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.

Lest I forget Gethsemani: The Monastic Life...Again

Gethsemani Monastery

King of my life I crown Thee now
Thine shall the glory be
Lest I forget Thy thorn crowned brow
Lead me to Calvary.

Lest I forget Gethsemani
Lest I forget Thine agony
Lest I forget Thy love for me
Lead me to Calvary.
(Hymn 160, Queens Fellowship)

November 14, 1971. At 8:30 in the evening we lumbered down the long, tree lined driveway to the whitewashed gatehouse. David Lynch recalls that one of the monks, brother John, "happened to be out front chanting his greatly expanded/reduced mantra/silent prayer of “GOD GOD GOD” when we came rumbling down the driveway!! He showed us where we could camp on a hill in the woods nearby. Once again, God had answered our prayers."

We slept in on our first morning at Gethsemani, having driven 11 hours the previous day. After communion and brunch, brother John came bringing gifts of bread and cheese. He joined us as we worked on a new guitar song reminiscent of early Beatles rock, I’m packin my bags written by David Lynch and a more pensive song I was writing called Way up high on Calvary.

Suddenly, a novice named Mark came bounding onto the bus. With his black beard, short cropped hair and wide smile he looked like he was fresh from a Krishna temple.
Brother Mark

Brother Mark explained he had once been a disciple of Swami Satchidinanda but had turned to Christ and monastic life. He gave us incense and joined us for a lively afternoon discussion after which we set off for Vespers.

Entering the sanctuary at Gethsemani, I was immediately overwhelmed by its architectural majesty. The smooth, stone walls swept upward into a huge vaulted ceilings and disappeared into the massive darkness of that cavernous space. The monks slowly filed in to their wooden benches dressed in long robes of black and white. Soon their voices rose and fell in plainsong, their voices rising to echo throughout the dim room as candles flickered in its many alcoves and dim corners. I closed my eyes and soaked in the ancient beauty of their plaintiff melodies, letting the unknown Latin words reach into the deepest part of my soul. All the busyness of my mind, all the anxiety, anger and tension gradually fell away and as I opened myself up to God.

Gethsemani. What a special place that monastery would soon take in our hearts. The monastery was surrounded by high whitewashed walls, nestled in the rolling hills of Kentucky with woods, fields, ponds and a pristine lake. There were cows grazing peacefully in the fields near a cow barn. There were beautiful flower gardens and trails meandering through the woods. For the next nine days, we stayed parked in the woods by the lake, enjoying long walks among the hills and cold swims in the chilly water. Some of us pitched tents and others slept inside the bus. (I decided to sleep outside in my tent to get away from the snoring.) In the early mornings, I awoke to a symphony of bird songs. It was so peaceful after the busy contentious days at the farm, Reba Place and Plowcreek.

David Lynch and Ariel at Gethsemani, November 28, 1971

Life at Gethsemani was refreshingly different from our life over the past year. It was full of clarity and peace and some of the heaviness of spirit and intensity of our lives fell away. The brothers must have felt sorry for us or something as they often came to visit bearing gifts (cheese, fruitcake, bread, 25 pounds of honey, eggs, butter, a Bible in French for Paul). At other times, brothers Mark, John or Baldwin would simply sit quietly and listen to us rehearse. I enjoyed listening to the lively debates on theology, as the monks bantered goodheartedly with Shipen, David, or Ariel on Thomas Merton, the Virgin Mary, Catholicism, eastern religion and its validity, or other points of doctrine.

Curiously, the fact we were parked outside the gates of the monastery seemed a metaphor for how we felt theologically separated from the brothers during that first visit. At first we struggled with our tendency to be judgmental but slowly and steadily the patience and prayerful ways of these monks drew us into a more tolerant and peaceful perspective.

One evening in the middle of the night, screams from inside the bus echoed against the hillside. I quickly unzipped my tent and rushed onto the bus. Inside was pandemonium with some shrieking, “Get it off of me! Here it comes again! Ahhhhh!” and others hiding under their covers. A small brown bat was flapping frantically around the bus, landing on Shipen’s head, then on Ariel’s feet and then back into the air again with Buki the cat leaping around after it. With a prayer to St. Francis, I grabbed a blanket and placed it over the trembling bat and gently lifted it outside where it quickly flew off into the night. The next morning over breakfast we laughed and laughed over the hilarious encounter.

The incredible religious music at Gethsemani would become a lasting influence on our music. I can still envision the 50 or so monks processing slowly into the cavernous sanctuary, their voices echoing Gregorian chant off the high stone walls in the middle of the night. I can still recall a dramatic moment during one service when all the lights suddenly went out and dozens of candles bathed a statute of Mother Mary in gentle radiant light. The dark room was enveloped in silence and prayer. Then the monks sang a beautiful ancient plainsong honoring the Virgin Mary called Salve Regina, their voices rising and falling in haunting rivers of melody. I found it deeply compelling and entrancing. For years when my sons were young, I would sit with them on the edge of their bed, saying prayers and then singing old Hutterites hymns or songs until they fell asleep. The last song was always Salve Regina, and as I watched the sleeping faces of my little boys, my mind would return to Gethsemani…to rows of monks singing reverently, our voices blending together over time and distance.

For me, Gethsemani was a place of solace, of complete peace and spiritual restfulness. I savored the oneness with God I found there. It gave me time to work on new songs, adding richness to some new sections and honing down others. I found it reassuring when the brothers shared that they thought our music reflected a very personal love affair with Jesus. I set one of my poems to music calling it Lift your Weary Hand, a duet Shipen and I sang together.

Lift your Weary Hand by Shishonee

Lift your weary hand
And give ear in your heart
For a voice is gently calling
As the wind whispers through the trees
As the movement of the Spirit
Like the sound of flowing water
Reaches the soul saying
Cause your roots
To sink deep in my Love
And I will give the breath of my Spirit
To kiss your branches
And make the buds
To come to fruit in loving praise
And I will adorn you with the
Fresh garb of humility
As the spring tree in green foliage
And I will fill your heart
With my rich blood
For the lost lamb is my beloved
And mountains will be moved to save her
Lift then your hand
And come with me
For even now my holy angels
Are with thee
As ever I am with thee.

A few days before our departure, we were invited to move our instruments into the front room in the gatehouse where we rehearsed daily in preparation for a formal concert. We added a new Indian raga section to the middle of Fervently We Pray and added other dramatic musical effects to our concert such as The Split - an unusual song that began with all of us sustaining the same note in perfect unison. Then, very gradually, our voices would diverge, slowly pulling apart creating eerie overtones something like swarming bees or like the otherworldly sounds that accompany the shot of the black monolith in “2001 A Space Odyssey.”
Brother Camelius

Thankfully, Brother Camelius set up his reel to reel recorder and taped our final concert for the monks. We spread out our instruments on an oriental rug in the chapel. Robed monks and some visiting nuns slowly entered the room. Shipen gave a background on our group and then asked for God’s love to bless the brethren. The hours of music practice in this peaceful place came to fruition. We offered our music as a gift to these gentle monks and to the Lord as we sang The Lord Will Provide, The Apple Trees in the Orchard, Oh Jesus How I Love You and the Resurrection Waltz (Lord Fervently we Pray). Scripture readings were followed by He was wrapped in flesh, Lift your weary Hand and a new bluesy song Packin my Bags. The concert ended with the haunting notes of the Split and impromptu spiritual singing. We felt a unity with the monks of Gethsemani – a deep sense of abiding love and camaraderie that would draw us back to Gethsemani again and again and sparked a relationship that still reaches across the years.