part of Oakwood in a very, very connected way,” says Judy. “When they are at the monastery, they eat with the monks. They go to the services. They go to the ceramics shop and see their craftsmanship. We see the kitchen. We see how they prepare the meals. We don’t stay in our own little world. We go into theirs for a while. And the monks have let us in … for years.”

The time the 5th graders spend annually at the Abbey brings to life so many of the lessons that Oakwood 5th graders learn about monasteries and their role during the Medieval time period. But, if you listen to students who have taken the trip, you quickly learn that another crucial lesson is one of timeless human connection. Perhaps the students’ own words, penned to the monks in thank you notes are the best evidence of the strong yet invisible bridge that spans from Moorpark Boulevard to a little monastery in the Mojave Desert.

Magritte: “Thank you so much for letting us stay in your home and showing the 5th grade how you live … Brother Peter, your poem almost made me cry and I wish I could hear it again. It was a wonderful experience for 5th grade. Thank you so much! I wish I could hear it again!”

Owen: “I had so much fun sitting with you during meals. When I talked to you, I felt welcomed … St. Andrew’s Abbey was so peaceful during services … the Great Silence was calm and respectful.”

Millie: “Being part of your services was one of the most enlightening experiences of my life … You take such great care of the monastery and it really shows. The grounds are so beautiful and serene … I hope you enjoyed the performance we worked so hard on. If it was only half as good as the experience you gave us we would be so happy. We are very different people but when I was there I think my whole class felt a connection, which really enhanced the experience.”

Maxwell: “Being in your environment was so eye opening, so interesting to see what it was like to pray, to listen to your music. The moment I stepped off the bus I knew our trip was going to be amazing just because it was so beautiful.”

Cy: “I loved how there was nothing but desert for miles and then all of the sudden in the middle was a big green colorful piece of land.”

Eden: “Thank you for giving me the best field trip I’ve ever had! All of the monks will forever be in my heart … Thank you for letting me observe a religion I’ve never experienced.”

Josh: “Thank you for letting 50 some people take over your wonderful monastery. You are a wonderful group of men, and your stories were super touching … Thank you for the rooms, the food, letting us watch your services, your kind and generous hearts.”