Ten years ago, my wife Vickie and I were introduced to Carmelite Sister Jean Marie Kirby, Mother Superior of the Carmelites of St. Joseph in Buellton, CA, who live a life of evangelical intercessory prayer on 100 acres hidden in the Santa Rita hills near the Santa Inez Valley.
The valley itself is known as one of the world’s best appellations for Pinot Noir. The flavor, intensity and complexity of Sta. Rita Hills Pinot Noir and Chardonnay come from a combination of unique east-west coastal valleys. Cool weather, fog, wind and the soils yield intense wines.
The theme of the vineyard was not lost on me as 30 years ago I received an invitation from Our Lord to “come and work” in His vineyard for my life’s calling. While I know very little about real life vineyards, 30 years of working as a lay minister in the Catholic Church has produced as many lessons as varieties of wines. One of the earliest ministries I was involved with was as a staff member at the Christian Brother’s Retreat House, in St. Helena, California, on the Northern side of the Napa Valley. It quickly became my dream to work permanently at a retreat house, and as I grew into my own vocation of married life, I began to realize the ever increasing need for a place where whole families can come away and ‘unplug’ from the distractions of the world and re-establish their real connections to God.
I realized the need because of my own experience of desolation that can occur when the lifeline of the Sacrament’s and prayer are cut off through the many machinations of the ‘enemy of souls’. Though I have learned much the hard way, I know I need never go back, all because of the Mercy of God.
As Junipero Serra often said “always forward, never back”, we still look back in terms of the debt of love we owe so many people in our lives. We also look back in terms of the real debts, struggles, woundedness, and flaws we ‘drag along’ with us as we seek the freedom of complete dependence on Jesus Christ, immersed in a life of gratitude for the many truly beautiful friends we have met along the way.
As we first approached the monastery, we see what appears to be a retreat center with 1000’s of square feet of space sitting majestically atop one of the Santa Rita hills and surrounded by vineyards. I see a sign that says Mt. Carmel Vineyards. You would have never guessed this sprawling complex was there had someone not led you through the many twists and turns of the private road that brings you there.
It was only when we pulled up to the magnificent structure that I began to see the reality of what Sr. Jean Marie had only described to me verbally. And as with anything, the reality of the fact pales in comparison to any description however detailed.
I was looking at a huge monastery / retreat house which had been abandoned for 20 years.