In the high desert community of Valyermo, 20 Benedictine monks pray, work and invite visitors into their home to worship, stroll and shop.
The Jew, who practices no religion and is no stranger to ignorance or shame, wants to know if these are the kind of monks who are silent. No, the gift shop clerk says, those are Cistercians.
The Jew fingers a little, brown leather thing attached to string. What's a scapular, she asks the clerk.
The clerk launches into a story about Our Lady of Mount Carmel, who popularized a brown version after the Virgin Mary revealed herself. People wear them today as a sign of devotion and perseverance. A traditional scapular is the capelike garment monks wear on their shoulders (hence scapula, or shoulder blade), but for the just-folks faithful the term refers to the little thing for $1.75 that's worn like a necklace.
The St. Andrewsians also sell stuff they make (ceramics, honey) and import from other godly groups -- pomegranate preserves from East Cost Trappist monks, lavender soap from New Mexican Benedictine monks and these tiny baby feet stick pins.
The Jew chose a refrigerator magnet with nice calligraphy: "Preach the Gospel at all times. If necessary, use words." The quote was attributed to Francis of Assisi. He was the bird monk, the animal guy, but he never actually said that. Still.
On this lovely June day, the Jew walked around the Abbey grounds along with a few other visitors, mostly Latinos whose children were almost as excited as the Jew at the abundance of koi and the prolifically breeding bale of pond turtles.
Statues of saints and Jesus adorned the grounds, as well as a few concessions to modern times, some more contemporary than others.
The edifice in the parking lot reminded the Jew of a conversation earlier in the day with a ranger at the nearby Devil's Punchbowl Natural Area. The ranger had been here on Ash Wednesday. The service in the chapel was lovely, she said, until somebody's cellphone rang.
This monastic community was founded in China in 1929 by Belgian Benedictines, but the communists didn't care for them, and tossed them out in 1952. The monks bought the Hidden Springs Ranch, and since 1955 have been here, as part of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles.
The Jew, who wouldn't know a novitiate from a Nova lox, is happy to have made their acquaintance.
Photos: Ellen Alperstein