“I tell you that a greater than the temple is here. But if you knew what it means: “I desire mercy, not sacrifice,” you would never have condemned the innocent. “- Matthew 12: 6-7
Serra Retreat House in Malibu reminds me of a ship on land. The old and elegant property (built by a woman in the 1920s as the house of her dreams, to watch her husband suddenly die before construction is complete) sits atop a narrow promontory between two steep gorges facing the sea.
The “bow” of this ship is called “the Pointe”. I couldn’t help but watch the whole weekend of my retreat on Memorial Day weekend. The view of the Pacific is the best I have ever experienced, and I have experienced a few.
The 13,000-acre Rancho Malibu, which stretches from Topanga Canyon to Port Hueneme, was given in 1804 as a government land grant. José Joaquin de Arrillaga to Jose Tapia, a soldier of the original DeAnza expedition of 1775 in Alta California. Four owners had it before the Rindge family took over in the 1890s.
When they took control of the 26-acre Serra property in 1942, the Franciscans placed a high cross at the head of the point, reminiscent of the Damiano cross that Saint Francis repaired in Assisi. Just behind the cross is a statue of Saint Junípero Serra, half of his body slaughtered by a recent vandal, his ceramic toes sticking out of a brown Franciscan hood. Ah, how we still need the repairing hands of Saint Francis!
My family has ties to Serra Retreat going back half a century. It amazes me how much the natural beauty of the place escaped me when I was 17, the last time I was in a retreat in Malibu as a high school student at Crespi Carmelite High School in Encino. A teenager in a boys’ school is interested in cigarettes, poker, and girls, not in that order. They were certainly mine.
But Serra Retreat has another best fixation for me on the other side of my 50s. My father joined a men’s retreat club at Notre-Dame de Grâce Parish in Encino every year for 20 years. Every time I walked down Malibu Canyon Road as it leaned towards the sea on our way to body surf or surf, I would glance south on the high ridge of Serra and say to myself: “Dad was there.”
Now for the first time in four decades, I came back to retrace his steps, this time to understand his faith. Did he give up when he had to deal with the mental illness of his only daughter who was going to kill herself? I said to myself during my many trips to Le Point: can I answer this one question before leaving?
As I walked through the serene lands under all manner of palm and oak trees, past red bougainvillea and pale blue plumbago, I wondered what made Aref Orfalea heading to Mount Serra. The short answer: the invitation of his neighbor Chuck O’Neill. They were close; both died young, although Chuck’s was a natural death. But what really could have led Aref to this drastic and silent suppression was disruptions, earth-shattering changes in his own life that needed some thought.
He was a manufacturer of women’s clothing; styling four seasonal lines plus the holidays was often a grueling profession. Success has never been assured. You were only as good as your last “line”. Twice he had to close his business and start over; a third time an owner he had joined as second in command was extremely offensive and he left, shaken, just before that rag store also sank. Perhaps Serra Retreat was a place he associated with a fresh start.
I understood it. Change was in the wind for our family too. Our house was for sale in Washington, DC, and I had returned to plant the flag when we returned to California, with a new post as disaster administrator. The potential for good is great, as is the risk of danger and grief. The professional life of Afref and mine needed a prayerful retreat.
Finally, my mom and dad both coped with my sister’s 10-year decline to debilitating mental illness. I think it’s safe to say that seeing your child helpless in the face of destructive and self-destructive acts is one of the most painful situations a parent can face. The meds are a little better now, but 30 years ago they weren’t helping my sister.
My own family has a special gifted son named Luke. Ninety-nine percent of the time, he’s the most amazing and loving person, with a huge memory and a huge heart. It keeps track of birthdays of family and friends, sends greetings, remembers exactly what you ordered for dinner in which restaurant in which month of which year. He faithfully goes to mass and attends it alone if I am not there, and does so, he said to a priest, “out of respect”. But sometimes her anxieties present a challenge, even if they are not even close to those of my schizophrenic sister.
While what Aref faced, I stress, was far more serious, we both followed the path of a very special child.
There were about 30 of us from various parts of Southern California at the Serra Weekend Retreat, only the second in Serra since the pandemic began in early 2020. Staff and Father Charles Smiech, Resident Priest of Serra, were almost as happy to see us as we were to be there.
We said vespers, or evening prayers, which included the “Magnificat”, the Canticle of Mary. We ended each evening with: “The Lord bless us, protect us from evil, and bring us to eternal life. Amen. ”The next morning, Saturday, our prayer was urgent:“ Lord, open my lips, and my mouth will proclaim your praise.
“The Franciscan Way” was a topic of discussion, including the centrality of Francis’ concern for the homeless from the start of his apostolate. A participant had recently seen a statue of a homeless man with holes in his hands and feet. The idea that Jesus is in every homeless person has been conveyed several times. I thought about my sister’s difficulty finding accommodation on her own; in the last chapter of her life, she returned home to Tarzana where Aref and Rose unfortunately did not drive her away.
In the discussion of compassion, I referred to the great poem by Pulitzer Prize-winning American poet James Wright (a late convert to Catholicism) titled “Saint Judas”. He begins, “When I went out to kill myself, I caught / a pack of thugs beating a man. / Running to spare his suffering, I forgot / My name, / My number, how my day started. The poems end with “Flayed without hope / I held the man for nothing in my arms.”
We consider Judas doomed (even Christ strangely said it was better not to be born), but Wright forces us to consider what might have happened in the way of Judas’ hanging and that even deep down out of his despair, could you have done something that maybe redeemed him? (Christ also said, “With God, anything is possible.”) My takeaway: Don’t abandon anyone, let alone yourself. Because God is not forsaking you.
Prayer has been recommended to our group time and time again. Common tasks such as sweeping the floor, vacuuming carpets, or watering plants can be a form of prayer. “What is it that breaks your heart?” What makes your heart beat faster? We were asked to consider these questions, and the answers would reveal where we should be heading. This is exactly where God would take us and reveal to us what role we could have in improving the world.
While contemplating Francis, the public identified him with many things: holy poverty, loving everything and everyone, peace, anger against injustice, incredible listening, ardent love, bravery, constant conversion, gentleness, altruism.
One speaker encouraged us to be alert for the good with a keen eye. Aref saw hell. God saw the good, that is, Himself, in him. “Am I ready for such a thing? I asked silently.
At Mass on Saturday afternoon, Father Charles reminded us that we had all lived a very strange and traumatic year with COVID-19, a year that has isolated us beyond any Franciscan. But we have developed a deeper appreciation and love for bird calls, for things close to home including family.
The speeches, the prayer and the natural beauty all led me deeper in my quest for the answer to my question about my father, Aref, his extraordinary trial and his faith. His footsteps seemed to be everywhere.
I felt it close to me under the Spike Cross illuminated at night for any off-road vessel to see. I imagined him walking with me in and out of a maze, in which I felt disoriented on the outskirts, but found myself closer to God in the center. I felt him with me staring out my window above the Spanish tiled roof towards the sea. I felt him kneel down as I knelt. And above all, when I extended my arms to the Pacific, I felt him kiss me.
Did he keep the faith even to face a bitter end from the one he felt most? He had been a parachutist during World War II. He leaped with faith – in the air and in life. I concluded, my eyes fixed on the infinite Pacific, that his faith held that fateful day when he could have renounced the responsibilities and the terrible demands of love. His faith was the bow of a ship sailing through night and mist. I pray to follow him.
Sunday, I walked to the car. My father came in with a shotgun, without a weapon.