It was a dank, chilly morning in late May in the pacific Northwest. Out in my back yard my garden struggled to survive until the warm-up of summer came, which is usually in early July. Slugs were trying to get at my lettuce and green beans, and only a few granules of iron phosphate separated them from their goal. The best part of this grey and discouraging picture is that I am not in it.
Here at the Monastery of Christ in the Desert, about 25 miles north of Abiquiu, New Mexico, it is certainly cool as I write in the morning, but there the picture changes completely. The sun is creeping up above the east rim of a canyon carved by the Chama River, if you are a uniformitarian naturalist, or lovingly made by God more recently if you are of that point of view. Inch by inch, foot by foot, the night surrenders it’s shadows and the creatures of the day begin to take over the earth and skies from their nocturnal cousins.
Through this somewhat narrow valley with it’s steep multicolored cliffs the Chama River winds, alternately serene and wild and frothy as it rolls it’s way south to join the Rio Grande near the town of Espanola, with calm sections showing ripples caused by the nearly constant wind. The coming of day brings out the swarms of tiny flies which hover in diaphanous clouds over the river, who’s only point in life seems to be to provide food for the swallows that wheel and dart over the waters, and for the trout that are teeming just beneath the surface of the water.
Tucked up against the east canyon wall is the monastery, a collection of brown buildings which houses an order of Benedictine monks. There is little that I can tell you about this order, other than that they are Catholic. I am not Catholic and so do not have any background in what these monks are all about. A superficial view shows that they are all men, as one would expect at a monastery. They all wear robes with a cowl, what we would call a “hoodie”, and they don’t talk very much. The monks have chosen to separate themselves from mainstream life with all of it’s noise and distractions, retreating into the fastness of the northern New Mexico high desert where they can devote non-distracted time to prayer, meditation, study, service and work.
The monks are a diverse group with European, African, East and South Asian and Hispanic origins. They are mostly older, as is seen throughout the Catholic priesthood, although a few younger members dot the chairs where they sit during the several masses each day and at the tables in the refectory Their routines are not visible to me, as they spend most of their time behind walls and doors through which I am not permitted to pass.
One prominent feature of the routine is quite evident to me however, and that is silence. The premise is that silence promotes or at least supports prayer, meditation and reflection. I can testify that to my overloaded 21st century senses the silence and the slow, measured rhythm of life here is like a soothing ointment placed over an angry rash. The fact of this uncommon atmosphere is almost instantly apparent. Signs advise guests that unnecessary speech is discouraged and any loud activity not related to some necessary job at the monastery should be avoided. Failure to respect this rule is grounds for being asked to leave. The monks may be kind and gentle, but they made the rules and we must all play by them or hit the road.
It takes a while to fully appreciate the difference that silence makes. Absent are the sounds and pressures that mount a sensory bombardment against us in our daily lives. The pressure to perform at work, the traffic which stands between me and where I have to be in 20 minutes, the ZZ Top song that I have heard 500 times in the last six months on the classic rock station, all are soon distant memories if thought of at all. In their place are new sensory input. Reading becomes easier as there are fewer distractions. Simply resting on a stump by the side of the river watching several gaggles of geese float by, calling to each other and answering in return, becomes enough to satisfy one’s need to be entertained. Pebbles crunching under one’s feet as the path between the guesthouse and the monastery is traversed has it’s own voice, and one can listen to it with a focus not available in the hubbub of daily life.
The “services”, if they can be called that, are completely alien to my Protestant eyes. Several times each day all who wish to may file into a chapel where a mass is held. I think that they “hold” masses, or do they “say” masses? I don’t really know. These are very formal, repetitious events in which one group of monks say or sing a verse, then another group joins or answers, then the congregation joins in. People rise, people bow, people sit down in rhythms which Catholics know and the rest of us are left to figure out. At first glance the mass seems stiff and formalistic. I wonder how anyone could derive meaning and instruction from this? Later I sense that, to me at least, the mass is something that we humans do as a worship of and to God. In it we change our focus from ourselves and what we can learn to a returning of what we already know back to God in thanksgiving. I don’t know if that is the way that a Catholic would look at it, but that is how I see it, and since I’m the center of the universe, that’s all that matters.
After the masses of Sext at 1:00 PM, and Vespers at 5:50 PM, we eat. These are among my favorite times of the day, although that is hardly significant since all times of the day here have been my favorites. I have enjoyed two day’s meals at this time and they have both been delicious. Chicken, cooked vegetables, rice, beans, salad, bread with butter and dessert on one day. Spaghetti, cooked vegetables, rice, beans, salad, bread with butter and dessert the next day, and so on. I thought the rice was because rice and beans is a very common Southwest food combination. I later learned that it was because the large number of Asian brothers felt a little more at home with the traditional rice on the table. I loved it either way. Dinner is a replay of lunch, with what didn’t get eaten brought out again and if all of something was eaten up at lunch it was replaced by something equally good. Even with my avoidance of gluten I have had nourishing and plentiful meals here. Before I came here I had visions of working in the kitchen scrubbing pots and washing plates and silver. As it turns out, the monks do all of that. I can pull a few weeds or sweep some pathways if I like, and then it is back to reading, writing, praying, walking, meditating, or napping in the sunshine and in the shade.
Walking back to my quarters one morning I followed the Chama and saw a gaggle of geese hugging the bank, feeding on the grasses and bugs that live there. A sentinel circled lazily in the middle of the river and began to honk a warning as I strode into view. The females began to swim out towards the center, one of them with some sort of river grass still dangling from her bill. Four males arose from the river and waddled in a small circle nonchalantly, keeping their eyes fixed on me but pretending not to. One of the geese, the alpha male I presume, separated himself and waddled just a little closer to me. I changed my course ever so slightly and he seemed to accept that move as proper deference, and returned to the others with his plumage fluffed up ever so dandily. I am certain that the ladies were saying “what a stud”, while the other males were pointing with their wings and saying “you the goose!”.
Nights here are far different from those back home. At home I will usually stay up until 10 PM or later, reading or watching the television, playing on the computer or writing letters. At the guesthouse there is no electricity, so when the sun goes down at about 8:30 your options are to sleep, sleep, or sleep. I do not arise for the early mass so breakfast at 7 AM is what draws me out of bed. That and the fact that I have been asleep or recumbent for 10 hours and am ready to get vertical. How different this is from home where the alarm goes off at 5:30 AM and I groan at the thought of pushing myself out of my warm bed and face the pressures and demands of my life. For the two nights past I have awoken after 1 AM to see moonlight streaming through our window so brightly that I could almost read by it. Curiously the bright moonlight does not hamper my falling asleep at all and I am very quickly returned to the deepest part of my evening rest.
I am at this point half-way through my visit to Christ in the Desert. I have no idea what sights, sounds, thoughts or revelations are yet to come. I do know that they will be quiet, measured, and significant to me in ways that can only be appreciated when we slow down, turn off the noise, and take the time that is required to fully appreciate them.