WHITEHORN, California — The first time I visited my sisters here at Redwoods Monastery was in mid-June of 1994. It’s hard to believe that it’s been 26 years since that initial brief visit to this wonderful community, in this place of truly awesome beauty. Since that first three-day stay, as I remember it, I’ve been coming down here almost every year, from my home community of Guadalupe Abbey near Carlton, for longer stays. I’ve consistently been helping with their Holy Week and Easter liturgies. This has meant being here for two, sometimes three, weeks in March and April.

I’ve also been here, over the years, three or four times in September to give conferences, and on one occasion, the community retreat. But those stays also have always been for a week or two. Then five years ago I was here for a longer, six week, period: in 2015 when I was on sabbatical, I got some late winter and early spring experience of life in the Redwoods, arriving in mid-February and staying through March. In terms of length then, my present stay here is most like that sabbatical time. But my current sojourn with my Redwoods sisters is turning out to be truly unique in more ways than one.

It certainly wasn’t originally intended to be all that different from my usual late Lent/Holy Week/Easter chaplaining this year. As there was already some COVID-19 concern in late February, I e-mailed the abbess here, Sister Kathy DeVico, enquiring as to whether I should come this year, given current health concerns. When she e-mailed back to come ahead, she also said that the usual 13 retreatants for Holy Week and Easter would not be coming, nor would there be any local people attending the Masses. This was a more strict social distancing policy than we were observing at Guadalupe at that point, but it didn’t translate, in my mind, into any specific concerns about the longevity of my stay. I do remember having some vague inchoate questions about when I’d be returning home, but I had a return plane ticket from Santa Rosa to Portland for April 15th, and was assuming that I’d most likely be using it.

Well, it was not to be! Given the greatly heightened concern over the pandemic crisis as March became April, my home community at Guadalupe basically went into lockdown. Our Abbot Peter McCarthy has strictly followed the recommendations of his medical advisory team, including weekly update Zoom sessions with the team and the whole community. In that our most elderly monks are among those most at risk from the virus, Abbot Peter told me that he’s being advised to follow the basic protocols for retirement communities in the state of Oregon by the medical team. With regard to me continuing to be here at Redwoods Monastery, these protocols have translated into my long-term indeterminate “sheltering in place” thus far.

The third abbot of our founding monastery of Citeaux in south-central France, the Englishman St. Stephen Harding, wrote in the 12th century that Cistercians are to be “lovers of the place.” This “loving the place” is a specifically Cistercian trope on our monastic vow of stability in the community, so central to St. Benedict’s conception of monasticism in his Rule. For if the vow of stability is orienting the monk to seek God with his brothers (or sisters), in the first instance, for the duration of his earthly life, St. Stephen’s insistence on “the place” specifically, is to further orient us to search for God within the whole environment of the monastery, both internally and externally. Being a “lover of the place” is, at its heart, about seeking to recognize the immanence of God, since the medieval beginnings of the Cistercian reform. It has given a most definite environmental/ecological orientation to the lived experience of Cistercian monastic life, since the foundation of Citeaux in 1098.

What does this mean for me personally? Since my first retreat at Guadalupe Abbey, as a teenager in the spring of 1968, I have been graced with a clear sense of the mysterious, ineffable, presence of our God in that place of Douglas fir and Oregon white oak beauty. Likewise, since my first brief visit here at Redwoods Monastery, I have been profoundly blessed by the “still small voice” echoing throughout these Redwood groves. Sheltering in place here most fundamentally means for me seeking our immanent/transcendent God, with my sisters, as lovers of this place of God-haunted beauty.