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.

Pecos - An Unusual Monastery

Speak to one another with psalms, hymns and spiritual songs.
Sing and make music in your heart to the Lord,
always giving thanks to God the Father for everything…Ephesians 5:19 (NIV Bible)

Our Lady of Guadalupe Monastery

Our Lady of Guadalupe monastery in Pecos, New Mexico was a Roman Catholic Benedictine order. The unusual thing about it was that it was composed of both men and women who worked and worshiped together, side-by-side. Something that Canon West had deemed impossible in fact was working very smoothly there. All traditional aspects of a monastic order were in place such having an abbot, holding daily services, taking vows of poverty, chastity and obedience and so forth. Their main ministry was holding conferences and retreats. They also ran a mail order Christian bookstore called Dove Publications.

The grounds of this order were stunningly beautiful with textures and colors reminiscent of Mexico and Spain. Located in the Sangre de Cristo mountains by the Pecos River, the weather was nearly always gorgeous. The buildings were Spanish style with cream-colored stucco adobe. Along one area were motel units used for the conference guests. Then further up along one ridge were small rustic wood cabins, which is where Sarah and I eventually shared a cabin. Down near the river was a huge sagebrush and grass pasture where they kept cattle and two horses. Near the main building and chapel was a large old log cabin structure called the Bishop’s lodge with a huge stone fireplace and bunk beds in the back bedroom. This is where the men eventually stayed and where we held many successful rehearsals and writing sessions.
We were warmly welcomed by the prior, Father David Geraets, who showed us around. I immediately fell in love with the monastery in its amazing wilderness setting and thought it had to be one of the most beautiful places on earth! New Mexico weather seemed like one endless summer with just a splash of winter. It was “the farm” (more like a ranch or Hacienda) that I had always dreamed of, and best of all there were horses I could ride!

Monastery Lake in Pecos, New Mexico

For the first few days, we camped down beside the Pecos River in the woods by Monastery Lake. As soon as we opened the bus door, our dear cat Emma immediately ran away, never to be seen again. Though we searched everywhere for her, she was gone. I guess she’d had enough of bus life!

On our second day there we met another amazing bus community of women called the Sacred Dancers who had been invited to Pecos to perform at a weekend retreat. These married women had been drawn together by the Lord, purchased a bus and were traveling and ministering through their gift of modern dance. Immediately we felt a common bond with them. We agreed to meet them later for a performance together. At dusk, we met in a field near the ancient cottonwood trees near the river. It was a delightful union of the expressive arts. We wore our soft dawn colored robes of yellow, turquoise, rose and lavender and they wore deep sunset colored leotards and flowing skirts trimmed in embroidered designs. What a colorful, festive celebration began around a blazing bonfire.

Tentatively at first, we sang soft, dissonant chance chords to which the women danced, moving ethereally like rising layers of mist against the backdrop of the fading sunset. As the flames of the fire gave out light in the growing darkness, I sang, “I wander through the valleys searching for him whom I love…” One of the women, Paula Duthette, danced slowly around the fire, her arms sweeping high into the sky, then curving low to the ground, her body flowing in harmony with the movement of the music. As the stars began to blink on in the night sky, we sang,

The eastern sky has darkened
The stars barely give out their light
The earth quivers beneath

The dancers mirrored the cadence and rhythm of the fluttering notes… “the birds fly past in flocks…” Now our songs which before had been linear and one dimensional, came alive with the spontaneous interplay between us.

The black star-filled night was our backdrop and the tall, stately trees, our audience. As the notes died down, everyone grew still. Gazing into the leaping flames of the fire, we let the sounds of the crackling fire and crickets settle over us. Then we sang, “Jesus He knows the flavors of Mexico, the qualities of sunlight in Spain. He knows how an oak tree feels in the evening on the tarnished gold grass of a plain…” A single dancer moved gracefully and gradually others joined in. Now I felt the sorrow of “the languishing grass” and understood how deep indigo could move a painter to tears. The dance ended in love and the promise of victory over pain, “But lo I am with you always even to the end of the world, I am Truth, I am Light. I will come again, I bring my kingdom without end, the far reaches of the earth will have light.” Softly, someone started singing, “Dance, dance wherever you may be, I am the Lord of the dance said He…” As we rose to our feet, one by one the dancers grabbed each of us until we were all swinging around in a flurry of laughter and dancing. We ended our sacred experience together standing quietly, swaying and holding hands in one great circle around the glowing red embers of the fire singing a chorus of Alleluia’s. It was an amazing, grace-filled experience.

On July 31st, after dancing and sharing throughout the three-day retreat, it was time for the Sacred Dance Group to leave. We said our goodbyes and promised to try to get to Boulder, Colorado some day soon to visit them.

We met with Father David and several of the monks and nuns explaining our intentions to follow God’s will, our developing ministry of music, and offering our services. After discussion, everyone agreed to a month long commitment after which we’d meet to evaluate things. In contrast to Redeemer, we were welcomed with open arms as artists-in-residence and invited to minister by performing weekly concerts for visitors on retreat there. Eagerly, we pitched in doing various jobs: David Lynch worked in Dove Publications in the shipping department with Jo, Shipen worked in the Dove filing department, Sarah worked with Brother Clarence in the laundry, Steve worked with Brother Mark doing general upkeep of the grounds and equipment, David Karasek and Jim worked in clean-up, Ariel worked with Brother Michael doing electrical and plumbing work, and I worked with Sister Mary cleaning retreat units and all the cabins. We also pitched in helping prepare meals for retreats or where ever else we were needed. The refreshing difference with this community was that we were invited to choose our jobs as opposed to being told what to do as a matter of submission.

During the first week of August there were no retreatants, so we used the down time to become familiar with our new routine: work 9-3, rehearsal at 3:00, dinner, followed by prayer and family meetings. As we settled into that idyllic place, peace was illusive, marred by our ongoing turbulent group confessions. At one meeting, Larry expressed his discontent with how he felt he’d been coerced into joining. He was not certain that our ministry was his true calling.

During another session, I shared my frustrations in trying to catch one of the monastery's horses for a ride. Each time I eased up to Maggie with the halter, she would spin around and race off. Increasingly frustrated and angry after many failed attempts at catching her, I gouged my hands on a barbed wire fence, taking my anger out on my own flesh. Embarrassed and upset, I found it difficult to talk about my feelings and this led to a discussion about how bitchy I had been to nearly everyone lately and how I needed to let my pent up feelings out more appropriately. Surprisingly, I felt relieved at having admitted my failings out loud to everyone. Shipen wrote about me to Canon West, “Shishawnay has finally learned that she doesn’t know what she thought she knew and isn’t too upset.”

Ariel was still having trouble with ongoing pain in his neck and back and finally saw a doctor in town. After x-rays and a thorough exam the prognosis was calcium formations in his backbone, which the doctor stated was incurable. He refused to prescribe painkillers beyond aspirin warning they were addictive and gave Ariel a neck brace to wear. In my journals, I wrote that “until Ariel renounces his love for his flesh, his body will still be in pain – until he forsakes any seductive tendencies in his relationships with others, it will still be a problem…the Lord is trying to zero in on a deeper spiritual problem…we all laid hands on Ariel during Compline service and the brothers prayed for him. Then there was a prophesy given that God would heal him, but when he did it would be a complete healing.” [A bit pompous of me I think in retrospect].

Pecos monastery was the ideal environment to return to our spiritual studies. We read The Philokolia again along with the writings of the eastern fathers and The Way of a Pilgrim. It was invigorating to have time once again to study. We attended lectures during retreats, especially those on prayer and the Jesus Prayer. I returned to my practice of saying the Jesus prayer throughout the day as I had in those early days in New York City. I found it very calming.

David Lynch wrote Canon West about our new studies:

Dear Father West:

I have enclosed some booklets put out by the Pecos Brethren’s “Dove Publications.” They should give some idea of the area of ministry emphasized here. Generally, the weekend retreat programs focus on growth in the spirit and renewal of prayer life. Many nuns and priests attend the conferences and it’s a pleasure getting to know them. It has been our privilege to attend the lectures, to cook for the retreatants, and to give musical presentations. We have been particularly edified by the emphasis on internal prayer and the prayer of Jesus in the monastic community. Father David, the prior, considers it most important that the “renewed” Christians find a strong theological base for their spiritual lives, and he regards the teachings of the Eastern Church on the Prayer of Jesus as an excellent starting point in prayer life. (See Jesus Beads by Father David). He believes that our zeal must be tempered by a good, solid discipline (see Baptism of Suffering by Father David).

Father David has encouraged us, on your direction, about the prayer of Jesus and in the family we are each struggling with it and drawing closer to prayer of the heart. Consequently, we are reading the classic work The Way of a Pilgrim by R.M.French and are studying the Philokalia and The Art of Prayer.

I am so grateful to God for bringing us under your guidance father, and know you are close by us in our prayers and work. Many people have been very interested in hearing about St. John’s and have told us that they will visit the Cathedral when they are in New York.

We look forward to hearing from you on the 24th when Shipen calls. Please give our love to Rodney, Canon Chase, Canon Dennis, dear Sister Madeleine and the kiddies [the dogs].

Yours faithfully in Christ,

David Lynch
The Symphony of Souls

Lord Jesus Mercy

On Sunday August 6th we performed for a retreat in the chapel but the music was a bit unbalanced, strained and occasionally out of tune. The concert seemed to reflect the dissention within our family. As was often the case, if there were unresolved conflicts, anger or tensions, they inevitably came through in our musical presentation. This was one of the reasons we made a practice of praying and “confessing” to one another before each concert so the music would not be adversely affected.

Later that evening Larry explained that he had been wrestling with whether or not he really belonged with us. He informed us he'd decided to enroll in a Baptist Seminary to study, hoping eventually to be a missionary in Israel. We asked him to wait on the Lord but his mind was set and nothing could dissuade him. After having been with us for three months, Larry left.

Shipen called Canon West to explain what had happened and to seek his advice. Canon West replied that we should not worry about Larry and that he would pray about it. He requested we call him back in two weeks and continue to write. Shipen’s letter recapped the recent events:

August 6, 1972

Dear Father West;

There are now many questions and groanings again surrounding us as we are located in a Roman Pentecostal monastery that preaches the devotional life (Jesus prayer, etc.) and lives as “active” Benedictines, with nuns here under commitment sharing the living space and monastic responsibilities. They will know this week after two years, if they can be granted permission to continue as independent from Bennett Lake Wisconsin mother house, or as a new order. Father David Geraets is the Prior, and a remarkable man. I guess I say that because he has welcomed us so completely and as somewhat of a curiosity. Already we have played three concerts for their charismatic retreatants. The whole thing is very confusing, but for a love that springs honestly from the hearts of all here. They have asked us to enter all classes and instructions. Located in the mountains of New Mexico I would say it was ideal, but for the tugging of our responsibilities.

We do find ourselves hungry for teaching, father, and look somewhat longingly on father David as a proxy. Especially since he opened up a wider hole in our hearts concerning the teachings and events in the Eastern Church. (Some of the priests are even talking about bi-location, i.e. astral travel. It is frighteningly close to our drug days of searching – but is Christian). But Father David is against the cloistered monastic at this time in history. It seems like we are trying to meditate in a tub on a choppy sea with a rope tied in to the Western shore and a strong wind blowing from the east, and I haven’t grasped the exact reason for it all yet.

The family continues to shake itself down. Larry has left for Baptist seminary. The event was precipitated when the family asked him to do what he didn’t want to in relationship to an old friend of his. With this order asking for obedience he proclaimed that we didn’t know what his salvation needed, and was promptly asked to leave community. After repenting and recommitting himself to the work of the family he decided to leave the next day, being led by a sense of anxiety and frustration guising as the Lord himself and we were in an unworkable situation. The Baptist, as you know, believes in a strictly personal and non-relative salvation, which makes community virtually impossible for them. This is also why Jim left. He is still here in Pecos, but only as an extension of his experience. This monastery is able to handle those that would come for a month or six months or a year without pressure to join the core committed. The Symphony is not in that position yet because it is confined to small quarters and insists on participation, support, and commitment in the ministry. We are looking for a time when people can come in around it and relate for a period of time. But if one person withdraws from the group even for a day at this point, major havoc breaks out and there is a continual ministry to the person to forsake his own ways and re-enter the group. This is why we haven’t expanded in numbers; but that is not a proper measure of progress, in my opinion. We are coming to inspect motives more and more when unsuspecting souls are lured to become a part of what seems wonderful on the surface. Forgiveness being the entrance exam. So now we are at seven (more in tune with your awareness of numbers, I believe)…

It was the next day that I came 6 inches from stepping on a rattlesnake. I appreciated the encounter with amazing fear as we both looked at each other for some time. Then the rattle stopped, the snake got down and slowly crawled away. I was praising the Lord…

[News about others:] Sarah is still a prayer warrior, Ariel’s neck seems to be healing (thanks to St. Teresa of Avilla’s prayers), Little David has given up being a Christian behavior expert, Steven is merely happy in the mountains, David L is still an Episcopalian in this community, and we all seem to be blundering through, thanks be to God and His grace. [end of excerpt]

Over the next weeks we were invited to be fully involved in the retreats and in the life of this community. As I mentioned earlier, this was a delightful change from many of our past experiences. Sometimes Shipen, David Lynch, Ariel or others would speak at retreats about our journey through the occult, mysticism, drugs and near-death experiences and how we came to find Christianity. Father David and Brother Bruno lectured on a variety of topics such as discernment, meditation and prayer. We performed at least once a week, usually at the culmination of each retreat.

I enjoyed the healing rhythm of our lives at Pecos: the physical labor, the structure of contemplative monastic life, the personal privacy, and the chance to practice our craft. I loved being able to write songs, work together on the orchestration, rehearse and hone the music, and then present it each week in front of a supportive audience of retreatants. It allowed us time to experiment and hone our concerts before taking it out “on the road” to perform in local churches and other places. The light that had been hidden under a bushel basket now shone brightly.

Life at Pecos was devoid of pressures, conflict with the brethren, or ideological confrontations. It was the ideal environment to develop our musical mission and the monastic routines were perfectly adapted to our lifestyle. Furthermore, the monks and nuns were delightfully warm, silly, instructive, nurturing, and loving – like brothers and sisters in one huge, extended family.

For the married couples retreat during the second week of August, Brother Bruno invited Shipen to be the chef. All of us pitched in preparing the meals and cleaning up afterwards. With Shipen at the helm we scrounged around in the monastery kitchen for ingredients and created wild and tasty celebration dishes such as Hawaiian-pineapple-fried-chicken, strawberry rhubarb pie, cracked whole wheat bread and spaghetti a la Italliane. The meals were a real hit!

On Sunday, we gave a concert on the final day of the retreat. Then we spent the next two days cleaning up the motel units and cabins, rehearsing and working on music. Shipen wrote a new chant (eventually named The Chant for Pentecost): Oh Lord our God have mercy upon us look upon the face of your people, heaven and earth rejoice in the ringing of Jesus, Jesus…. It seemed the Lord was guiding us to create a presentation for a Mass, a celebration through music incorporating the basic elements of the liturgy.

On August 16th, Jim made a formal commitment to the monastery, officially leaving our community and becoming a working associate of Our Lady of Guadalupe for six months. He had been with us for three months, though, of course, we would still be working alongside one another for the time being. This brought our small community down to seven members: Ariel Dross, David Karasek, Shipen Lebzelter, David Lynch, Sarah Benstein, Stephen Gambill and myself, Shishonee Ruetenik.

Seven Singing Trees
The following day all hell broke loose! The abbot from the monastery’s mother House at Bennet Lake came to meet with the brethren of the monastery. After services, there was an explosive chapter meeting over such matters as finances and rules. We weren’t invited but we could see the unrest and tension in the Pecos brethren afterwards. Later, we learned that one alleged problem the Abbott addressed was the lack of specifically delineated private areas for men and women. He wanted the sleeping quarters for the men and women to be strictly separated and marked as such. Men should not enter the women’s quarters and visa-versa.

Though Shipen was aware of many of these inner struggles within the Pecos community, I was not, only gleaning bits and pieces through grumblings about the ongoing upheaval in the monastery.

On August 20th, we enjoyed a delightful day off and drove to Santa Fe to attend Peter Roger’s Art Show at the Atrium Orbis Gallery owned by a man named Rudi Kieve. Peter seemed nervous but was quite pleased to see us and invited us to sing. We sang three songs a capella for the first crowd and later for another group of guests. Afterwards, we were invited for dinner and drinks to Rudi’s palatial Ponderosa, a sprawling ranch in the country. It was a beautiful place and we enjoyed meeting such interesting people as Stravinsky’s original prima ballerina, a Harvard professor, an antique dealer, and a wealthy doctor. We set up the instruments and performed well into the evening for those gathered and got to bed in the wee hours of the morning.

The next day, August 21st it was very hard to get up. Bleary eyed we loaded up the instruments onto the bus and drove back to Pecos to play at 9:15 a.m. for the Glorietta Baptist retreat. There were about 400 young Baptists who showed up for our 45-minute concert. We performed what we called “the second half” without any speeches or long-winded introductions. The final song was Shipen’s new Chant and we finished off with: “one God now and forever more, amen thanks be to God amen!” All of a sudden the entire audience exploded in applause that was deafening, clapping and clapping for what seemed like ages. Then they stood and continued in a standing ovation. We were astounded and praised God!