From today’s NY Times.
Early last Friday, fire consumed most of the complex where the monks had chanted, studied the stars and welcomed guests from around the world. The next afternoon, they returned to survey the damage.
“We were very quiet,” Brother Joseph Brown recalled in a telephone interview Tuesday. “We just looked around. We were in shock.”
By the time the Tea Fire, in Santa Barbara County, was under control, all that remained of the 60-year-old monastery itself were a skeletal archway, a charred iron cross and a large Angelus bell.
Two small artist’s studios near the main building were intact. An icon of Christ that Brother Brown had been painting with pigments made from egg yolk and mineral powder was still on a desk. A cello sat a few feet away, unharmed. In the chaos of wind and fire, a sheriff’s deputy had moved another monk’s telescope outside, where it remained unscathed.
“In the midst of all this destruction,” Brother Brown, 46, said Tuesday, “miracles happened all over the place.”
“The feelings right now are difficult to describe,” he said. “One of the hazards of monasticism throughout the centuries is we become attached to what we have or where we are. This is simply a reminder that what we are called to is not our stuff. This is a cleansing by fire.”
Since the fire, the monks have stayed at St. Mary’s Retreat House, run by Episcopal nuns near the Santa Barbara Mission, as they searched for solace and prepared themselves to help others in the area who were displaced by the blaze.
Brother Brown said the monks, part of the Order of the Holy Cross, spent much of Tuesday meeting with an insurance agent and a contractor to discuss their options. Though the coastal mountains of Montecito were dear to their hearts, he said, they “need time to pray and discern” whether to rebuild there, and if so, how to go about it.
“And we’re like, ‘Hmm, how do we get a hold of Oprah?’ ” he added, speaking of another famous Montecito property owner, Oprah Winfrey, who was not there during the fire but who said on her show last week that she had made a plan to send her staff and dogs to stay at a nearby resort, and that her home was safe.
Brother Nicholas Radelmiller, the monastery’s prior, who has lived there for 18 years, carried a century-old painting of the Virgin of Guadalupe under his arm. Others grabbed two 600-year-old paintings, a cash box, laptops and a change of clothes.
Brother Radelmiller, 68, was the only one to get his habit, a white robe with billowing sleeves. The six-inch-long ebony cross he received at his ordination 38 years ago was tucked into the pocket.
The habit and cross, Brother Brown said, are a monk’s only personal possessions. The fire destroyed antique Spanish furniture, oil paintings, books and cherished photographs, he added, but the loss of their habits and crosses stung most. Even in that, though, he found comfort. “We are stripping away the outward symbols that eternally rest in our hearts,” Brother Brown said.
Brother Radelmiller confessed to being “still somewhat numb about the whole thing, and a little overwhelmed by all the stuff that has to be done.”
“I keep running into little things that I’d missed,” he said, “things I had not realized I’d lost.” He began to cry quietly, then took a breath, saying: “But I really do feel like the most important thing is that we’re all O.K. and together. If they’re memories, I’ll just have to remember them. The most important thing is us.”