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.

The Bride goes in search of Love: Into the Bridal Chamber

“Rejoice, O bride unmarried
Strange birth that we saw,
let us estrange ourselves from the world,
our mind to heavens transposing;
for once on the earth from on high
this humble man appeared,
wanting to draw to the height
those with him call by crying:
…Gregory of Nyssa

The Trees in new costumes - November 1972
November 3, 1972. What a joy and relief it was to be back! We fell back into familiar routines and the mutual respect and love grew even stronger between our two communities. Though Our Lady of Guadalupe monastery religious order was more charismatic and Pentecostal than we ever were, somehow it didn’t seem to matter as we both accepted that the Lord had led us down different paths. Over the next week, we kicked off worldly habits we had picked up on the road (cigarettes, a glass of wine with dinner, not enough religious study, and inconsistent services).

Almost immediately it was time to prepare for our swiftly approaching California tour. David Karasek created an eye-catching color poster from which 500 copies would be photo offset. Letters, brochures and publicity costs reached about $500 but the Pecos brethren kindly gave us a loan. It became painfully obvious after the difficulties on our first tour that publicity was a very important part of tour preparations. The loan was welcome blessing as our bank account was totally depleted. As always we were operating close to the edge, relying on faith more often than we would like. It seemed whenever we reached our last dollar, one of us would joke that, “Oh the Lord will provide…” – and he always did.

We set about creating a new concert and composing new songs. The musical presentation for this second tour focused on Christ’s birth and early life, including a medley we called the annunciation, birth, and baptism. Interwoven into this was the theme of a Bride’s search for Love taken from our daily studies of Gregory of Nyssa on the Canticle of Canticles. Each day after chores and work, we rehearsed for about two hours developing the new concert. I found it to be a very productive time and I was able to write a number of new songs that we then orchestrated together. We ended up with ten new compostions. Sarah and I sewed beautiful wedding-celebration-liturgical type costumes for the tour. They were made of a soft, cream colored material with colorful brocade, tiny bells, ribbon and fringe. The women’s were free flowing robes with hoods and the men’s were pants with an overlying tunic. The designs were patterned after the style of priest's liturgical vestments based on 4th century dalmatic garments (at least that's what Shipen called them - I had no clue).
It was interesting that this theme of the bride’s search for love should be so prominent in our studies and in our new music at that time. My personal life mirrored everything we were studying as I struggled with my strong attraction to David Lynch. I was in love. The problem was our group had agreed early on that personal relationships were to be platonic because of our vows of celibacy. Even friendships were not to stand in the way of our commitment to God and to one another. But I just couldn’t help it!

Over the next few weeks, David and I could not resist our feelings and soon we found ways to sneak off and talk or just walk together holding hands or even sometimes (God forbid) kiss. I enjoyed having someone I could talk with, who was attractive, interesting, exciting and who could make me laugh and yet be sensitive at the same time. Our love for one another grew.

David and Shishonee

I don’t recall much about my emotional state except for a head-over-heels infatuation and intense attraction to David. After just a few weeks, he asked me to marry him and I accepted. Excitedly we shared this with the rest of the group at our next group meeting. Naively I assumed everyone would be very happy for us and that we could be married yet still be members just like Roger and Claudia had been. Unfortunately, our news hit the family like a bombshell! During the ensuing family discussion, our whole relationship was carefully examined and picked apart, as was the idea of interpersonal relationships. Shipen made it absolutely clear that our community was not headed in that direction. He insisted if we decided to get married, it would not be in the Trees. Furthermore, he stated our marriage would destroy the family because it could not survive another split. Huh? I was confused, incredulous and completely devastated! Hadn't Claudia and Roger been married and been members with us since day one? How were David and I any different? The hypocracy of it all astounded me. Meanwhile, by the end of the discussion the family was embroiled in disagreement, misunderstanding and bitterness. In a letter to Canon West, Shipen wrote:

Father West, we are all deeply involved and we almost hear your prayers for us and are grateful because the Lord has shown us your dedication and conviction, and we have tried to imitate you as best we could by memory and by reliving the things you have said to us. And we are learning to let the Lord be the Lord and learn the way He loves us, not how we love Him; but we did ask him if He could keep us in wonder and not always in question, and He has answered us by giving us the way to prepare a whole new presentation dealing with His youth up to the time of his first public ministry. It is a delight and only after a week’s preparation, many times we have come close to tears.

The new presentation is His youth inspired by the writings of St. Gregory of Nyssa on the Canticle of Canticles. We finally found a book in Kansas City and have it on loan for two months. His writings were at first jarring and somewhat old hat, but then we were taken to reflect upon the mystery of his life, and to see more deeply into the gift that God gave him.

Immediately, we were confronted by a very important problem; however, and that was that we realized more fully what a life of chastity involved, and with that, certain doubts sprang up in the family, especially from David Lynch and Shishawny. We later found out that they had been entertaining secret thoughts of marriage, and because each of them were, they tended toward a special relationship that shocked all of us. Through much dialogue, reading and prayer, we were brought to reconsider the virtuous life, and all is back in order, at least for the time being. I think you know, that for the Trees Group, the question of marriage is not in it – but if it is in the members, I guess there is little any of us can do except trust God that he didn’t make something just to throw it away.

Each day now for at least an hour and a half we are studying St. Gregory that we may more fully understand what is involved in marriage in the heavenly sense. One thing we are all in accord with is that we are under commitment to you, and so are leaving many things to your discernment and wisdom. We are extremely anxious for you to come to New Mexico this winter.

Concerning this it would be good if you could let us know as soon as possible when you can come because we need to set up the dates for our second tour to California. Tentatively we are thinking of leaving here the last week of January and returning the first week of March. Our commitment here is over the end of March when we plan to gradually head toward New York, giving concerts on the way. We had hoped to be home on May 2, two years after our departure, but because of the many requests to plan and spend time, it may be difficult to make it that early in May. [end of excerpt]

This was a very difficult time for me. It seemed odd that inspite of Shipen's threats of impending doom it would be such a productive time musically for our family. I don’t think any of us believed that it was time for the group to disband, yet Shipen remained adament insisting that if David and I married it would be the end of the Trees. Oh my! Meanwhile, Shipen again wrote Canon West:
Dear Father West;

I remember when I asked you in a call from Houston whether or not life got any easier at all, to which you replied “no.” But then what are the ways to deal with it? It seems the more we try to establish a constructive and worthwhile life, we get smacked in the face, then we reconsider, we give it up only to get it back again only to get smacked again only to lay it down again. Once again it seems that God has forsaken us, and we are devoid of energy – not feeling we have anything to give others and sinking into the corruption that still occupies our souls (I won’t say all our souls) but especially mine.

This situation has caused certain attachments to spring up. I told you of the affection between David Lynch and Shishawny, well when I thought it was leveling out David Lynch asked Shishawny to marry him and she said yes. This came as a surprise to the family and caused us to move on the idea of dispursing due to an apparent dismissal of our original intentions to promote chastity and live dedicated as an ascetic group, but involved in secular duties. There are so many things going in and out of the family now about relationships and proper loves, and needs, and demands that my head is spinning and I don’t know which way is up and that’s the truth.

On the one hand we are trying to find detachment to enjoy our singular relationship to God, and yet we feel a heavy bond to each other and to all men which seems to pull us to forsake the beauty of the meadow for a later time.

At any rate we collectively discouraged the continuation of David and Shishawny’s relationship and asked David to withdraw his proposal. I have no idea other than to think that we all are married! An action like asking someone not to marry is despicable in my estimation, but I did it. And they seemed to comply. But now in some strange sense, the family feels stood up. It feels the quality of the Love it felt within itself was lacking and a more passionate personal affair seemed to be preferred within. It was a loss similar to a wife who has been married for 25 years and suddenly finds herself divorced with only one leg and no friends.

Our calls to the Cathedral seem to be all that we need money for. We feel starved, we haven’t confessed in over 8 months, we lack teaching and direction, people have only blindly encouraged us to continue the music, I don’t know if they know what art even is. If it sounds nice that’s all that counts. We don’t share the same culture, the same sensitivity, the same interpretation of doing the will of God, the same approach to worship, and what’s worse, our insensitivity doesn’t allow us to even see how they are being helped, or from where they have been taken. Their idea of an exciting liturgy is my idea of death; but for them it is life. I feel encrusted, and I am not alone. I am constantly accused and God doesn’t hear my prayer, I can’t speak for the family. Every time I hear the Charismatic songs I want to vomit, not because they are not true, but because I cannot respond, I feel like the child that blindly went through the liturgy each week as a devout acolyte who somehow thought all this was necessary. But when no one told me it was necessary I discovered a freedom that I didn’t know was possible. Now I am back in church where I was when I was a kid – and God is somehow just as far off, if not further.

If you have any thoughts, please let us know. Thank you for your prayer and concerns.

With love in Christ,

It was on St. Cecilia’s day, just after he wrote Canon West, that Shipen announced it was time to break up the family. I was deeply conflicted. Shipen was insistent that the relationship between David and I threatened the unity and bonds of our family. He insisted there could be no marriage in the group – we were married to one another and to Christ. Complete chastity was necessary and nothing else would work. His pronouncement was devastating to me. For several hours David and I argued strenuously against his decision but Shipen was adamant. Backed into a corner, I agreed to pray about it. Why did I have to choose between marrying David and the entire group disbanding, or giving up my love and our community continuing? It didn’t seem fair or right and it boggled my mind that Roger and Claudia somehow were able to be married and in the group whereas David and I could not. What was the difference?

For a long time that night I prayed about the entire situation. I loved my brothers and sisters with a deep, abiding love. We were a family. After two and a half years together and everything we had been through, I felt united in our shared sense of purpose, in the vision of our apostolate of music. I believed strongly that God had called me to that musical ministry, to our shared community life. I did not believe God would have us being so fruitful musically if He wanted us to suddenly disband.

It was a restless, long night of prayers and soul searching. Eventually, I reached a decision. Though I loved David, I agreed to put my feelings on hold – at least for the time being. David agreed. Reluctantly, we approached the group. David and I both decided to recommit to the Trees and put aside the idea of marriage until “passion, selfishness, frustration and other emotions” (as Shipen put it) weren’t involved. I wrote in the Chronicle that night: Gregory of Nyssa led us together into the bridal chamber [to] a chaste relationship with God and the church.” I remember curling up on my bed and crying for hours, feeling disappointed and crushed.

November 11, 1972. Something was wrong. Shipen, with his amazing intuitive gift for sensing other’s pain or distress, felt a weight bearing down on his spirit. Strangely this time it was not coming from within our family. He had the sense that someone was being deeply disturbed yet he didn’t know who or where. Finally, he felt something was wrong at the Cathedral so he tried to call Canon West. He reached Rodney who reported Canon West a bad breakout of shingles. Shipen called Madeline L’Engle who promised to convey our prayers to Father West. In the meantime, she stood in his stead as our advisor and spiritual counselor. Shipen filled her in about the recent crisis and she reminded us that we had just come off the first tour, explaining it had been far more taxing and draining than we realized. She suggested we should go on a silent retreat so each of us could recharge and be alone. She sent her love and prayers then rang off.
December 6th we celebrated my 21st birthday. David Karasek’s card was exquisite and David Lynch wrote a beautiful poem, following the theme of the search for love, the young stag, in the Lord’s garden of life beyond death’s shadows. It was especially poignant given everything he and I were going through:

The Garden – A painting by David Karasek
Tasting Life Beyond Death’s Shadows by David Lynch

I cannot see my love, my hope;
I search but cannot find that hand.
Make the winter pass my love;
I hurl my cry into the night.
Make the winter pass my hope,
I am distraught, I need your strength.

Father weave a cloak of darkness,
A friend in whom to hide your will,
And in your mercy, place it round my soul.
Compass me about with kindness,
Shield me from the stabbing cold,
Ease the anguish in my faltering heart.

I catch a glimmer of my love
As the smallest bud on an apple bough.
The ice of death will melt away.
I say to the first breeze away my love;
I sigh, knowing soon you hear my prayer

Father please the day is warming,
This heavy cloak is cumbersome now.
Place your will in this fragile locket,
And I’ll cherish it in my heart.
In my weakness I will love you,
Give me desire to serve you Lord.

And now I see my love the King,
A sprite gazelle, a young wild stag
And lo, the air is rich with grape scent;
The ground alive with life and power.
His mountain stream at once a torrent;
This sapling oak, at once a forest.

Father as you will my life is.
What you decree I seek in earnest to accomplish.
In all to praise you and to love you
This hope by which I’m filled does not diminish.

What sound is this?
The foundations of my new heart quiver.
From what was once a fear a rippling fountain
Gushes high with force unending
Into the skies of your forgiveness.

Amid the doves and circling swallows;
This spring rises aloft in victory;
And falls in colours over festive people,
Slowly strolling through emerald ferns in a shady glen.
They pick the fruit of peace in freedom:
Tasting life beyond death’s shadows.
Free in love, free in wisdom.
Free in light, free in will.
Free in the brilliance of the Lord;
The Eternal brilliance of our God.

We fell back into our routines at the monastery. Shipen, David L. and Steve returned to cooking deliciously festive meals for the monastery’s retreatants. On Saturdays, at the end of each retreat, we performed an evening concert, which turned out to be an excellent way to hone our craft. I went back to making up the beds and cleaning the motel units after the retreatants left on Sundays. We met every afternoon for music rehearsal.
Sunday, December 10th we set off for a four day tour with several concerts in the New Mexico area as a sort of a warm up to the California tour. We drove to Holy Faith Episcopal Church in Santa Fe, set up, tuned, and rehearsed. Then, while the parishioners enjoyed a potluck supper, we held prayers, vocal warm-ups and a family confession. I could barely stand the delicious aromas wafting into the sanctuary but Shipen's firm rule was still no meals until after the show. The concert seemed a bit flat but Father Campbell insisted it was excellent and gave us a donation of $80. We ate dinner afterwards (thankfully some food had been set aside for a change-hurrah!) then headed to Nazareth Convent in Albuquerque. Sister Francetta showed us to our individual rooms then gave us a tour of the convent.

The next morning we attended mass celebrated by Father Wolf followed by breakfast in the staff room of Nazareth Mental Hospital on the grounds of the convent. It reminded me of the movie One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest (tho the nuns were much friendlier) with some patients pacing around, rocking back and forth or sitting staring off into space. Later, we performed for the residents of the mental hospital, ate dinner with them, then joined them playing pool and board games in the gym. I decided it was not a place I ever wanted to end up in.

Tuesday, December 12th we attended another Episcopal Diocese luncheon in Albuquerque that Father Cruise had invited us to. The first question as we walked in was, “Sherry anyone?” During lunch, Bishop Trelease of New Mexico addressed the crowd, followed by what the bishop dubbed a “marvelously comprehensive” speech by Shipen about our group (read: too long). Then we performed two trilogies for the crowd. What surprised me was that after we finished we were inundated with requests for concerts as well as a special invitation to perform at Pope’s Hall that we were told could seat 2,000 people. Father Cruise offered to help negotiate the concert dates and even offered the use of Camp Stoney as a possible retreat center or center of the arts someday. Possibly a bit too much sherry going around!
Wednesday, we returned home to Pecos, excited and encouraged by the successful response to our concerts. Shipen wrote Father West detailing our experiences and also mentioning a young boy who had latched onto us at some point. Shipen had a soft spot for troubled youth who inevitably were drawn to us. [I don’t know what become of him because for some reason, the Chronicles include nothing about him.]

Dear Father West:

It seems that we have been somewhat eased in our unknowing and given to faith once again. Four of us have suffered extreme mental fatigue that sleep somehow doesn’t conquer; but I tend to think it is a result of a physical disorder, a bug or something.

In that we weren’t able to find our silent retreat near here, we have all decided to accept our parents’ invitation home for Christmas. The funds are being sent by our parents, which came as a real surprise to us, and will offer us a chance to be completely separate for the first time in nearly three years. It will be good to objectify our experiences and delineate more clearly, the work of the Holy Spirit.

We have with us now a boy named Cary, a psychotic, who discontinued shock therapy in the middle of it and ended up as a young child, capable of adult actions. I really have nothing to say about this except that he takes a great deal of time and his growth is painful and confusing. We are trying to find help for him but don’t exactly know where to look. By past experience we are reluctant to search only for a proper clinical analysis where mercy is isolated; and so, because of the Benedictine rule concerning mental health, the monks are not in favor of his staying, which is understandable, yet I don’t believe that a strictly psychological overview is the least bit helpful, and there doesn’t as yet seem to be a balance or an answer to Cary’s particular situation. I know he needs to receive love and trust, but how can he if he is thrust from here to there?

Sunday we gave our first Santa Fe concert at Holy Faith Episcopalian for a decent crowd. Monday we went to Albuquerque and gave a concert at Nazareth Mental Hospital. Tuesday we had our first meeting with the Episcopalian priests in Albuquerque and gave a 15 minute concert for them. Present was the Bishop of New Mexico (Trelease) and the music and apostolate was warmly received. I expect that we will have a full week in Albuquerque since Father Cruise has taken us under wing as our agent. There was beginning talk of putting Camp Stoney (an Episcopal summer camp near Santa Fe) into use as an arts center, and they will be considering the Trees as the core group and directors of the project which came off our lips in the first place. It is a thirteen hundred acre mountainous ranch. It would be dedicated to the fostering of sacred art and at the same time be an Anglican communal witness, an interesting speculation.

Also the father Prior here wants to record the presentation and distribute it through the publications firm here on cassette for $4.00. We would receive 60% of the profits. I called Goddard Liebeson, president of C.B.S. and he said it would be OK if we retained proprietorship of the tape. Also it will help pay our expenses at the monastery. I hope it doesn’t mean trouble later, but we are making the tape this Friday. It is about $2,500 investment for the monastery.

Lastly we are now on our twelfth new song for the new presentation, some of which are especially good, others need work or elimination.

Thank you for your continuing concern and belief and prayers, Shipen