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.

Gethsemani - Monks and New Melodies

Eight Trees at Gethsemani
* * *
Gethsemani’s Trees by Shipen Lebzelter

Outside the oval old wood window,
barn wood curved
around the sleek metal
1954 GMC bus window,
and just as the Trappist bell rang
five AM,
I saw, down the road leaving
up to the monastery,
a clump of pine trees
lit from behind by a grey-green
light that brought both the
dark grey-green of the
lower boughs to me with the cast
of a fog that might have
reminded me of a haze with angels flying through.
Even if just then Father Chrysogonus
rode through the scene on his bicycle,
robes flying, my vision wasn’t
interrupted, it happened quickly.

It didn’t seem incongruous to be sitting
inside Athanasius, this bus, watching
this before lauds, because inside
was another grey-green scene
that seemed to depict
a moving stationary point
that had seen Gethsemani many
times. Even at times sinking
beneath her liturgy, after hours,
in the carrot patch with Brother Mark
and the Trees against the rules.

Inside the kerosene lit quilt and
barnwood bus that had had so many
window views these past years,
here home seemed almost human.
A new icon is coming later
this morning by a village monk
and painter in love
at whose house across the field,
we ate in a circle
spoked by tree banners in a
formal intense laughing gentle
eternal love similar to the new icon
that sat in our midst, an extension
of the liturgy Lavrans climbed
through for fourteen years,
it cannot be understood.

Then the smell of banana and peanut butter
bread from the bus oven, my early morning
duties after vigils. Bananas that were
given a few days earlier along with some
coffee cake for no apparent reason
except that they tasted good…
during the last odyssey when I
was here again before dawn to put
new heads on the two Indian drums.
There is energy here, a hundred and
twenty monks are doing their spiritual reading.

I had come out of the room in the retreat house, exhausted
With the wall behind which lay
the fullest measure of my love,
Indeed my own love lay there sleeping,
not dreaming nightmares,
but deeply in peaceful sleep.
And across the hall, two brother
trees seeming unhung from tensions
brought on the shoulders of our
common life and service.
And up the hill, the four women
remembering us and the icons
the village painter made for
our own chapel, our own attempt at liturgy
and what falls beneath the structure.

Behind me, in the chapter room,
the Abbot Timothy sits meditating
away from the confusion of finding
the structure he so earnestly sought in us,
and may have found sitting there alone
with his brothers, and brothers of the Trees.
He and Brother Frederick and Father Baldwin,
triangling practical vision
with practical problems
and practical service
in serious time spent maybe
less seriously with the five year olds.
We may know ourselves, but do we know
our community; our own respect for
the twenty four hour day that we must
tour like these Trappists have for centuries?
And our own respect for brothers and sisters
That must tour the same day?
I am amazed at real life, speculation
Left behind, scenarios of nine PM orchids,
and ten o’clock tears of closeness.
Of barnwood busses and banana bread
and prayers. The loopholes through which
one enters the enclosure, the garden enclosed
my brother my bride. Maybe a part of
St. Vincent De Paul’s dream lives
here, maybe some of Athanasius’ fight lives
here, or at least his limp. Like the
limp of the bus when it rests overnight.

I do know the love that comes to me.
I recognize you in what you say
I would be an idiot not to believe it
Even not to live in it. Please don’t
be troubled too much. I am strung out
in those supportive cables.
Remember you came in your prayers,
after you left for your prayers
And I saw you go and I saw you come
and I left with you my brothers for
another place, another morning on
the bus after vigils.

April 17, 1975 Thursday. Brother Mark and Brother Lavrans discovered us sleeping on the bus in the morning and woke us up. We had hoped to attend 7:15 mass but it was already over by the time we got going. Brother Mark showed the women to the retreat house and after a brief visit with both brothers, we held a family meeting to decide what we should say to Abbott Timothy about our situation. Shipen asked each of us to think again about our vision for The Trees and whether we were committed to that vision. Since we were having financial problems (as usual), someone asked if we should ask for help from the monastery? After discussion, we decided not to mention this to the brethren. Christopher suggested we approach them with the idea of establishing a formal relationship together, possibly suggest living nearby or on the grounds? Maybe a farm nearby? Immediately everyone was excited at that idea and agreed emphatically!

Why did this strike such a chord for me? Each time we arrived I found myself wishing I could spend months wrapped in the peace and solitude of that place. The contemplative life pulled at my heartstrings and I wondered anew if a monastic lifestyle was truly meant for me or not? Pecos Monastery had played a similar melody in my soul, though somehow deeper and more resonant (probably because Pecos was a religious order with both men and women). As the other Trees around me discussed the possibilities, I felt a flash of hope for a new life for us away from hectic, hedonistic New York City.

That afternoon, Lavrans gave us (the women) a tour of the cow barn. He even let Patricia milk one of their ever patient, black and white cows - quite an amusing sight!

Inside the cow barn

Later that evening, we donned our green robes and gathered in Brother Lavrans' art studio for a meeting with Abbot Timothy, Brother Lavrans, Brother Mark, Brother Paul, and Father Baldwin. We sat together quietly without talking for a while. Then, after prayers, Shipen presented our idea. The Abbott asked some probing questions and in his usual reserved and unassuming manner, agreed to at least consider a formal uniting of our two communities. Together, we agreed to turn it over to God and pray to seek His will. Though I longed for immediate answers, the idea of a nearby farm would have to wait.
Abbot Timothy by one of Br. Lavrans' icons

April 18th. Friday. It felt so renewing to be at Gethsemani! It was peaceful, idyllic, inspirational, relaxing, inspiring and grounding all at once. I could easily see how people would come from many miles away to go on retreat at that amazing place. Although sometimes I felt a bit removed from the monastery (since women had to stay at the guest house), I still felt deeply connected as I walked the grounds or listened to the monks singing in the high domed chancellery.

Throughout our visit, Shipen met often with Lavrans, deep in private discussions and fellowship. Lavrans was busy painting us an icon that he said the Lord had moved him to do, setting aside others that he was working on - including a stunning icon of St. Johann Sebastian Bach.

Lavrans and his icon of Bach

In the late afternoon, Brother Mark and other monks helped us unload our instruments into the chapel for a special concert for the monks. Over in a corner, Brother Camillus set up his reel to reel tape to tape the concert. We had written a special version of Ave Maria accompanied by tamboura for the evening concert. (We later used the spontaneous singing of the monks as they joined in on the final song for our first recording The Christ Tree and later we used the entire concert on our reissue CD set). Thank God for Brother Camillus who captured the music that evening. Even though there was just a little bit too much reverb, the sounds still echo with the peace and beauty of what we shared that night. (You can download “At the Abbey of Gethsemani” from I-tunes or find links at )

Brother Camillus taping the concert

Afterwards several monks helped us pack up the instruments into their allotted places on the wall above the back platform in the bus and in the storage space underneath.

Still dressed in our long green robes, we made our way through the twilight over to the chapel in Lavrans studio, lost in our own thoughts and intercessions. Inside, soft candlelight illuminated a vase of freshly cut tulips, reverently placed in front of the now finished icon of John the Baptist. All eyes were drawn to the icon, resting in its place of honor in the center of the altar. Father Baldwin celebrated the mass of John the Baptist and I felt centered and peaceful as we broke bread and drank wine from an ancient silver chalice.

After communion, we observed a long period of silence. Lord, what is your will for us? If you want us to work together with these holy monks, let your will be done. Help us heed your calling and live our lives to your glory, not our own.

After mass, Brother Lavrans escorted Mary, Melody, Patricia and I to the guesthouse and joined us for dinner, followed by a visit with my dear friend Brother Bruno. For me, the evening was bittersweet in that I knew the next morning we would be leaving the serenity of that awesome place.

On April 19th, after we finished packing up, our special friends Brothers Mark, Lavrans and Bruno and several other monks crowded onto the bus to bid us farewell.

Then it was off to finish the rest of our tour...