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 Cathedral of St. John the Divine: Beginning of a Religious Order

I will never leave you nor forsake you.
If you love me, you will keep my Word.
My Father will love you.
We will come to you and make our home with you

Cathedral of St. John the Divine, NYC

May 2, 1973 Oh Hail thee Festival Day! It had been two years since we set out on our journey into through America with no idea what lay ahead. Now we were returning to the Cathedral after many unusual and wonderful experiences. Each of us had grown and changed so much that it seemed like a lifetime ago.

Our visions of a grand entrance fizzled when the weather refused to cooperate. It was overcast and drizzly when we awoke. Definitely not the sunny and bright weather I had imagined for our triumphant return. Hmmm. As we packed up to leave, the monks were kind and encouraging, helping us pack, and engaging us in friendly dialogue. I still was not sure why but I felt an extraordinary connection with the monks and nuns of nearly every monastery or convent we visited. This happened whether we were there for a few days or as long as several weeks. Time made no difference. Words could not describe it but the feeling was unmistakable. It was as if a bond united and connected us in a spiritual way that transcended the usual differences of denomination or religious affiliation. Was this because God had a similar vocation for us? I didn’t know.

As we loaded our instruments and knapsacks back into the bus, I couldn’t help feeling anxious and excited. I sensed we were on the threshold of a new beginning. My mind raced with questions: What will our new life be like? Will the Cathedral community accept us? Where will we live? Will Canon West take us under his wing?

I went through the motions of packing as these questions swirled around in my mind. Once packed, we stood with the brothers in a large circle on the lawn as each of us thanked God for His blessings, for love, for our sudden kinship together. Brother Michael began crying as we said goodbye and then we lumbered off in our crippled bus as Ariel rushed from window to window, snapping pictures. While the bus swayed and lurched along the road, I wrote a quick poem in my journal about our pilgrimage...about hoping, seeking, and being found, about times of sadness, despair, small victories, failures and success, times of loss and of love. We had set off on a grand adventure, ten enraptured souls burning our bridges behind us and relying only on our faith in God - a pilgrimage for Christ. We gave up everything yet he had provided everything we needed.

With New York City only a few miles away, we stopped in Nepals to visit the “Shrine of Our Brother of the Tree” – the willow tree Shipen had fallen out of on the day of his conversion. Shipen climbed back up into the branches and Ariel took more pictures. I don’t know why but I slipped a smooth stone I found under the tree into my pocket. Was it for good luck or just sentimentality? Caught up in nostalgic feelings, we made one final stop at a rest stop for lunch in honor of all the many rest stops along the way where we had shared meals, long lively conversations, pain, hope, heart break, love and friendship. We marked the end of our two-year journey together with prayer; bowing our heads and thanking God for all that had happened to us during those two years together and asking him to guide us in the days ahead. Eagerly, we drove the final few miles to City.

Coming around a curve, there she was - New York! - her skyline looming huge and imposing, dressed in a veil of foggy mist, unchanged and timeless. As we crossed over the George Washington Bridge I inched closer to the window anxious not to miss anything. I peered out at all the people as we drove by, their faces etched with worry or hardship, hurrying along on their way through the crowded, busy streets. New York City was like no other city to me. As soon as we arrived I was flooded with memories of my very first trip over that same bridge with a carload of my friends. With my face pressed to the window I tried to pick out familiar buildings and streets. Wasn’t that a restaurant we ate at once? Was that our old health food store? In a strange way I felt as if I was coming full circle and suddenly I was caught up in a spirit of joy and celebration. Laughing, we opened the bus windows and stretched out our arms, ringing Sanctus bells as we drove past startled crowds of New Yorkers. We came into the City just as we had gone out, in a cloud of bells, ringing them triumphantly through the streets of Harlem until finally we arrived at the Cathedral.

At exactly 3:00 p.m., the appointed time, we arrived with shimmering bells cascading onto the Close. There was our dear friend Rodney Kirk standing inside the gate, waving and grinning broadly. He leapt onto the bus and embraced each of us, welcoming us home. A rainbow of feelings swept through me as we parked the bus alongside the massive citadel of the Cathedral...excitement, anticipation, happiness and joy. Rodney ushered us into the Cathedral House for teatime with Dean Morton and Canon West. After greetings and hugs all around, Rodney gave a toast to our safe return followed quickly by Shipen’s toast to Canon West in honor of his 32 years at the Cathedral. Rodney led us in a rousing chorus of, “Praise God from whom all blessings flow…”

Dean Morton and Canon West

Following tea, we attended Evensong and mass in the Cathedral celebrated by the Dean. We sang Jesus He Knows, which had been written exactly one year previous, as a recessional. Then we unloaded our instruments and set up in preparation for our performance the next day at 7:30 a.m. Once everything was all arranged, we walked across the street to V & T’s Italian restaurant for dinner, chattering away excitedly… "Wow! Nothing has change. Isn’t it great that we were so well received? Didn’t Canon West look regal?...Well, I thought he looked a bit haggard…I wonder if his shingles are acting up again?... and Rodney looked terrific didn’t he? It’s hard to believe we’re finally here! "

After dinner, we met in the bus and burned the ceremonial $1 bill torn into four pieces. Then we moved into our temporary accommodations that the Dean had graciously offered us on the top floor of the Cathedral House (until we could arrange permanent housing).

I lay between clean white sheets and couldn’t stop smiling. What a wonderful welcome home! And how nice to be slipping into a comfortable bed! I felt giddy with excitement tinged with anxiety about our future role at the Cathedral, tempered with relief to be off the road after two long years. After lights out, I prayed that the Lord would show us what our new life should be and guide us to do His will. Just before drifting off to sleep, I heard a voice from the men’s bedroom call out, “Goodnight, sleep tight…” Smiling contentedly, I called back, “Don’t let the bed bugs bite!”

On our first day back at the Cathedral, the Dean, Rodney and others put us right to work stuffing envelopes, running errands, and doing other odd jobs around the Cathedral. Immediately I set to work in the Exhibit Hall selling crosses, postcards, souvenirs, and the like to tourists. David Karasek became a tour guide, learning all the ins and outs of the Cathedral, and the interesting architectural history of its beautiful gothic structure. He climbed into hidden rooms up by the roof and narrow, twisting stairways that led up into the inner skeleton of the Cathedral and above the flying buttresses. He discovered special catacombs and alcoves deep in the sub basement and explored every secret space. After a short apprenticeship, he became a tour guide for the flood of tourists that were forever visiting the Cathedral. Sarah took on the job of switchboard operator for the Cathedral. David Lynch and Ariel did clerical work. Shipen and Steven started a bread baking business (on a small scale at first) and sometimes helped with tours. Finally, there were all kinds of additional jobs for us to do and we pitched in doing whatever was asked.

Immediately, Canon West drew us under his wing helping define our role at the Cathedral while guiding and mentoring us in creating a long-term structure for our community. Up until that point, he had given his advice from afar as Shipen kept him apprised of our various escapades. I had the impression we were like toddlers sent out into the world to grow and experience things. Now it was time for our real education to begin. Canon West held weekly meetings, advising us in every area of our lives from when to bath, sleep, be silent, pray and rehearse, to what jobs we should have, and what we should eat and wear.

After our first meeting I felt relieved as he pulled in the reins and set clear structure to our previously haphazard, nomadic life. My journal entry for that day noted:

Sunday, May 6, 1973…at 6:00 p.m. sharp we met with Canon West, the Dean and Rodney in the Dean’s office…Father West took complete authority over matters and laid things out on the table about our involvement at the cathedral: future work as tour guides after training, need to find a Loft very nearby, [keep] the bus to go out, the music should continue, concerts soon on every Saturday, the Eucharist as the stabilizer of our day with the central focus being the mass, continuation of our community, baking of bread, and theological training of some sort (hopefully by him). Finally he was full of specific advice and guidance. It was about time! [end of excerpt]

Though I still pined for the wonderful life we’d left behind in Pecos, Canon West’s ideas about a more contemplative life appealed to me. As he offered suggestions to give organization to our group, I felt reassured. His words hit home, easing my discomfort over the recent lack of structure in our lives. I had noticed we were floundering without the daily monastic routine that we’d had at Pecos. Maybe he could help too with our incessant arguing and fighting...

Canon West arranged to hear our weekly confessions. We had been floundering around confessing to each other, but we didn’t know how to provide comfort or consolation, and were untrained in how to heal or rebuild. Usually our group confessions just reopened old wounds. At first, it was difficult for me to open up my heart to Canon West and talk frankly about the things that were bothering me…Eventually though, the floodgates opened and I confided how I still pined for David Lynch and our unconsummated relationship. How I longed for the love, friendship and intimacy of married life. How unfulfilled I felt living in our semi-cloistered life when others around me were going off to do who knew what. How angry I felt that I was the only one abiding by the vow of chastity and clearly suffering for it.

Canon West had a wonderful warm and loving way of easing my pain with his wise counsel. Before confession, I would come in feeling broken down, angry, resentful and depressed. After confession, I walked away feeling light footed and relieved, a heavy weight lifted right off me. I can still hear his deep, resonating voice reassuring me, “My dear child, you must realize you simply can not continue living this way…why of course this leads to…it will not be easy but I am convinced that if you press on….Now remember my child, you must begin immediately to…” No matter what the subject or area of my concern, he gave me sensible advice. Though sometimes he sounded ostentatious, I loved him all the more for it!

Canon West set about overseeing our education and shaping our community during regular meetings with us in St. Savior’s Chapel. Some of the meetings were taped (and remain in the Trees Archives). He started each session with a teaching on important matters of faith such as the resurrection, the Trinity and miracles. This was followed by a discussion about some aspect of our daily life. He started the first meeting by going over our daily schedule…”Now, my dears, when do you wake up….and when do you go to bed?…It’s important for a monk that each bed be suitable but not too comfortable…What do you use for mattresses? (Foam rubber) and how are the beds arranged?” (Each bed he insisted should be identical and relatively austere). He took great care to shape every detail of our monastic lifestyle. With his help we created a daily schedule covering when we would meet together for mealtimes, prayer and worship and establishing a strict routine for each day of the week. Then he focused on creation of a Rule, beginning with aspects of daily prayers and religious studies. He designed our habits “so people will take you seriously.” Our habits were full-length emerald green robes to be worn over street clothes with pockets and long sleaves lined with satin.

Our newsletter outlined some of the changes that occurred after our arrived at the Cathedral:

Dear Friends:

We arrived in New York May the 2nd. The tour from Pecos through Colorado, Kansas, Kentucky, Indiana, Michigan and New York State reaffirmed friendships we cherished with people in those places. It was good to sing for friends and to find a communion with you that continues when we remember you.

From our experiences touring, we feel that it’s vital for communication to grow between all parts of the church, and we reflect that the inclination of the Trees Group and other groups to be nomadic may mean more in our lives than just a late adolescent phase. Rather, we believe time spent traveling and living in committed relationships with other communities can open new understandings in us all of Christ’s Church and what it’s growing to be, what it means to surrender to one another in love.

Touring, too, has been a concentrated process of breaking down our own fears and judgments about the Body of Christ in all its variation, an experience of learning to love and trust all kinds of people. This broadening experience is also affecting the relationships within our own family, slowly breaking down our mistrust and pride and allowing us to speak more truthfully and deeply to each other, to find the love God has been creating beneath the fear.

For any of this to work, we recognize the necessity for settling into a substantial dwelling place at this point. We’ve come to the Cathedral of St. John the Divine to find that place, not so much in our physical residence, as in the people here who have given themselves to help us find the place within ourselves. Recently, when we visited Gethsemani monastery in Kentucky, Brother Lavrans painted an icon for our family. Jesus, with a countenance of great calmness, mercy, and authority, holds an open Bible, which reads, “I will never leave you nor forsake you. If you love Me you will keep my Word. My Father will love you. We will come to you and make our home with you.” This is the home, the dwelling place we’ve come to St. John’s to find, to receive more deeply among ourselves; that place of love and trust where our Lord lives. Our development to this point as a family, and the insights of our Warden here, Canon West, indicate that this home for us is taking form organically as an experimental Religious Order. Father West, in his experiences as Warden of two Religious Communities, is able to give us the guidance we must have. He is giving us instructions and ideas for balancing our days between prayer and devotion, work, receiving teaching, music, and time together as a family. Several months ago we asked him to write a religious rule for us, and he refused. The other day, when we were all talking about our direction and involvement here, he said that a rule must grow out of the life of a new religious community; a community doesn’t begin by writing a Rule, and then fit themselves into it. This is how St. Francis and St. Benedict guided their Orders; through the experiences and experiments of the shared lives of the brothers, the Rule was eventually written. Our rule will become apparent from the experiment of committing our lives to one another; Canon West, at the right time, will translate the experience into language. The written Rule exists to aid an order in experiencing its dwelling place.

St. John’s is moving in a number of ways. The new Dean, James Morton, has brought ecumenical experiments into the Cathedral, involving the Spanish, Haitian, Dominican, and black communities which surround St. John’s. The vast crypt is being turned into a neighborhood community center. Father Rodney Kirk, Minister with the Arts, and his assistants, fill the Cathedral with visiting church choirs, Cuban dancers, Puerto Rican Theater, Japanese music, the cast of Godspell, and with outdoor medieval festivals. Several young college graduates here are involved in a beautiful relationship with the people of the area’s tenement housing, helping them save their buildings from being condemned by the city, to discover themselves as communities of people who can find an integrity together. Madeleine L’Engle, writer-in-residence, spends some of her time as Cathedral Librarian, writing her own books, poems, and lectures. These are full of a compassionate understanding of human beings, the darkness of man’s soul, and the saving hope which moves him. All of this activity, and the lives of the Cathedral staff and associates, must be centered in the Eucharist, and in prayers that the Holy Spirit will guide us in preaching the Gospel of Peace, in yielding to His way of bringing men together in Christ.

We don’t fully know where we fit into all of this. We do feel a growing solidity in our family’s life, as we order ourselves and see how beautifully our deepest hops are given life by Father West’s insights into a community of service, mystical devotion, and praise. We also feel a growing bond with Madeleine, a feeling that our lives and creativity are being affected by her sensitivity to the problems and adventures of an artist seeking to love God. We’re learning from Dean Morton’s overview of the Cathedral life; how and where we can contribute and share. Father Kirk is brainstorming on ways to present our music most meaningfully, as well as helping to arrange the necessary specifics of our living conditions.

Until a large enough space is located, we’re living in the youth Hostel on the Cathedral grounds, which gives us a chance to get to know the people here better. Some evenings, next to the Cathedral looming in the dark, the light of kerosene lanterns glows through the bus windows, while we have Compline, inside. Sometimes, members of the Cathedral family and visitors come and stay after the service to talk. And so we discover that life does indeed change slowly. Three years ago, in this city, evening meant friends wandering in to our loft to share a meal, and to worship, and to talk.

We’ve sung a few songs for the early morning Mass in the Cathedral. We’ll give our first concert for the Cathedral family on May 26th. This summer we’ll be singing concerts in the Cathedral every Saturday afternoon; you are all invited to attend.

You’re part of our hopes and prayers,

The Trees Group
Ariel, Sarah, David K., Shipen, Stephen, Shishonee, David L.

This letter radiates the glowing fire of our youthful enthusiasm during those first months at the Cathedral. It was an exciting time to be living at St. John the Divine! The Cathedral was on the verge of some radical changes as a result of the appointment of the Rev. James P. Morton as new dean. We were thrilled he had welcomed us so warmly as “artists in residence.”

The New York post wrote about the Dean and changes at the Cathedral in an article dated Monday, May 14, 1973:

Slowly we began the process of creating a new life at the Cathedral and defining the context of our relationship there.

May 20th was an important day at the Cathedral. We helped with the extensive preparations for the huge celebration to honor the 100-year anniversary of the Cathedral along with the official installation of Dean Morton. Over 2,000 people filled the huge Gothic structure and what followed was anything but the usual pomp and ceremony. The May 21, 1973 issue of the New York Times described what happened next:

“The formal ceremony was interrupted for about 15 minutes by some 20 demonstrators, who accused Father Morton and Bishop Moore of ignoring pleas to help in gaining community control of Grosvenor House, a settlement house at 105th Street and Amsterdam Avenue. One demonstrator charged the church hierarchy was more concerned about Vietnam and farm workers than problems “at their doorstep.” Before proceeding with the ceremony, Bishop Moore said that the demonstration was a “sign of the deep conflict within the city” and that he appreciated “the possibility that this is a place where a group could feel they could speak…” Later, Dean Morton spoke about the important of reaching out to the surrounding urban community and also announced that building would resume at the Cathedral (specifically to house some local outreach programs).

An article in the July 1973 issue of “New Life” Vol. 1, No.1 described the unusual celebration:

“Following the installation, the Dean, followed by Canon West, led the congregation out of the Cathedral to the Synod House for a celebration of the cathedral’s 100th anniversary with a medieval carnival. The carnival was moved to the Synod House from the grounds of the cathedral because of rain, but the indoor celebration did not hamper the joyous enthusiasm of the more than 2,000 persons who had come to the cathedral…as well as hundreds of residents of the neighborhood who joined in the celebration. Included in the celebration were a brass band, clowns, a llama and a baby elephant, bagpipers, jugglers, a fire eater and mimes, giving the great Cathedral of St. John the Divine the feeling of a medieval fair. Fairs were much a part of the earlier Church life and were often held in the square in front of the cathedral in many cities.”

Stephanie wrote a poem about Canon West’s somber reaction to all the frivolity:

Amidst clowns and harlequins,
Jugglers and butterflies He walked
Serious, stately, and yet distraught,
Solemnly he led the procession of fools
Never looking to the right or to the left,
I wonder what He thought.

During the carnival, our job was to sell our homemade sourdough bread, hot dogs and cider in the basement of the Synod hall. I was dissapointed to have missed the fire-eater, elephant and most of the flamboyant acts. After the festivities, we did join everyone for cocktails and a delicious buffet dinner at the Cathedral House. We presented the Dean with a special card and poem we had made and enjoyed mingling with the various clowns and performers. Eventually we were persuaded to sing a few a capella songs. It was truly an amazing day!

Thus began a new chapter in our lives. We settled into new routines and struggled to let go of the footloose gypsy lifestyle and find our place within the Cathedral family. There was a problem though. We worked various jobs at the Cathedral but soon discovered we were seen as volunteers (read: no pay). The only income we had was my part time job at the Cathedral gift shop. Our sourdough bread baking business was still so new (and small) that start up costs ate up any income from sales (more on that later). By May 28th we were down to $1.59. Luckily Father Howie Stowe graciously bought us some groceries and the Cathedral helped by paying some other bills. We dipped into our reserves of beans, rice and flour stored on the bus. I started to feel that we were in everyone’s way on the close and I sensed a growing hostility. Mrs. Gibb was constantly asking us to remove our food from the staff refrigerator so they would have room for various luncheons or other functions. She also was upset with our cat Daniel being underfoot. The final straw came when I helped myself to Canon West’s lunch of left over stew. “This simply will not do!” was his angry retort upon finding his lunch consumed. Mrs. Gibb informed us we could not longer use the kitchen, period. Oh boy. After that we were asked to vacate the hostelry so we moved back onto the bus and redoubled our efforts to find a nearby loft or apartment.

We resorted to finding new and creative ways to prepare beans and brown rice, but I was getting sick of eating the same thing for lunch and dinner. A few times Mrs. Sullivan, my boss at the Cathedral gift shop, slipped me some change and I remember what a rare and special treat it was to walk across the street to the Hungarian pastry shop for hot cocoa and a fresh croissant. I relished (pun intended) getting a hot dog and sauerkraut from the hot dog vendor out front of the Cathedral! Sinful!

Thankfully, the last week of May we located an apartment to rent at 412 West 112th street, overlooking the Cathedral grounds. I don’t recall how we financed it, except probably with a loan from the Cathedral. Ten floors up it offered beautiful views from several vantage points. There were three small bedrooms, two bathrooms, a kitchen, dining room, and a large living room – eight rooms in all – a palace to us who were used to being confined to one small bus! One bedroom eventually became our chapel, which left one bedroom for the men and one for the women. The living room was used for rehearsals, relaxing or meetings. Over the next few weeks we went to work building loft beds, scraping and painting the walls, transforming the space to meet our needs. The most fun for me was knocking big holes into several walls which we framed in to open up the dining and living room areas. Worried that we might get caught, I remember sneaking up to the roof, climbing across to an adjacent building and dumping plaster dust and wood into the chimney there. It was only later that I overheard a neighbor complaining that someone was pouring debris into their fireplace. Oops! Shipen, Steve and David L. built a raised platform in the living room under which the instruments could be stored. Then they took trim pieces and created frames on the walls. Inside they spread wet plaster and created textured frescoes with layers of muted pastel colored plaster that we combed in swirling patterns. In the dining room, Shipen built a long table of wood onto which he glued a thin sheet of brass that could seat our group as well as visitors.

Living Room and Kitchen

Women's Bedroom

Now that we had a new abode, we were finally in a position to accept new postulants. After a brief correspondence, our first novitiate Debbie Wonn arrived from Albuquerque on June 2. She was 26 and newly divorced with a kind of practical sensibility. Almost immediately she pitched right in helping fix up the new apartment. Shipen manned the blowtorch to remove old paint while Sarah and David Karasek painted the walls and ceilings in vivid colors like dark mauve, peach, purple or yellow. Debbie and I painted kitchen cabinets. Steve framed in the two walls and David Lynch mopped floors and cleaned. It was hard work but all of us were pleased with the transformation.

The day after Debbie arrived, we were busy painting the hallway and bathrooms. Shipen was in the bedroom taking a quick nap while the rest of us were painting. Ariel was in the kitchen fixing dinner. Because of all the fumes, we had left the apartment door propped open while we worked. That was a mistake. Suddenly I looked up and saw a stranger standing in the doorway looking like a tourist with a camera draped around his neck. He was a young, thin Puerto Rican dressed in nondescript clothes. He seemed startled to find us in the room and stammered something like, “Hello, is the super in here?”

Something about his demeanor and overly casual manner set off alarm bells. I replied, “No…who are you?”

“I’m the super’s cousin,” he answered, still standing in the doorway.

“Well, what are you doing here?” I asked.

“He, ah…. told me he’d, ah, meet me here” he stammered as he started edging backwards.

Just then Ariel walked in from the kitchen.

“Just tell him Charlie’s looking for him,” he said, throwing the words over his shoulder as he spun around and strode quickly out of the room.

Then Ariel asked, “Who was that!...Hey, where’s my camera?”

It was then it dawned on me that the camera the man had been wearing was Ariel's. We’d been robbed! Suddenly everyone kicked into high gear. Stephen ran in to wake up Shipen while Ariel sprinted down ten flights of stairs at top speed. I jumped into the freight elevator and rode it down. Reaching the lobby at the same time, Ariel and I ran through the doors onto the street and looked around wildly, but the intruder was gone without a trace. I asked a woman passing by if she had seen a man with a camera but she just shook her head and kept walking. From then on fumes or no fumes we kept the apartment door locked and double bolted.

Most of my paycheck at the gift shop went toward supplies for our bread business, as did David K’s meager tour guide earnings. The rest went toward paint and lumber for the apartment. By early June we had little money for food and no money to finish work on the apartment. In desperation, Shipen went to Canon West's apartment and knocked on the door, determined to appeal for help. At first Canon West was perturbed at Shipen for disturbing his nap. However, he eventually agreed to let us charge the rest of the lumber and other items we needed to the Cathedral account. At the time we thought it was a gift and were greatly relieved. The Cathedral also had been paying our rent at the apartment. It wasn’t until later that we learned everything was added to our growing debt to which we were blissfully ignorant.

On June 9th we performed our first actual concert in front of Canon West, cathedral staff and Father Gregory who was visiting for a few days from Pecos monastery. Canon West sat with his usual countenance of solemn concentration. Rodney Kirk and Father Gregory on the other hand sat beaming. Afterwards, everyone dubbed it a success.

Our music continued to develop and improve. Rodney arranged for us to perform during several services and during the weekly Dean’s mass. Beginning in July and throughout the summer, we gave a Saturday afternoon Trees concert in St. Savior’s chapel. News of the concerts spread through word of mouth and eventually the small chapel was overflowing with faithful regulars, visitors and tourists who happened by.

We grew as a religious order under Canon West’s watchful eye and each day took on a comforting rhythm and regularity. Our daily schedule at that time was:

5:00 Wake up, attend to personal needs [maintain silence]
5:45 Vigils in the Chapel, silent prayer
6:15 Coffee and breakfast
6:30 Cleanup and chores
7:00 Walk over to Cathedral for services
7:15 Morning Prayer
7:30 Mass and end of Greater Silence, walk home
8:00 Chapter meeting, Chapter of faults and short discussion of daily work
9:00 Work (bread making, guiding tours, work in Cathedral gift shop, etc.)
1:00 Lunch
1:30 Return to work
3:00 None service, short reading, music rehearsal
5:30 Vespers
6:00 Supper
8:00 Compline followed by Greater Silence
9:30 Lights out

Debbie worked as a secretary at the Cathedral school office, Sarah continued at the Cathedral switchboard, the men were baking bread in the Cathedral kitchens and I worked alongside Mrs. Sullivan in the Cathedral gift shop. David Lynch helped with tours, kept up our accounting and scheduled our music tours. Ariel cooked meals, helped in bread bakery, shopped and answered letters though I’m not sure he enjoyed it as on more than one occasion he asked Canon West for more meaningful work.

Late every afternoon we gathered for music rehearsal followed by dinner and then Compline. The day ended after Compline with Greater Silence, which meant there was no talking at all until after mass the next morning. With many visitors coming and going from our new “loft” apartment, sometimes it was difficult to be silent and often we ended up entertaining visitors late into the evening. During one of our weekly meetings, Canon West noted our growing weariness and insisted that we must adhere to our vow of silence after Compline. When we argued that we were just trying to be courteous to our guests, he countered that keeping Greater Silence was more important. He suggested we should simply inform our guests that after Compline they would have to leave. He gave the example of how the Archbishop of Canterbury ended his parties promptly by arranging for the valets to deliver everyone’s cars immediately after dinner at the appointed time, without exception. We agreed to try harder.

During our June 14th meeting with Canon West in St. James’ Chapel we discussed the idea of our taking preliminary vows, what a Chapter of Faults was, how our work on the Rule was coming, and then we talked about various functions and duties within our religious order. He expressed his approval of how the concerts were going and encouraged us to continue in our vocation of music.

We had come a long way in a short time - but how was our new life at the Cathedral affecting us? How were we changing and what was our new place within the Body of Christ? I for one was beginning to feel hemmed in by the city. Though the Cathedral close was beautiful and Central Park was a short ways away, I missed the wide expanse of the New Mexico hillsides...the fields and canyons framed by dark, mystic mountains, the lazy flow of the Pecos river. I missed the warm coziness of my little log cabin. The City was noisy, loud, busy, hectic and grey with concrete and stone. There simply wasn't as much expansive green wilderness as my inner soul needed to be truly satisfied. For me, the one saving grace was our music.

Shipen wrote in an undated letter from that time, to someone named Wilson, probably from Redeemer in Houston. It reveals some of his hopes for our future as well as gives insight into how we had grown after our experiences at Redeemer:

Dear Wilson,

Our relationship with Houston is not necessarily bitter [now] – the bitterness lies mainly between Roger and I, and I’m trying to get that worked out, but realize it is a matter of time and prayer more than correspondence. We catch word here and there that there are some at the church who think we are being deceived, but that’s normal. We also have reservations concerning the handling of weighty matters and matters concerning the inherent worth of gifts bestowed at birth, e.d. the intellectual faculty, the artistic faculty, and the faculty of compassion – these we also found lacking in Houston – and we have found them abounding in New York. We gained a great peace when Father West told us to continue our music instead of “lay it down.” It was after all, in retaining that inherent gift, that the dilemma of creation was upon us, as it has been on every Christian’s shoulders. The church here considers the gift of intelligence as a “leading” gift, and the somewhat more impulsive utterrings to be of less overall importance. Especially because the larger problems are so poignant today, i.e. intolerance, misunderstanding, and fear. Yet faith figures completely in the handling of the gifts. I was happy to hear of your resignation to your inherent faculties – it is indeed a major starting point from which to bear weight that isn’t your own.

Your observance of the intellectual guidance of the Pentecostal movements being practically nonexistent, is our observance of the same in the arts – it is after all, the arts which give expression to worship and without them, there is no worship. We saw this whole endeavor of creativity all but dried up in the enthusiastic movements and prophesied that the power would run out of the revivals lest they reconsider the importance of fostering native and original talents – not just the talents that are beneficial to the ongoing organization. We honestly felt squelched in Houston. But here we have concern and an ability to be our own Christians, working in our own way in the midst of others doing the same. Their faith far overrides mine in the long view – and because of this, we feel secure and free to be about the Lord’s business. There is a certain openness that has developed here, so you don’t have to approach a Dean or a Bishop or a priest, or “elder” with the feeling that you are going to be judged immediately, or even that you have to wear your best clothes – but this doesn’t lighten the problems a bit and the cross of our Lord, very much remains the cross of the Lord.

Coming back to the Cathedral was indeed a blessing, all were amazed that the group of impatient, judgmental youngsters, ever made that journey and returned with any unity at all (it surprises me too). Because of this Father West is now interested in the group as a monastic core (maybe a little more honest than the monastery in Houston). He will observe how the experience of communal life in Christianity has been brought about in us, then proceed to help us with the Rule, which will be our rule to preserve the devotional dwelling place of Jesus in our midst. This rule will then become the guide for others who feel called into this particular vocation. The new order will include single men, women, and married, and will be based in a common observance of the offices being created – this being our first Christian duty. We are all terribly excited about this because it provides substantial unity, while at the same time, a home for individual expression of the gifts inherent in each of us. In other words, we are not having anything imposed on us, and so it emerges normally and naturally as a valid way of living closely together as Christians.

Because it has always been difficult for anyone to join the Trees due to its unique experience, we have been concerned that our exclusivity was dangerous, but the fact of the matter is that no one did join, and if they wanted to, generally they would become frustrated because they didn’t share the earlier experiences of the group. Now that our initial pilgrimage is over, our experience need not be required of a new comer, instead he may experience the dwelling of the Lord in the emergent order that came as a result of seven people desiring earnestly to discover the Lord’s will as freshness in a rotting world crisis. “They shall build up the wasted ruins – the desolation of many generations.” We feel this written guide will offer a much needed breath of air in us, and Father West went so far as to say it was essential to the health of the church today. Two years ago he was totally against a mixed religious community.

Now it is imperative and he is our willing warden to provide us with the “intelligence” to maintain what we found in the wilderness. I think he is the most brilliant and compassionate man I have ever met and he never ceases to amaze us with his wit and wisdom and integrity. Because of these unseen and small things, we are more than willing to be a part of the “dead” church, even St. Thomas thought Jesus was a ghost until he finally saw him for what he was – which meant extracting some of the doubt which is such a part of intolerance.

And so, postulants, yes as frightening as it may sound it is even more so to us, mainly because we don’t feel the least bit worthy to have this happen; just excited about the Lord’s Life and how it feeds through people of all kinds and in the most unusual ways, and because He always prefers to shatter any rigidity that will not consider mercy or receive His love of architecture, i.e. His own way of building His church.

The work to be done as active contemplative sacramental fundamentalist religious is obvious to us. But for the grace of God to help us, we only know to begin where we started, in our own little Christian family and with its new members.

We have begun to set all our offices to music – a new representation of Gregorian by using the tamboura and deep toned bells and gongs. The chants are light and applicable to the inherent musical expression of the family, and are melodically quite lovely and “modern” if you will. Fr. West is terribly happy with the beginnings of the new setting, and he has a frightfully good ear. We sang our new Our Father with trepidation, but he wanted to hear it twice again. It’s wonderful that he has such confidence, it is a tremendously life giving quality.

Also our mornings are occupied baking a good sourdough bread. (Things haven’t changed much). This we were to do casually, but already the markets around here are demanding it and the demand is larger than our ability to supply it, so we are very busy in this regard.

Also we just found a nice sized (7 rooms) loft across from the cathedral. It is a 10th floor loft with an excellent view of the 13 acre cathedral property and a direct line view of Gabriel blowing his trumpet off the back of the church. Logistics in the loft are going to be a small problem, but we have experience in that area. The church has taken the responsibility of the rent, an unbelievable blessing. Our bread business would never handle a $350 apartment obviously.

Also we will be giving concerts on Saturday afternoons during the summer and during the week, tending the people who came to see the cathedral. It is wonderful to sit in that massive structure at night all alone. I’m certain that every saint that ever was has been in or through that building at least once, either in body or spirit or mind, and for us to realize that it is our home is really too much to take in. But slowly we grow in love and life here and are terribly thankful.

It is going to be a bit difficult to subdue the nomadic spirit, but I’m not sure that we will not continue on that pilgrimage as time goes on. It is a part of our life that will probably be part of the rule concerning evangelization, i.e. the cloistered bus section.

It would be good if you came to visit Wilson, there’s too much to put down in pen. Thanks again for your letter and we too feel this deep love you speak of for us, also for you. I praise the Lord for walking into certain areas unasked, and sitting down in peace to radiate his Love.

The Lord Bless You,
The Trees Group

Meanwhile, there were many changes going on at the Cathedral, spearheaded by the Dean. On July 16, 1973, Time Magazine featured a long article about Dean Morton, the plans to begin building again at the Cathedral, and some of the groundbreaking work the Dean was doing to make the Cathedral a new force of social change. To our delight, we were featured toward the end of the article:

Time Magazine Article July 16, 1973
Morton is pleased that at least one group of young people has chosen the cathedral as the base for one of those alternatives: a religious community...

We were thrilled to read about our community in print and in Time Magazine no less! Unfortunately, our community of five men and three women was about to experience its own transformation.

It began on June 18th when we went about daily chores as usual, then walked over to attend mass at the Cathedral. On this day, we didn’t walk over as a group because some had overslept and were straggling along behind. As the service went on, I looked around and realized that Ariel still hadn’t showed up. Concerned, as soon as the service was over we hurried back to the apartment hoping to find that maybe he’d just overslept. Instead, we found a brief farewell note and a poem he had written.

Two Nights and One Day by Ariel Philip Dross

The night without
is cold and clean,
the night has come and rests there.
A dampness lightly fills the air
inviting men to wrap themselves
in warmer clothes.

I’ve come inside the house to sleep,
I’ve bathed and closed my room’s door.
Some reading time has
Occupied me, now I’ve
Put the book down.

To write, I felt, some useful piece,
some song or poem or something.
It’s deeply hard to bring life out
from inside my deep hardness.

The night inside is deep and black
and has no feel of cold or heat.
There is not dampness, nor response,
but there is certain hardness.

I think that only God can come
and somehow soften my heart,
it’s land of night contains houses,
but their doors are all locked tightly.

No one can enter, even I,
the one who owns the land,
or do I own it, or does God,
who’s given it to me?

He gave it me with doors unlocked,
He gave me keys and freedom.
I’ve locked the doors and lost the keys
and can’t recall the reasons.

Did not His son once come to me
with keys to fit the locked doors?
I’m sure he came to help me with my locks
and with my reasons.


As had happened in the past, Ariel’s disappearance took me completely by surprise. He hadn’t asked for any help or talked about anything out of the ordinary to any of us. Immediately, we took the poem and note to Canon West whose response simply was, “Silly boy.” Knowing of Ariel’s previous attempts to flee, I was worried that this time he might not come back.

To me, Ariel was an enigma. Always kind and accommodating on the outside, I sometimes wondered if he was too gracious in taking care of other’s feelings and didn’t allow room for his own - bottling them inside. Mixed with that was his struggle to measure up to some impossible standard he set for himself, so that it seemed that each time he reached a certain stress level, his only solution was to leave. All I knew at the time was that I was angry with him for not facing his problems and dealing with them. I was also sad hoping he would come back.

Thankfully, the next day Ariel called and apologized, returning later in the evening. Needless to say we had a long discussion about responsibility, maturity and commitments. All of us went around the circle once again to cement our relationship by committing to the group. Debbie Wonn made a three-month commitment.

Later in the week we heard from another prospective postulant, Liz Manning whom we had met in Austin, Texas. The relationship got off to an emotional start when right after she decided to join our community, her mother died. Having been very close to her mother, she was deeply disturbed and affected by her death. She met with a priest who helped her deal with her loss and suggested the Lord was giving her a new family (us) just when hers fell apart. She told us she would ship some of her things ahead and join us the following month. In the meantime, we prayed for her and for our future together.

July 2nd we celebrated Stephen’s 27th birthday with our typical wine, feast and festivities. Ariel baked a black four-layer “Crude Oil of Gladness” cake. We showered Steve with gifts: rocks, two potted bonsai trees, an enamel cross, flowers and the usual birthday card with traditional poem.

As July progressed, it became clear Debbie was not adjusting and was having difficulty fitting in to our lifestyle. Despite long discussions, she grew more miserable and finally Father West advised her to go on a retreat to try to gain some perspective before making her decision of whether to leave or stay. Ours was not a typical religious order and unfortunately, we had a tendency to quarrel and pick at one another far too much. If you didn’t have a thick skin, strong personality or patient temperament, you were not going to survive in the Trees!

Then during one of our concerts, a group of sisters from St. Helena’s came bringing with them some young women who were in vocation. One of them was Mary McCutcheon, who soon contacted us expressing an interest in possibly joining our community. Ariel wrote back that we would pray about and consider her request and discuss it also with Father West. Thus began a series of letters and phone calls as we all sought the Lord’s direction.

Things over at the Cathedral were heating up that summer. Many of the staff were let go or forced to retire including Canon Chase (after 50 years of service), Howie Stowe, Greg, Dante, Mrs. Hanley, and others. This left Mrs. Sullivan in the gift shop, Madeleine L’Engle in the library, and Canon West remaining from the old guard, as the new Dean continued making changes. It threw the cathedral into quite a state of upheaval to say the least! What we also didn’t realize at the time was that the Cathedral was having financial difficulties that led to many of the layoffs.

Meanwhile, we were going through growing pains of our own. There was ongoing bickering and quarreling between Shipen and Steve, Sarah was having stomach problems, David and I were struggling with our own relationship, and Debbie was often crying. Finally Debbie took Canon West’s advice and left on a 3 day retreat. To me it seemed she had her foot out the door while Liz and Mary were heading in. Canon West insisted that we carefully screen all new applicants for mental health and emotional sturdiness (and a thick skin to say the least!)

The third week in July all of Liz’s twenty-one boxes arrived including pots, pans, glass dishes, towels and other items from her “dowry.” She called several times sounding eager to join the community but I worried about bringing her and other new postulants into the difficult environment of our family. The constant bickering left me wondering was this really what Christian community was supposed to be like? Why couldn’t we ever stop fighting and picking at one another?

During our next meeting with Canon West, we decided on the design for our habits, which would be dark green, flowing Russian cassock style robes. A friend of Canon West’s named Otto agreed to execute Canon West’s design and make patterns that Sarah would then sew. In the summer they would be worn with sandals, and a simple sturdy shoe in the winter. When we raised the issue of our constant fighting, Canon West repeated that we simply must maintain silence after Compline without exception. Since this was when a lot of the nitpicking went on, it seemed like an excellent suggestion.

On July 27th Shipen called a meeting requesting that we try to set aside our differences and united together as a family again. To accomplish this, we all agreed the best approach would be to write a new song together. So we worked on “Oh blessed one of Israel” and after several hours the music was flowing and I felt renewed and revived. As often happened, the music was a healing force, if only temporarily.

Unfortunately for Debbie it was short lived and three days later she was even more distressed, wanting to go back home. She made plane reservations and left the next day for Albuquerque. Meanwhile, Sarah was still not feeling well and her parents convinced her to return to Michigan for tests to determine if she might have diabetes or hypoglycemia or some other illness. So she flew back to Michigan for further testing and a much needed vacation, returning a week later. The women’s room, which had been a bit crowded with three of us in such a tiny space, was rather lonely for the week Sarah was gone. I was very glad when Sarah came back!