Begun in 1958 and finished in 1987, with an ongoing program of renovations and expansions, the Abbey campus was constructed entirely by the monks and financed entirely by donations. It sits atop a steep hill overlooking the Pacific Ocean, about two miles inland from the shore. The church is a modern structure of white concrete with a blue tile roof. The interior is hexagonal, with a freestanding altar in the center surrounded by choir stalls and pews. Behind the altar is an enormous icon of Jesus Christ Prince of Peace. Behind the pews, over the main entrance, sits the organ case. A large woodcarving of the Last Supper graces the south wall, with Judas, his halo floating off his head like a rising full moon, slinking away. I would encourage the reader to visit the Abbeys website to explore the photo gallery found there.
In 1957, the Bishop of San Diego invited monks from the St Meinrad Archabbey in Indiana, which in turn had been founded in 1854 by monks from Our Lady of Einsiedeln Abbey in Switzerland, to establish a priory in the diocese. The community has grown over the years, and today the residents include the abbot, the prior, seven priests, fifteen brothers, and one claustral oblate. The Abbey manages a retreat center and supports a community of oblates - men and women who, while living outside the monastery (except for the one claustral oblate), vow to follow the Rule of St Benedict and are invited to participate in the divine office and mass at the monastery. The Abbey library, although cloistered, includes a section open to persons attending retreats, who may take books to their rooms but not off the Abbey grounds.
The Abbey is situated on the northern edge of the city of Oceanside, just south of the Camp Pendleton Marine Corps base. There are spectacular views of the ocean both from the church and (so I am told, as they are off limits to the likes of Miss Amanda, as you would expect) from the monks' cells. The grounds are rich with vegetation indigenous to the area, as well as wildlife including rabbits, bobcats, opossums, coyotes, red hawks, ravens, and a pair of owls. (Memo to self: donate a partridge in a pear tree.)
The Rt Revd Charles Wright, OSB, abbot, officiated. The abbot was vested in amice, alb, stole, a long red chasuble, and a white mitre. Monks who were priests wore amice, alb, and red and white striped stole. Monks assisting at the altar wore a long white cotta over their habit.
What was the name of the service?Good Friday Liturgy.
How full was the building?
Completely full, including metal folding chairs that had been set out to accommodate the overflow. Mostly a middle aged crowd, mostly women, many nuns.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
Was your pew comfortable?
I chose one of the metal chairs; it was OK.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
Silence. A monk or two puttered about the altar making final preparations. One monk, upon inspecting the carpet that had been laid out for the abbot to prostrate himself upon at the start of the service, did a tut-tut, rolled it up and carted it away, and soon returned with a larger carpet that he unfurled in front of the altar. A lady whose high heels clacked noisily on the tile floor as she entered did her best to tiptoe not easy to do in high heels, as all ladies know. Miss Amanda said a silent prayer of thanks that she had selected her most squeak-free sneakers to wear.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
"Good afternoon. Please silence all telephones."
What books did the congregation use during the service?
The Worship II hymnal and a service sheet.
What musical instruments were played?
Organ to accompany the singing. I was surprised to hear the organ being played at all on Good Friday!
Did anything distract you?
The Abbey is located very close to Oceanside Municipal Airport, and the sound of airplane traffic was a distraction. Also, I hadn't expected Friar Tuck to come toddling out, but one of the monks could have passed for him, his bald spot resembling a tonsure. The monk who served as cantor sang too softly and stood too far away from the microphone to be heard.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
It was the standard Good Friday liturgy, with readings, solemn collects, veneration of the Cross with reproaches, and communion from the reposed Sacrament. The abbot chanted most of his part, but the bidding to each of the solemn collects was spoken. The Passion was chanted by the abbot as Christ, a priest as narrator, a brother as Pilate, and the congregation as the turba - or so it would seem (see below).
Exactly how long was the sermon?
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
7 – The abbot preached from his chair. He spoke clearly and his sermon was well prepared, but he read it from a paper that he held in front of him.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
What's "good" about Good Friday? Jesus was tortured and put to death. But it was good for us! The image of suffering is an unsettling one, but it is made meaningful through love. We sometimes think, "If only I had been there, I would have prevented Jesus from suffering." But the truth is more likely that we would have run away just as the disciples did. It is our sin that caused Jesus to suffer and die, but he overcame sin and death and took the blame on himself - something that we will never understand fully. What difference does Jesus' suffering make in our lives? To answer that question, we must ask another one: How much do we love Jesus? Suffering without love is wasted pain. We have the power to make this Good Friday not only good for us, but the best!
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
The explanation given for why non-Catholics should not take communion was probably the most polite (if debatable) that I have ever encountered. The eucharist is the Body of Christ, as is the Church. To take communion is to accept fully the teachings of the Church; thus, anyone who cannot do that should refrain from partaking of the eucharist.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
The music was very disappointing. The setting used for the reproaches was not the beautiful Gregorian chant, or the polyphonic settings of Palestrina or Victoria, but rather some modern tune. I watched the monks carefully for signs of mouths moving, but saw precious few. These are clearly not singing monks! During the chanting of the Passion, the congregation tried to take the part of the turba, although the rubrics for Good Friday do not specify that they should. At any rate, no music or text had been provided. Some nuns had brought missals with them and sang along as the Spirit moved them (I never expected to hear myself say, "Thank God for singing nuns!"), and others were able to locate the reading in the back of the hymnal (no page numbers had been given). All in all, though, it was a very lackluster turba.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
Nothing. We all left in silence, as is appropriate for Good Friday.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
There was none.
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
3 – I have a feeling I would be sorely disappointed in the liturgy as celebrated by this community. What a pity.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?
A community of Benedictine monks who can't sing.