This is the story of The Trees Community, a semi monastic Christian group that left NYC on a bus in 1971 on a journey of faith. When most of our money burned up the first night, we relied on God for all our needs and he provided! We traveled the United States growing in our new faith, finding a ministry in music and eventually becoming artists in residence at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine. Seven years, seven "stories" are woven into this amazing journey.

Stormy Winter Days

Shishonee and David Lynch Christmas 1973

Tuesday evening Sarah called, dashing my hopes of her return. She said she felt she had to decide immediately that she was not coming back or else she would be under constant pressure from us coercing her to return. Though she assured us she was not permanently leaving the family, she needed time to make up her mind. She shared a dream she had in which we all drove up to her home in Michigan and asked if she was coming with us or not and then suddenly our faces grew distorted and changed into angry monsters. She fled screaming in terror. I was skeptical, thinking that this sounded an awful lot like a dream Liz had of us all being a pack of mad dogs chasing her into hell. Yeah, right. Take some vitamin B.

Shipen met with Canon West who told us to just let them go. He was disappointed, but encouraged us to persevere with our music and life together. He suggested that we should be open to accepting new novices, but reeling from the pain of our recent loss, we were reluctant to say the least.

Tuesday, Roger called again, asking us to pray about whether maybe we were meant to return to Houston to the Redeemer community and that we should consider buying five tickets to fly there. Hmmmmm. Redeemer? None of us felt a confirmation for that. Nevertheless, we agreed to pray about it and did.

At that point all of us felt dejected and worn down. David K. was growing more independent, and reminded me of a colt, bucking and kicking to be free. Would he be the next to leave? He was struggling quietly with his own issues and desires to return to school. He talked about going back to art school or at least taking some classes. I wondered how long he would stick with us. I was also worried about Shipen’s on again off again struggles with Canon West’s authority. As the days passed he was getting more withdrawn but he wasn’t talking about it during our meetings.

Shipen wrote about some of our struggles upon our return to New York and his reaction to the growing discord in our group in a letter to Brother John:

This traveling lasted two years during which we were able to view the church from many different standpoints. We spent long periods of time with other communities: Hutterites, Anglican Benedictines, Roman Trappists and Benedictines, Charismatic communities, and secular communities. After the period of travel and experiential study were over we decided to return to the Cathedral in New York and to do service from that place. During the nomadic venture we learned how to put our spontaneous worship into a musical discipline and as time went on we got more sophisticated in our musical composition and expression until we entered fully into Holy Theatre as our common vocation. From this point you would recognize us as the Trees.

Upon our return to New York and our settling in at the Cathedral many personal discontents arose. Most are too complicated to list but in general everyone was not sold on the Cathedral or New York and for the next two years a growing separation began to occur, and some of the adolescence problems concerning independence began to spring afresh, also plays for authority and power, and I was inundated by false images and demands being placed on me and came easily to the conclusion that I would have to reconsider my direct involvement in the community. [end of excerpt]

It was mid November. We soldiered on with our music, playing local concerts, writing new material, and arranging the upcoming Winter Tour. The new song, Psalm 45, was well received by everyone. When Madeleine heard it she started crying and Canon West said he loved it. He also suggested that in the future, we should make sure to use holy water (not tap water) to sprinkle the audience with. This was in reference to the section where we sang, “the people of Tyre come laden with gifts, the wealthiest nations with jewels set in gold.” Some of us would sprinkle water onto the audience as we walked between the aisles singing.

Our duties shifted to fill the empty spots in the Trees. Shipen took over Ariel’s secretarial duties and arranging of tours. David Lynch continued on as treasurer. I took over Sarah’s duties doing the laundry, mending and sewing costumes. Shipen, Steve, David Lynch and I all took turns cooking meals. David K. continued guiding tours at the Cathedral and helped with cleanup.
Meanwhile, I missed my sisters and felt a little out of balance being the only woman in the group. I kept ruminating about marrying David, wondering how it would all work out.

On November 27th, David and I met with Canon West to talk about our relationship and the possibility of our marriage. He counseled us, pointing to the seriousness of our decision…“Now my dears, I hope you realize this is not something you should walk into with your eyes wide shut. This is a serious matter. If you decide to make this commitment, you are agreeing to love each other for life.” After making sure this was agreeable to the rest of the Trees and that we understood the implications and consequences, he agreed to formally engage us on my birthday, December 6th. He explained that the Episcopal Church has a special commitment service calling for the couple to dedicate themselves to each other and vow that they will never thereafter take another husband or wife. It was sobering but David and I agreed we were ready to make such a commitment.

Later that afternoon David and I gathered with the community and talked about our meeting with Canon West. We explained that we wished to remain in the community but to live as a married couple, much as Claudia and Roger had done. I explained I was completely dedicated to the community, but that I also loved David and wished to be his wife. Surprisingly, Shipen accepted the idea. It was a major turnaround from the Pecos days when Shipen had insisted our relationship would destroy the community. The others also gave their blessing and agreed that we could remain in the Trees. Together we made plans for the event that would take place in one week. I was swept up in feelings of excitement, hopefulness and love.

The following week I was brimming with happiness and excitement. I felt like skipping to work, and nearly every waking moment I thought of nothing else but the upcoming ceremony. Each night I prayed for our marriage and our future life together. I was filled with anticipation and high with love.

Finally December 6th arrived. David Lynch wrote in the chronicle about this important day:

December 6, 1973. Today marks a landmark in our community so said Shipen at the Dean’s breakfast after mass. “Not only”, he emphasized, “is it Shishonee’s birthday, but she and David Lynch are going to be engaged this afternoon at 3 pm.” Accordingly at 2:30 p.m. Shonee met Father West for confession in St. Martin’s chapel. David followed at 2:45 p.m. and at 3 p.m. the “monastic family” gathered for a simple yet to the community profound and historic occasion. Father West pronounced the official “bans of marriage” and David and Shishonee promised their actual fidelity to one another. David placed the engagement ring on her finger and then, still kneeling at the altar, Father West lifted his stole over both of them and symbolically and quite physically drew them both into the “wings” of the Holy Church. After the ceremony the family gathered in St. Savior’s for prayers of mutual dedication and devotion and with a hymn and full prostration offered to the Lord and one another a pledge of faith. Afterwards outside the Cathedral the new “couple” was banned from the apartment until 6pm. During their walking they came across a surprise instrument for the community, a thai can, a kind of pipe harmonium made of bamboo pipes that sounds like 25 car horns. (Another gift was given by Mrs. Sullivan, a set of lovely glasses.) The evening found an informal gathering at Chez Pierre at le Madeleine, a modest Parisian restaurant where a tremendous quiet birthday/engagement celebration ensued through the evening. Amen! [end of excerpt]

Though we didn’t set a marriage date, I was feeling very happy and pleased. It felt wonderful for our love to finally be recognized and accepted in our little family. It had been a long road to the altar and this was just the engagement! I hoped that our marriage wouldn’t be too far in the future.

Along with our Christmas cards, we sent out a poem (which was written either by Shipen or possibly Stephen?):

Sharp, icy pains of growth
thick heavy veils of dark unknowing
Storms, swirling, spinning, twisting
the gnarled branches
Flinging them at crazed hideous angles.
The wind demanding the limbs
to sway, to bend, to leap
till they dance wildly

across the trembling flashes of sky.
In a sudden clam,
the tree stands uncertain,
a tiny naked shadow

against the vast grey side
of a slumbering leviathan
engulfed in the shadow of one
scaly half uncurled wing.

It lifts a dark mysterious eye
its tireless gaze
piercing the night
with a playful light.

Can quivering boughs of laughing green
scent the air with hope anew?
Leaves whispering tongues and
melodies, the love of God.

Angles! Stir from your wooden stalls
lift stony lyre and lute
brass trumpet, horn and silver flute
with a million rustling, living wings

Rush like a mighty Wind
sweeping our hearts into praise
love’s incense lacing the air
again Holy Spirit, again enter in…

A brilliant vision: O joyous
gloriously shining Lord!
God here among us
searing our hearts.

A growing branch,
a Western guiding star
newly planted in the garden
of a great Cathedral.

“Let the heaves rejoice,
and let the earth be glad;
then shall all the trees of the wood
rejoice before the Lord:

for He cometh to judge the earth
and with righteousness to
judge the peoples
with His truth.”

Meanwhile, for the next few weeks we performed locally at churches and also for the Cathedral Boys School. We continued volunteering, cooking and helping out at the Cathedral and also attending classes at the Cathedral’s Institute of Theology. I enjoyed Canon Johnson’s classes on Christian Ethics and all of us took a class on writing and giving sermons.

Then on December 19th we had a rude awakening. Chauncey Parker and Canon West called a meeting with us at the Cathedral over the matter of our growing debt. We were informed that it had reached $5,000 and it was due immediately. In fact Canon West refused to set foot in our apartment until we paid it all back! This came as a complete shock to us. It all started when we were trying to figure out how to furnish our apartment and in discussing it with Canon West he’d assured us “I’ll take care of it.” From that point on all the lumber and supplies to finish building our loft beds, living room platforms and tables in our apartment had been charged to the Cathedral. We misunderstood thinking it was a gift when in reality it had been added to our growing debt. We left after agreeing to find some way to handle it.

What angered me was that we were expected to work as “volunteers” doing numerous unpaid jobs at the Cathedral, touring, secretarial work, preparing meals, performing concerts, ushering, working on various projects for the Dean. Yet this was all “gratis.” Furthermore Canon West insisted that we bake bread to “keep us busy and productive” though everyone knew it was a money-losing endeavor. At a loss, we kicked around the idea of closing down the bread business entirely and getting outside jobs. However Canon West had already warned against doing that, saying it would remove us from our monastic lifestyle. Backed into a corner, we asked for help from Rodney and others. No help available. With only five of us left, we decided our only recourse was to set up more concerts to generate income through our music, this being our only open avenue of work. It was frustrating and I felt betrayed somehow. Eventually it was agreed we would pay off as much as we could from upcoming concerts. Merry Christmas!

December 25th through January 5, 1974 David Lynch and I left for vacation in Michigan with my parents. It was a delightful twelve days off and I returned rejuvenated, happy and energetic. We went ice skating, out to dinner, and had a wonderful time together.

David and Shishonee Ice Skating on Green Lake Christmas 1973

After nearly two weeks, we returned to the disciplined life of daily mass, services, work and our “order” was a rough transition for me. As we walked into the apartment, I felt as if David and I were entering a gloomy gray cloud. Shipen was silent and withdrawn and seemed depressed. At our family gathering, David and I chattered away about our visit: how we went ice-skating, went to parties, spoke at a local church, met with family and had a great time!
Afterwards, Shipen said absolutely nothing. Thinking maybe he thought our relationship was pulling us away from the family, I tried to reassure him of our rededication to the community and our commitment to what we were doing. As I spoke he continued glaring and when I said the word “community” he snapped back saying we were “all too immature to be called anything more than a reformatory” and left the room! Okay, so glad to see you too, thanks for welcoming us back. What’s your problem?

Two days later after a concert at Roslyn Heights Trinity Church, we had a long discussion about where we were and what happened to Sarah and why. Shipen seemed to be dissatisfied with the group and things rapidly degenerated into an argument. A schism was growing between Shipen and the community. He seemed to distance himself from the rest of us and to consider us as immature and ungrateful. Was it because Canon West was usurping his authority and clearly taking over a leadership role in our community? Was it because he had given up smoking for New Years? Was it because David and I were going to be married and he thought we would abandon the group? I had no clue. What I did know was he was acting more depressed (and hard to be with) and he said he had nothing more to say to any of us until we “showed some fruits” and “shaped up.”
This left me at a loss since we were doing our best to form a Rule, worship within the context of our daily religious life, write music, pray and study together and grow under the tutelage of Father West. Meanwhile Canon West was insisting that we keep Greater Silence and pressing Shipen and all of us to refrain from “too much talking” and Shipen was increasingly in disagreement with this edict. Our group was like a gnarled little tree pruned to five branches that had been transplanted once again into dry, sandy soil. Our leaves were withering and we desperately needed water.

Despite Shipen’s gloomy moods, we determined to forge ahead anyway. The music, meanwhile continued to improve and flourish despite our emotional problems. A poem I wrote on January 17, 1974 after communion service at the Cathedral provides a glimpse into my feelings at the time:

Kicking off the stiff covers of sleep
She woke warily
Guilt stinging her eyes.
Easing carefully, withdrawn and sullen
She went through the motions
Of another useless day.
What with the first wide-eyed
Exuberance of their brotherly love
And then the hours too long in bed
Spent hot, and edgy and unwilling
Or the sober gleam of life
As it tread steadily past her weary eyes.
What with the dreams becoming near nightmares,
And too many strangers watching silently on,
She grew numb.
And cold.
And no longer excited.
So did he.
So did they.
And the drudging steps,
The dragging limp,
The angry glare
became a habit
and no longer an infrequent sin
and if anyone were watching
they wouldn’t have realized
the death of their love.
Three years of straining, tearing and loss
and as she watched
the candles grew dim
and from somewhere
she still smelled the incense
and heard the faint jingling
of tiny gold bells
and a chant murmuring, murmuring…
She let her mind drift to another time
the sparkling stream, green and emerald,
slipping gracefully through the sunlit canyon.
the birds skipping like little stones
flitting across the waters,
splashing merrily as they greeted the dawn
with carefree songs.
The rocks felt warm,
the sky cloudless and azure blue
and there the desert mountains
there the scarce, tall pines.
Alone, she drank in the beauty of the stillness.
Then kneeling with outstretched hands
received the holy wafer,
and with a slow gesture
received the sweet red wine
and rising she went back to her seat
with the sound of the priest’s chant
mingling with the river’s waters
still murmuring

That Saturday David and I met with Canon West. We talked about our struggles to live together without arguing and harassing one another and Shipen’s increasing depression. Canon West stressed again that we talked too much about where we were and where we were going, living like “a bunch of exposed nerves” (his favorite analogy). Once again he encouraged us to be silent and explained the idea of Greater Silence, suggesting that if we couldn’t do it all day than we should at least be silent in the mornings and after Compline. I suspected he was missing the point and there was a much more serious problem but hoped he was right. He said he was pleased that we were working hard on writing down a draft of our Rule and promised to meet with us to go over it “jot and tittle.” He was also glad that the founding members of the Order (the five of us) were still hanging in there and was enthusiastic about working out the details of our monastic order. He pointed out the first draft of our Rule (see end of this book) lacked a “Council of Advisors” or elders, saying this was very important. From his vantage point he saw what was going on with us as “simple misunderstandings” and “personality conflicts” and he suggested we should zero in on disciplining ourselves more. In so doing we could “get out of each other’s hair.” I left the meeting with him feeling relieved and reassured of his love and concern for us.

Afterwards, we reported back to the group and encouraged and renewed, all of us worked harder to follow a daily schedule and keep the “offices.” The weekday schedule had changed in that we removed vigils in the morning and decided to rise at 6:00 a.m. instead of 5:00 a.m., along with other minor changes:

6:00 rise and personal cleanup
6:30 morning duties (with each person assigned a specific duty)
7:00 leave for mass at the Cathedral
7:15 Morning Prayer then mass. End of Greater Silence.
7:45 Chapter of faults
8:00 breakfast (while listening to a reading)
8:30 dishes, cleanup and preparation for work
9:00 work
11:45 Mid-day Prayers: a brief noon office
12:00 lunch
12:30 nap, reading time
1:00 return to work
3:00 music rehearsal
5:30 Vespers
6:00 Dinner, then personal time
8:00 Compline then Greater Silence
9:30/10 Bed

Each of us had specific morning duties to carry out during morning silence:

Shipen: sweep floors, straighten up, clean kitty litter, vacuum living room.
Steve: water plants, wash surfaces and windowsills, straighten up in living room
David Lynch: mop all floors, (sweep or dry mop)
Shishonee: vacuum women’s room, clean women’s bathroom, clean kitchen, dust surfaces and windowsills
David K – clean men’s bathroom, empty waste baskets

The structure felt good and we followed this schedule with renewed fervor until we left on our New England Tour. And it helped! The silence helped give us some breathing room and prevented us from constantly picking at one another. For the next week we seemed to defy gravity and reversed our downward slide.

January 19 through the 25th was a busy week preparing for our New England tour. We took time out from our preparations to celebrate David K’s 21st birthday with the usual special feast of pork and potatoes, rum and coke cocktails, cake and coffee and gifts of art supplies, a new crocus plant and clothes. We reminisced with the traditional reading from the Chronicles and I read the poem I’d printed on David’s handmade birthday card (from the poem I’d written for Brother Lavrans).

Before we left on tour, we met with a journalist, Charles Johns, who was from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. He interviewed several of us as well as Madeline L’Engle for an article he was writing about our group. On Friday, January 25, 1974, the article appeared in the New York News Vol. II No. 1:

Community Thrives on Christ and Music by Charles Johns:

William E. Lebzelter, soaring on 2,500 micrograms of LSD, first went to the Cathedral Chruch of St. John the Divine becuase he wanted to trip under its Gothic immensity during the Episcopal Christmas Eve Mass.

"We laughed at most of the service," he recalled. "It just seemed like ultimate hypocrisy." But he remembered the part about "all the law and the prophets" hanging from Jesus' admonitions to love -- "God with all they heart" and "they neighbor as theyself." Now he is attached to that cathedral as leader of the Trees Group, an innovative, musical and Christian community.

The group's members, currently a woman and four men, were part of the core of a former commune, the Clear Children Society, that sought truth in an East Village loft that Lebzelter, who calls himself Shipen, helped rent in 1969.
"We were all on a search," explained David Karasek, 20, "to go any find meaning in life. We'd try to seek God," he said expansively, "through every possible religions, every possible philosophy, every possible drug."
But when they converted to Christ "the search stopped, the drugs stopped, the illicit sex stopped, and spiritual adultery stopped," Shipen, now 31, commented. "Jesus crept up on us unawares...we were found."

Several months later they started a journey around the country, which ended in exactly two years, May 2, 1973, at the point where they started -- the cathedral. They spend most of that time at Protestant and Catholic religious communities, notably the Hutterities in Ontario, Episcopal Benedictine monks in Michigan, Mennonites in Illinois and Indiana, a church in Houston, Texas and a Roman Benedictine Abbey in Pecos, New Mexico, both of which were centers of the charismatic movement, and the Trappist Abbey of Gesemani, Kentucky. During these travels, the Trees' membership fluctuated as they questioned their purpose. Their deepening music and community life became paramount.

Stephen Gambill, 27, who originally came to New York and the loft with a theater group from the University of Texas, described their music and their common life as "bending." "A sound is picked up," he said, "like fermentation. It spreads through you, and you find areas of creativity you wouldn't have had otherwise."

Living together requires each to become involved with the others' musical taste - whether appreciated or not. Each hears a tune differently, Stephen said, and the bending happens, as they listen more, change their sounds more, until they comprehend "a beauty of sound (we) never heard before."

"I think the music has control of them, not the other way around," Madeleine L'Engle, cathedral librarian said. "It isn't theirs. I think they are being sent music -- and that's their vocation." A classical music fan, Madeleine was skeptical until she first attended a Trees performance late last spring. "It was absolutely staggeringly beautiful," she exclaimed."Theological poetry. They dare do things which if they were trained they would never do."

Recently the Trees discovered a new sound when, in a kind of jam session, they created "music from outer space" in honor of the Comet Kohoutek. They soon felt that it lacked "joy" and a sense of worship -- having, for them, been merely an intellectual exploration. So they added a poem by Madeleine, "Shout Joy" (a name of God) that had a character like a Psalm.

Stephen bowed screeches from a bazouki (a Middle Eastern instrument supposed to be played with the fingers) while Shipen played an Indian harmonium that sounded like bagpipes. David Lynch, 26, played a shamesem, also with a bow; David K. handled drums while Katheryn Ann Ruetenik, 22 (nicknamed Shishonee after an American Indian Tribe) joined in on a slide whistle. Somehow they put it all together and the result was a shouting, lyrical hymn to the glory of God and the goodness of life. The Tree's lifestyle as well as their music is innovative.

A "trauma" happened November 22nd, a year ago when David and Shishonee announced their love and intention eventually to marry. The group accepted them by altering their original celibate orientation, otherwise they could not have stayed. The Trees' coed aspect "is an outgrowth of our original experience," David said, and traveling on the bus. "We really did devleop brotherly and sisterly attitudes there. It was the only way we could exist. We hope the community will provide a situation where celibates, married couples and singles (trying to discover which state should be their vocation, can share their lives," Stephen, who thinks he will stay celibate, said.

For the near future they are planning a six-week concert tour through New England and upstate New York churches starting January 25th. They also give a concert at St. John every Saturday at 3 p.m. and play at its 7:25 a.m. Eucharist on Thursdays.

The Trees, Madeleine generalized, "are becoming less fanatical -- feeling that Jesus would do it all and more Incarnational...They're ministering to the whole (human) mish-mash. As they become more secure in their religious life they will become tremendous listeners. There's such a need in this community to be listened speak to individuals who cross your path."