I’m watching this band, The Dave Matthews Band, playing in Red Rocks’ natural amphitheater in Colorado, and, Jesus, don’t it remind me of when I was in the monastery not too far away. Father John, our abbot, wanted us to see the natural beauty of that magnificent state. Little did I know he was also kind of shopping.
Jeesh, I sure wish I was back in the monastery today after seeing my friggin’ light bill! Of course, I had taken a vow of poverty, which was no problem. The monastery provided all of my necessities, and what did I need with cash? They did give me seven dollars’ chump change weekly. I’d go up to Fifth Street and find a drunk or two and bring ’em to Mac’s. They’d appreciate it.
This was back in the ’70s. I remember going through Philly in ’76 on my way to take my vows. Many folks ask me about that adventure. You know, you just don’t walk up to the monastery door and say, “I wanna be a monk.” Oh, no. It’s a process, believe me.
But first let me say there are different types of monasteries, and they all have different principles they follow. Most folks think of monks that chant and pray all day, don’t talk and all that jazz. Well, we were Episcopalian, which is Catholicism, but instead of the Pope we got the Archbishop of England. And a more modern religion. We took up the challenge of having a woman priest — still just a deaconess, last I knew, but more modern, progressive.
We modeled our order after Gregorian and Franciscan orders, so it was called a New Order. Monasteries get all kinds of rumors about them, but it’s basically a group of guys that wish to celebrate God in their own way. From the Franciscans we did have times of silence. Every day we set a time of silence. Every morning we’d recite some psalms — five lines a day for 30 days. It’d kind of set the tenor for the day, and maybe something you heard in Psalms you’d think about or pray about. Just whatever, but do it quiet.
I was extremely fortunate, as the people that joined my abbey were really intelligent people, and some surely stick out in my memory. One fellow was a concert pianist and every chance he got he’d blast away some Chopin or Steinbeck or something. Another was an artist, and on the side an interior decorator. Man, even the abbot had a Masters in Religion. Knew the Bible backwards. And he was a great mentor for me. Helped me find God.
OK, now you remember when I said the abbot was shopping? Well, he surely was — shopping for new souls to help.
The Gregorian part of things had us doing good things for the people living around us. It goes back a few hundred years, when the church was the place to go if you’re low on food or maybe clothes or, anyway, you need help. So we kept that tradition alive with like a soup kitchen or a place to hang your hat for awhile. And then sometimes a mother’d stop by and we’d brighten her day with a sack of food and maybe somethin’ that’d smell nice. We had a cook, and he would allocate whatever food we could spare and hand it over to me (the gatekeeper) to give to the mother.
We all had some particular job to do. The sacristan would take care of all the things necessary for a full Mass, which was a daily occurrence — twice on Sundays. And an official bell-ringer. Important job, actually. People in the ’hood would always let us know if we were late. The bells would need to be rung for each office, as we knew them as. Morning Song being the real big one — start your day off right!
’Scuse me if my memory gets the best of things, but I sure remember the offices: vespers, matins, evensong. There’s more. They all had to be attended and psalms recited. And we always had a saint to celebrate. And by the way, our book to go by was the Book of Common Prayer.
On Saturdays, we rescheduled our Mass from noon to 5 p.m., so after morning office we’d do something — whatever our mentor would arrange. One mentor brought us to other churches and showed us the different altars and architecture. Another mentor brought us to Denver basketball games. And that’s how we came to visit Red Rocks.
We always had to make it back by 5. It was technically a low Mass, but often we’d have a guest, and we’d have to prepare for Sunday morning Mass. And wasn’t that somethin’ to behold? An exquisitely beautiful sight to enjoy. People came from miles around.
We would have two Masses for Sunday — one early one at 7 a.m. (low) and one at 9 (high). For you agnostics, I’ll tell you that high and low Mass was exactly the same, but high has a sermon, and more hallelujahs and singing, and donations. And then, of course, hugs time. I always noticed the girls were quite more fervent and zealous at that. That was the peak of the week!
Mainly what we did was look after a halfway house for disturbed children. Some blocks away, we converted an apartment house into a facility that held perhaps 15-20 kids at a time, kids that were troubled for one thing or another — runaways, druggies, all sorts of kids. And we had a philosophy of showing kids a better life than what they came from. Apparently the government agreed, as they kept paying us a good amount.
The grocery chain Save A Lot believed in us also. They liked us to the tune of $10 million. So we then really started shopping around. We wanted a big place for a long-term facility for disadvantaged kids. So we made an offer to the Phillips 66 petroleum corporation and got a place in Steamboat Springs. Boy, didn’t we make a splash attending Mass there, us in our ground-length robes and tonsures (the haircut monks receive). And right away we start planning for the young’uns.
Actually I didn’t need much planning or training. I been teaching kids to fish and enjoy the outdoors for a hell of a long time. We were to take 40 youngsters from the slums of Washington, D.C., and put them in our lodge for two years and show them how nice life could really be. Huh, nice?, you say? I mean, this joint had a six-foot sunken fireplace, 300-seat main dining area, 24 guest cottages (all with fireplace), and miles of beautiful wilderness. Neat-o. We had people apply for work there before we even opened!
So we did training sessions with the kids from our short-term facility in Denver to practice. Everything was coming up roses. And I can hear your next question…
Well, we had what’s called a guest house at our Denver place, a short-term crash pad, so to say, with a lot of different folks coming through. I happened to meet one fella who was a lead guitarist and vocalist in a band from Austin, Texas. And see, it was the time for my forever vows. Well, Austin, Texas, won that skirmish in my brain. But do I ever miss my old monastery days.