Claremont and the Ford Foundation were more interested in that disparity than turned off by it and offered me a fellowship in an experimental, multi-disciplinary graduate programme they were developing. As I have described previously, there was a small Benedictine Priory, St. Andrew's, in the high desert just across the mountains from Claremont. It was a beautiful location on an oasis where there had been a ranch, facing the San Gabriel Mountains on one side and the expanse of the Sierra Nevada on the other. The majority of the monks were either European or Chinese as the Priory was established in China before being expelled by the Communists.
In addition to being beautiful, the Priory was impressively cosmopolitan and stimulating; a place where the monks would put on performances of plays, No Exit was one, and concerts in the amphitheater they had built into the hills. Two of the monks taught at local universities; one teaching phenomenology at Claremont Graduate School. Several of the others were artists; others gave retreats at the Priory and local parishes. The Priory reflected the openness to the world and familiarity with new approaches in theology and liturgy associated with the Second Vatican Council and that made the Priory a spiritual center for progressive Catholics located right next to the very conservative, Los Angeles Diocese. The monk to whom I was closest, Umberto, was my age, a novice and the son of a Hollywood family that was somehow part of the film industry. When the monks wanted to watch a film on a Saturday night, before the era of VHS or CDs, they would borrow it directly from an actor, actress or director who had their own copy and were friends of the Priory.
Father Raphael, the Prior, realizing I was interested in joining the Priory, offered that I live there while I was writing my dissertation. One of my responsibilities during the time I lived there was to use my car to drive Umberto to pick up the films, as well as to drive monks to their work in the city. As I've never had much of a knowledge of popular culture, I usually didn't know from what Hollywood insider we were getting the films. However, when the monks wanted to watch La Grande Illusion one Saturday and I went with Umberto to pick it up, I did know who Jean Renoir was. Umberto and I spent a good part of two afternoons with him, having a couple glasses of wine and chatting, surrounded by what seemed like dozens of paintings by his father and other French painters of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Renoir told me I looked Spanish, something I'd never heard before or since and said I looked like he'd always imagined Don Quixote would have looked. We tend to attribute astuteness to observations by someone of Renoir's stature even though he may have been making a very off-the-cuff remark, but it's not difficult to imagine some of the less flattering qualities he may have seen in me.
As had happened often with friends in my life, Umberto turned out to be gay and later left the Benedictines and the priesthood to live in West Hollywood with his boyfriend. I visited them and another former monk on a trip to Los Angeles in the seventies, but there weren't the same feelings of connection amongst our secular selves that we had at the Priory. It was also one of my responsibilities when I lived at the Priory to help with the gardening (as Wittgenstein did after he stopped teaching philosophy). Umberto and I were working in the garden together when Father Raphael, the Prior, came over to us, smiling in the very warm way that he had, and remarked on the fact that he often noticed us together and that we seemed to share a "particular friendship" that could be productive and rewarding. He was an Italian, had shepherded the monks through very difficult times in China and exemplified to me what I understood as a wise man. Later I learned that the phrase "une amitié particuliaire" was often used in Europe as a discrete way of referring to a gay relationship. I have no doubt that he recognized a complicity between myself and Umberto and feel some sadness that our friendship didn't bear the fruits for which he hoped. I would hate that reactionaries would consider the openness, the welcoming atmosphere of the Priory as a mistake, responsible for subsequent defections, when to my mind if the Church has any role other than as an intrangesant artifact of another era, it is precisely the spirit I found at St. Andew's and the Second Vatican Council that would take it there.
As I considered living my life as a monk, in addition to the companionship, the intellectual and artistic atmosphere of St. Andrew's Priory, other aspects of monastery life also attracted me. I liked the silence, have always preferred to wear a sort of uniform, enjoyed living a simple life with few possessions, adapted well to most aspects of institutional living and loved the routine of the daily prayers, meditation and the liturgy. Despite my recognition that there were other monks who probably shared a similar sexuality with myself and my continued ability to acknowledge same sex attractions to myself, I never felt any sexual inclination to act on those attractions and saw no reason that a vowel of chastity would present a problem for me.
As I had done throughout my life, I had a girlfriend during my time at Claremont. She lived in the same dormitory as I and was also a graduate student in philosophy. We were almost immediately attracted to each other; in fact, I found her more attractive than any woman I had ever dated. I believe I had told her, as I continued to do with close friends, that I considered myself a bisexual, but hadn't felt the need since adolescence to act on the homosexual component of my identity. However, it was my style to make that remark in a casual, off-hand way that could easily be passed over, as much by myself as the person to whom I was making the disclosure. We shared a lot: an interest in hiking, swimming, folk music, left wing politics and intellectual discussion. Our relationship involved physical intimacy from the start, but, as always for me, didn't include "going all the way". She was, however, a woman for whom I felt I had enough desire to go there. Although that might sound like a crass thing to say, all of us must live within the orientations and intensities of the desires we discover in ourselves. She was the first woman I had met whom I could honestly say that I loved and with whom I could consider building a life.
She was a committed atheist from a proud, family tradition of being non-believers, so it was natural that one of the things we often had heated discussions about was religion. She had taken a philosophy course from one of the monks of St. Andrew’s and was impressed by him. I believe it was he who invited her to the Priory for a visit and I accompanied her and introduced her to the monks I already knew. The experience of visiting St. Andrew's was her first introduction to a religious community she could respect and it awakened in her a spirituality that she didn't know she possessed. I don't remember the exact course that her own surprising conversion took, but she was baptized at the Priory roughly a year after I had been. She developed her own, independent commitment to Catholicism that emerged to be more lasting than my own and of a considerably more conservative variety.
Unfortunately, my emotional involvement with her and the process of considering becoming a monk coincided. I was very much torn between the two and for many months vascillated between them. I know that was as painful a time for her as it was for me. Just before I went to live at the Priory to write my dissertation, I had finally made up my mind to choose a religious life and we attempted to emotionally separate from each other. We both accepted that we wouldn't be spending our lives together. However, toward the end of the time I lived at the Priory, I began to feel uncomfortable with pursuing a religious vocation. I remember one particular day having a very strong intuition that were I to stay at St. Andrew's my life would essentially be over. I could see myself going to the Benedictine College in Rome, becoming a priest and monk, very much enjoying my life and work, then waking up in ten or fifteen years and feeling I'd made a mistake. Such a realization or intuition resembles responding to Wittgenstein's figure of the duck-rabbit or the drawing in many psychology texts of a figure that can be seen either as a witch or a beautiful woman. In both drawings the lines composing the figure, the objective facts at which we're looking, remain the same, but how we see the figure changes radically; now as a duck or rabbit; now as a beautiful woman or witch. It is impossible to see the figure both ways at the same time and difficult to switch back and forth between the two perceptions. In a similar way the perception of a possible life can change in a flash, while the facts that would compose that life remain the same.
It was with extreme sadness that I informed the Prior I was leaving and would try to form a life with my future wife. As I would have expected, he was disappointed, but gracious and supportive. He gave my decision his blessing. It was with more trepidation that I told my future wife of my choice. She listened with understanding and some anger at being asked to respond yet again to my vacillations. She asked that we take a few days for me to be sure that I really wanted a life with her and for her to consider whether she wanted to take that risk with me. At the end of the period of reflection we decided to get married and I have never regretted that choice. A part of me, however, continues to respond differently. I sometimes awaken from a vivid dream of walking in the desert, talking to others, while wearing a monk's habit and feeling an intense sense of happiness and serenity. I experience a deep sadness as I return to waking reality with the desire to return to a life at St. Andrew's and the realization it is not possible.