Nestled in the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains lies some holy land.
There, 500 acres of lush lawns and gardens and desert brush provide a permanent home to 24 monks and a weekend retreat for those seeking religious awakening or just a few days of solitude.
Although mention of St. Andrew's Abbey may conjure up images of tonsured men painstakingly transcribing biblical passages from Greek to Latin, there are no walls here. No periods of fasting.
"It's more laid-back, not about prayer and about things you're supposed to be serious about," said Lui Toilolo, 36, of Los Angeles. "I really felt drawn to this community. It's very warm and welcoming."
Toilolo is an "observer" at the abbey, trying on monastic life to see if he can leave his career as a Catholic school teacher, sell his belongings and devote the rest of his life to God.
Little did he know when he arrived, though, that the other monks were also trying him out.
Candidates think "maybe I'll stay, if they're lucky . . . but the younger guys never [think] that the community might not want them," said Brother James Brennan. "It's a monastic joke."
It was more than two years ago that Brennan himself was seeking to join the Benedictine monastery. He was 21 then, and had decided to take a quarter off from college in San Diego after feeling depressed that he had chosen the wrong path in life. He had a yearning to follow God but he wasn't quite sure how, he said.
"It's very difficult to describe. I guess for everyone it's different. Gradually over time, they see the vanities of what they're doing and have the desire to search for something different," Brennan said.
After reading about a monastery in Colorado, he realized monastic life was the path he was searching for. Brennan visited St. Andrew's Abbey several times during the spring of 1996. In March of this year, he took his vows as a monk.
He had to sign his vow--"Uphold me Lord according to Your Word, and I shall live; let not my hope be put to shame"--on the altar.
"It's like stepping out on a limb," the once confused college student said. "It takes a lot of effort from me, but a lot more on God's part."
Brennan is not the only twentysomething at St. Andrew's Abbey. As other religious orders struggle to attract young men to replace aging priests, monks and nuns, the Benedictine monastery counts 10 monks under 40 years old. Each week, about five more men inquire about monastic life and the abbey regularly houses guests interested in becoming monks.
"If you hang out a sign that says 'monastery,' you can find a lot of really weird people," said Father Simon O'Donnell. "I always ask them 'Is this going to hurt or help you?' "
Along with "lost souls," the monastery attracts as temporary guests both the devoutly religious and law and medical students simply looking for a quiet place to study for exams. There are guest houses above the cloister and all guests can pray and share meals with the monks.
The day is marked by prayers at specific times, identified by their traditional Latin-origin names. Vigils start at 6 a.m. followed by lauds. Breakfast is in silence followed by Mass at noon. Vespers are at 6 p.m. followed by dinner, then compline. Then the monks must go without speaking until the next morning.
Monks spend their afternoons on chores and reading. Father Luke Dysinger, a biblical scholar and abbey librarian, can often be found tending to the monastery's vast collection of books. Artist Father Werner Papaienes de Morchoven enjoys painting and Brother Andrew likes to spend time landscaping the grounds.
The abbey prides itself on scholarship and the arts and recently started an "Adopt-a-Monk" program to raise funds to send monks to graduate school.
In a life of cellular phones, television and video, the monks instead choose silence. They have devoted their lives to prayer and much of that, they say, is about listening to the voice of God.
They do not ordinarily watch the abbey's big-screen television, except for major news events, but they do get to see a film on videotape each two weeks.
"I feel a deep peace and joy that I have never known before," said Father Joseph Brennan (no relation to James.) "It's made a tremendous difference in my life. It's like I've come home."
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VALYERMO FALL FESTIVAL
St. Andrew's Abbey opens its doors to the public this weekend for its 41st annual Valyermo Fall Festival, featuring international food, folk art, music and dance. The two-day event runs from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday at the Pallett Creek Road site. For information, call (805) 944-2178.