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Making a Joyful Noise at the Priory

The ducks were lined up on top of the wall outside the refectory, quacking loud and demanding remarks to the monks inside. The Benedictines maintain silence during the first meal of the day, so every syllable of the ducks’ diatribe was crystal clear. The ducks wanted their breakfast right now. The ducks are so plump they look like feathered basketballs. They obviously eat regularly and well.

When a monk appeared around the corner, headed for the lake with a large sack of food, the crotchety band waddled after him, still mumbling imprecations.

I had gone to St. Andrew’s Priory at Valyermo in the high desert to visit some dear friends in the monastery and to see their preparations for their 32nd annual Autumn Festival. It’s always the last weekend in September, this year from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Saturday and next Sunday.

The Benedictines turn their 500-acre ranch into a country fair to celebrate the coming of autumn and the harvest and to greet their guests. Hospitality is the bedrock tenet of the Benedictines. The order is now in its 16th Century, so they have it well-learned.

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There are two roads into the monastery, so there’s no traffic back-up getting in. There is a $3 charge for parking but no charge for getting onto the grounds.

This year, the trees will again be hung with banners, bearing legends of joy and illuminated with pictures of birds and flowers. The first time I went to the festival, I thought I had wandered into a time loop and had been set down in an Arthurian forest on tournament day. The banners billow in the breeze.

The children’s petting zoo will be at the entrance to the grounds. There will be goats, chickens, stilt-legged lambs and calves, and Father Werner de Morchoven, who produces the festival every year, is hoping for a pig.

“All of the animals are pets of 4-H kids from Little Rock and Pearblossom,” he said. “The boys and girls come with their animals and so do their adult counselors. It must be the best supervised petting zoo anywhere. And, of course, the pony rides will again be popular with our young visitors.”

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Father Werner is assistant chaplain at Edwards Air Force Base nearby. He took me 200 feet above the monastery to show me the cemetery. It is on top of a rise in the mountain, with stubby granite crosses marking the graves. A huge granite carving by renowned sculptor Gordon Newell towers above them--a great block with an oval opening in the middle called the Eye of the Needle. From the cemetery, you can look across the mountains and see the dry lakes and the base.

John West will lead the Valyermo Dancers in their beautiful liturgical dance toward the end of the afternoon on both festival days on the stage, which stands in the priory’s central courtyard.

Artists’ Alley will show the work of artists in watercolors and oils, with their easels set up among the trees. There will be old and new book booths, a flea market, craft demonstrations and five restaurants offering a range from a full roast beef dinner to snacks. The Knights of Columbus from Edwards AFB will maintain the beer booth.

There will be music all over the festival grounds, medieval court music, mariachis, everywhere something to accompany the more than 60 activities. Western music will be played from a stage in the pasture. Folk dancers and Renaissance dancers will trip to the measures.

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Father Maur Van Doorslaer will be there to sign his ceramic plaques. He spends six months a year at the Benedictine Mother House in Bruges, Belgium, and six months at Valyermo. Nothing so well spreads the Benedictine precept of happiness, music and joy in life as Father Maur’s plaques.

I bought one of St. Luke painting a portrait of the Blessed Virgin and the Baby Jesus. Father Werner said it is a replica of an icon from the time of St. Luke and tradition has it that the original is in Armenia or the Ukraine.

I was complimented to be asked by Father Eleutherius Winance to see his garden. He is nearing his 80th birthday and works there every day, riding his bicycle from the monks’ living quarters. He planted the lawn and rolled it by hand. He uses an old-fashioned lawn mower because the noise and fumes of a motor would shatter the pure green quiet he has brought about. He has a poplar grove, planted from slips 25 years ago, and the wind through the leaves gentles the city soul. Father Eleutherius still teaches classes in philosophy at Claremont McKenna College in Pomona.

The festival will benefit the new youth center the monks are planning to build. It will be a nondenominational center where adolescents will come year-round for a few days in the fragrant mountains.

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“Maybe if we needed a huge amount of money, it would be easier,” Father Werner told me. “Huge projects attract foundations and big givers and more attention is paid. Our youth center is a barn that was the original monastery when we came here from China in the early ‘50s. One of the dorms was a turkey house. We have all the plans and a beautiful model. We need the money before these buildings crumble away. And we could accommodate more kids.”

On festival day, take Freeway 5 to the Antelope Valley Freeway, on to Little Rock and then to Pearblossom and follow the Valyermo signs.

One year, the Los Angeles basin was having a biblical rainstorm and at the Valyermo Festival the day was beautiful and clear. While I was there this time, when Los Angeles roasted on the Labor Day weekend, there was an easy breeze blessing the priory grounds. I cannot guarantee perfect weather for the festival but that’s the way to bet. I think the monks know somebody.


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