The Gratitude of Tragedy


It was a Friday morning this past November. Listening with half an ear to the morning news I overheard that wildfires had broken out once again in Southern California—my home for the past 20 years. This one started in Montecito, an exclusive community nestled next to Santa Barbara. Somehow I’ve gotten used to the reports of fires. Every year they arrive like uninvited guests but always seem to stay at a safe distance from touching my life here in Santa Monica.


Diane Sawyer called it the Tea Fire—such a civilized name for a catastrophic event. Montecito had already lost some of its magnificent homes with more predicted to burn. It seemed quite a distance from Mount Calvary, my 12-step retreat home up the canyon in Santa Barbara so I wrote it off as yet another tragedy that struck others. For a brief moment I realized that the monks might be in danger, but I went on with my day as usual.


Soon I learned I was wrong. My cell phone rang around 10:30 that morning with a number I didn’t recognize. It was from one of my fellow 12-steppers who had never called me before. “Mount Calvary was in the fire—not sure how badly it was affected. We’re waiting for more information, but we know the brothers all got out ok.”


Utter disbelief. How could this be? “The monastery is too far from Montecito,” I thought to myself. I held on to a small thread of hope for the rest of the morning as my sheltered knowledge of wildfires kept me momentarily safe from the reality of what happened. By noon the news reports confirmed it, “Mount Calvary destroyed.” That’s all the information I needed and the tears began to flow.


It was May 1995. In retrospect I’m not sure how I made it up the mountain the very first time, but I remember seeing a flyer at a meeting, asking someone about the retreat and mustering up the courage to make my first trek up the mountain. This turned out to be one of the finest decisions I ever made.


Driving up to Mount Calvary was always an adventure for the newcomer because of its remote location. Once you get to the Santa Barbara Mission, you wind your way up the mountain until you reach Gibraltar Road—apropos of such a cornerstone of recovery and healing. Mount Calvary had been home to Benedictine monks since 1947 and my fellowship has been embraced by the brothers since the late 80s with the utmost love, respect and graciousness. Capacity for retreats is thirty and there’s always been more than a 2-year waitlist illustrating the devotion so many 12 step and community groups feel for this sanctuary perched up on the mountain.


Memorial Day and Labor Day weekends quickly developed into my twice-a-year-ritual and a pillar of my recovery. It became tradition to leave behind my overly-scheduled L.A. life and retreat to this sacred space. Having participated in more than twenty retreats at Mount Calvary, I formed a more intimate connection to the 12 steps and to my comrades in recovery. As a matter of fact, it became a private weekend getaway with my Higher Power.


I feel that I grew up at the monastery and witnessed others grow up beside me. We shared meetings, stepwork, workshops, meals, hikes, movie reviews, tears, laughter and the “Great Silence”. Always a welcome opportunity to slow down, commune with Mother Nature and be embraced by the brothers and sisters of my fellowship as well as the brothers of the Benedictine order. All the while cradled on the Mount Calvary mountaintop with panoramic views of magnificent mountains and endless ocean vistas.  The retreat had such a big heart matched only by the serenity, unconditional love and warmth of the monastery and the brothers.


When CNN reported “Mount Calvary Destroyed”, the floodgates of my heart opened, yet part of my gratitude is my capacity to feel what I feel and share this with others. You see -- there was a time early in my recovery when I couldn’t cry. Now as I thaw more and more, recovery has given me back my feelings and my aliveness and Mount Calvary has been one of the midwives for this transformation.


Two weeks after the fire I made a final pilgrimage to Mount Calvary to witness the destruction of the monastery and to say goodbye to what I had known. We trespassed through the fences around the remaining ruins and attempted to say goodbye the best way we knew how. Along with the camaraderie of a few loving men who share similar histories with Mount Calvary, we paid homage to the site and then made our way down the hill to check on one of our beloved monks who had been displaced to St. Mary’s, a convent next door to the Mission. A chapter of my recovery was now over.


Grief is such a personal experience. Yet, my deeper healing comes from a communal experience of sharing the loss— keeping the love and spirit of Mount Calvary alive that resides within us and always will. Everyone grieves in their own way, but I reject the idea that I just have to get over it. That is the myth. It’s not about getting over it—it’s about learning to live with the loss—integrating this unfathomable ending into life’s experiences and folding it into the texture of my 14 years of recovery.


Mount Calvary is gone forever in its physical form, yet its vast spiritual energy will never go away as it resides within me and travels wherever I go. This is the gift. I suited up and showed up and it was there for me to receive. The future of Mount Calvary is still uncertain, but we can be sure that it will stay alive in each of us who experienced its sacred energy. Gratitude rises from the ashes.


Donations for their continued support as a monastic community are urgently needed and can be made to: Mount Calvary, P.O. Box 1296  Santa Barbara, CA 93102


Andrew Susskind, MSW is a Recovery Coach, licensed psychotherapist, and author with a private practice in Los Angeles.