A spiritual retreat ruled by a cat: St. Barbara Monastery

Hidden in an oak woodland, across a bridge and over a stream, on Highway 150 not far from Thomas Aquinas College in Ventura County, can be found one of the least ordinary of sanctuaries for the traveler in search of spiritual renewal.

[Here's a favorite human interest/travel story I wrote recently for the Ojai Valley Guide (pdf) and the story in a more browser-friendly version]

Hidden in an oak woodland, across a bridge and over a stream, on Highway 150 not far from Thomas Aquinas College in Ventura County, can be found one of the least ordinary of sanctuaries for the traveler in search of spiritual renewal.

         It’s the St. Barbara Monastery, housing four sisters of the Eastern Orthodox Church, who open their modest four-bedroom home and a nearby campground to travelers on a donation-only basis.

         Mother Victoria and her fellow three sisters of faith of wear only black, produce income mostly from the construction of redwood coffins, and pray four times a day. Given the seriousness with which they take their traditional faith, and the many hours they spend praying to expiate their sins, it’s easy to fear frowning faces, heavy accents, and stern looks of condemnation for a visitor from the 21st century. 

         Instead, in conversation around the dinner table, an impish humor quickly emerges from the sisters, Americans all, to surprise a visitor. Especially quick with a quip is Mother Nina, but all of the sisters – even Mother Victoria, who was born into the church, and retains at all times a matriarchal dignity – have their witty moments.

         Who rules the monastery? Punkin, an orange tabby, the sisters agree, and declare him the ruler of all he surveys in the monastery. The cat sits still and his eyes close sleepily as he is complimented, as if to say – of course, of course.

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Mother Victoria explains how the monastery came to move from Goleta, where a larger group of sisters and one monk had been living, to an obscure home in the country, eight and a half years earlier. Partly the motivation was economic, because despite the fact that the monastery houses a relic from the 4th century Saint Barbara of Kiev, after whom Santa Barbara was named, affordability was an issue in the area. 

          “We had a realtor, and she told us now don’t bother the people at this property. Just go take a look as best you can. So we parked by the highway and walked out on the bridge, but the gate was closed. So we peered through the gate to see what we could see,” Mother Victoria said. “And the orange cat squeezed himself through the bars of the gate and walked out on to the bridge and welcomed us.”

         Mother Victoria smiles.

         “And we said oh we have to have this cat. So we bought the cat and they threw the house in for just a little bit more.”

         In the early years of the monastery, she explains, they were a much larger group of sisters and a monk. Mother Paraskeva – the youngest of the group – picks up the thread of the story.

         “We had seventeen people living on the property – imagine that! We only have two rooms in this house, but we must have had a dozen or fifteen trailers on the property. You should have seen it! We used to joke that we were living in St. Barbara Trailer Camp.”

         “Or gypsy camp,” says Mother Victoria, in a corrective way, but she smiles.

         On the property now under construction is chapel. When the monastery was applying for the permit for construction, a biologist and an the inspector from Ventura County came to look at the property. The inspector took Mother Victoria aside to tell her she simply couldn’t be housing that many trailers on the property.

         The order took the news philosophically.

         “Our bishop was of the opinion that it was of God because the sisters who left went on to inhabit a defunct property in Northern California that used to be a monastery,” said Mother Victoria. “So God used the county of Ventura to create two monasteries where there had been one.”

         Although the Eastern Orthodox church is not nearly as well known in California as many other Christian faiths, it has five million followers in the United States, and countless millions more overseas, especially in Eastern Europe. Many of the visitors to the monastery are followers, and some come on tours. A van of eleven pilgrims on tour of monasteries in California and the Southwest stopped in for a brief visit on their way north to visit a church and orphanage in San Francisco earlier this year.

         Kurt Luebke, a member of the tour from Tucson, explained how he was converted.

         “When I was seventeen, my mother passed away, and I started going to the old Greek Orthodox Church,” he said. “I can literally say that the first time I went I didn’t know a word that was being said but I could feel the presence of God. I love it. It’s not a religion, it’s a faith.”

         Also on the tour was Elizabeth Brollini, who plans to launch an orphanage for children in the Tucson area. She said she has been working in child services for twelve years, but feels the kids need more than the child welfare system can offer.

         “The kids are really suffering,” she said. “I’ve been inspired by St. John the Wonderworker [in a church in San Francisco] and he will be our saint, to feed our spiritual thirst. We are fully incorporated already, and looking for a home. I think these monasteries are little pieces of heaven on earth.”

         Mother Victoria said that visitors often misunderstand the icons of saints in the Orthodox Church, thinking that they – the paintings, which contain the relics — are being worshipped.

         The relics include a tiny fragment of the “True Cross” of Christ’s crucifixion, reputedly, and a sliver of the forefinger of Saint Barbara, a 4th-century martyr venerated by the Orthodox and respected by Anglicans, but not by Catholics, who doubt the history of her story.

         “The saints intercede for us,” Mother Victoria said. “They bring our petitions to the attention of God. The popular way of explaining icons is as windows to heaven, because they are portraying the saints as they are in heaven.”

         Sometimes the monastery attracts followers who stay longer than expected. Mitch Denny, a young carpenter on a spiritual quest, came to the monastery intended only to camp out for a day or two before exploring the backcountry, but has ended up staying for months.

         He tells the story with wry amusement in his voice. He visited a number of monasteries, he said, and even a famous monk in England, looking for guidance, but could not found the answer he was looking for. Yet he wasn’t ready to settle down into the trade.

         “I bought a backpack and prepared to wander to go from monastery to monastery. I thought I would come here and test my gear, because I’d heard there was good camping up in the hills. So I came and they said we’re starting this casket making business, can you build some shelves?” he said. “So I stayed a few days and built some shelves, staying a little longer than I thought, and they said if you want you can rest in that trailer over there, and then at the end of the week they said, well, you know we have this chapel project…”

         Denny smiles.

         “And here I am.”

         “Watch out!” Mother Nina said with to the visiting reporter. “It could happen to you!”

         Accommodations at the monastery are simple: a couch with a view, and a campground by the stream. Campers have use of a firepit and a portable toilet. A flock of ducks noisily hangs out at a few shallow pools in the early morning. The nuns freely share their meals, tea, and prayers, but do not offer entertainment, televised or otherwise, and the chapel, which is under construction, will not be finished for some time.

         Mostly the monastery is about spiritual renewal – an escape from the demands of the insatiable ego.

         “Our visitors usually come to pray with us and be with us in services,” said Mother Victoria. “They share conversations with us around the table. A meal of some sort. Many of them come with a desire to speak one on one.”

         A simplicity and peace awaits visitors to the St. Barbara Monastery, which is ruled by Punkin, and visited every morning by a peacock named His Majesty. The residents welcome visitors of all sorts.

         “You never know who is going to come across that bridge,” said Mother Victoria. 

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