If I’ve counted correctly, this is my sixth visit to the Monastery of Christ in the Desert, a Benedictine community in northern New Mexico. I really needed this trip. On the Mary and Martha scale, I’ve felt like I’ve gone too far down the Martha path in the last year and I need a little more of what Mary found at Jesus’ feet. In the spiritual life, it is good to interrupt old habits and routines. Michael Casey calls this the “grace of discontinuity.”
I unwittingly planned my visit to coincide with Albuquerque’s annual hot air balloon festival. This meant that to rent a car I had to find one at an agency thirteen miles from the airport. And I was given the very last car in the lot, the car no one else was inclined to choose: a small and somewhat gutless economy car. I worried that it might not meet the challenge of the thirteen miles of dirt forest service road at the end of the trip. (One has to go through miles of national forest land to get to the monastery.)
There were no balloons in the air today as I traveled north as it was a “yellow flag” day. The sky was overcast, and thundershowers were a possibility. The balloon riders and balloon followers must be disappointed. There was a substantial but brief shower as I drove between Albuquerque and Santa Fe, but there were also periods of warm sun. Highway 84 took me miles past Abiquiu to the forest service road that leads into the canyon. Occasional signs along the dirt road warned “flash flood area,” but the road was still intact. I didn’t dare stop in the occasional muddy spots for fear I wouldn’t get traction in my wimpy little car to take me through them and up the next incline. But I made it safely and arrived as the sun poured its warm rays throughout the canyon.
In my first three trips to the monastery, I found that I had to experience an unsettling adjustment period. I had to reprogram myself to not think about unreturned emails or people I should have called, accept the fact that there wasn’t anything I absolutely had to do, make peace with sharing a bathroom with a few other guests, and live in a room the size of a monk’s cell, about one third the size of the rooms in a Best Western. More importantly, this thoroughly indoctrinated Protestant boy had to make peace with the unfamiliar “Catholic-ness” of liturgy I would experience.
My first scheduled activity on this trip was a contemplative sit in the Church for a half hour during what the monks call “Exposition and Eucharistic Adoration.” The monks and guests sat contemplating the sacred host in a beautiful monstrance on the altar. I practiced centering prayer. Having participated in the services of the Divine Office before, I enjoyed again joining with the monks in chanting psalms during Vespers and Compline, although some of the chant tunes are a little tricky. St. Benedict instituted seven daily prayer services to be conducted throughout the day, which he referred to as the “Work of God” (or Opus Dei).
Taking the seven-minute walk from the guest house to the church for Compline, the last service of the day, my flashlight lighting the way, I noticed thunder in the distance. During the service we heard loud peals of thunder overhead, and the heavens open up, pouring down rain in buckets. The seven minute walk back after the service was sufficient to leave me thoroughly soaked by the time I opened the door to my room.
I suspect that I will still have to make some uncomfortable adjustments tomorrow. But if it’s like my other stays here, I know I have many blessings in store.
I’ve been thinking back to my first visit to Christ in the Desert nine years ago. The trip started off with glitches at airport check-in and challenges finding my connecting flight in LA. After taking an unusually long time to acquire my rental car in Santa Fe, I headed north missing the turn-off to Interstate 84 in Española and ended up in Taos. I let the monastery guest master know that I would be arriving the next day and took a motel room there. While brushing my teeth, the sink started to gurgle and back up, the drain filling the sink with disgusting gray water with bits of green things floating in it. While I was on the phone with the front desk, the sink overflowed, spilling its disgusting contents onto the bathroom floor. After some persuasion, I convinced the desk clerk that she needed to give me another room.
The first couple of days at the monastery, during that first trip, I found it hard to follow—let alone participate—in the unfamiliar chanted liturgies. I diligently went to all the seven daily offices. I thought Vigils was a great way to start the day, even if it started at the ungodly hour of 4 a.m. Lauds (5:30 a.m.), followed immediately with Eucharist, was a different matter. I found sitting through the hour and a half of solemn chanting difficult, especially before breakfast and coffee. I couldn’t help feeling out of place as others went forward for communion. (The Catholic Church’s policy about those who can receive communion was posted on their website and printed in the guest guide.)
At some point during my second day there, I recognized my resistance to the worship experience and the obstacle it presented to appreciating what I needed to learn in the days that would follow. I acknowledged to myself that the “Catholic-ness” of the monastery was rubbing up against my good evangelical Protestant upbringing and the subtle anti-Catholic bigotry that came with it. The veneration of the Virgin, praying to saints, the overly penitential tone of some of its liturgy was difficult for me, not to mention my awareness of Catholic teaching about same-sex relationships, contraception, and the role of women in the church. As the week went on, I let my resistance go, thinking to myself, There are reasons why I’m not a Roman Catholic, but I’m here to appreciate and gain as much as I can from this experience.
By the end of my time there, I fully appreciated how simplicity and silence have great value, removing the distractions in life and making room for other things in one’s consciousness and spirit. Observing the daily office seven times a day was very conducive to being in a prayerful state of mind all day. Esther DeWaal points out that mindfulness is what the monastic life teaches us, walking through life with my hands open, my eyes open, watching and listening “to God breaking in again and again on my daily life.”
 DeWaal, E. (1989). Living with contradiction: An introduction to Benedictine spirituality. Harrisburg, PS: Morehouse, pp. 79-80.
Back to the present, the words that stood out to me in today’s mid-day service, or Sext:
V. O Lord, you love a heart that is true.
R. In my heart of hearts you teach me wisdom.
Vigils was cancelled this morning, but I did get up in time for Lauds at 5:30 a.m. Very uncharacteristic of New Mexico in October, the dawn brought dark, overcast skies and a persistent drizzle. At 11, I met Abbot Christian in the church, where we had a nice long conversation about Portland and the Cornerstone community at Trinity.
He commended me on my book (Praying with Saint Benedict) and recommended someone I should contact who could endorse and promote the book. He then invited me to follow him to the cloisters, usually off-limits for guests. Inside the monks’ compound, in the breezeway to the cloisters, he showed me “the farm.” What used to be a grassy field was now divided into a place for chickens, a small orchard, a berry patch, and a field for their sheep. Abbot Christian also invited me to check out a couple of the rooms. The room for visiting monks was simply but beautifully decorated. I reminded him that I had been in the cloisters before, once to rake leaves in the central yard and once to help him clean a room and prepare it for a new brother that was coming to join their community.
My conversations with Abbot Christian have always been enjoyable, and I walked back to the guest house feeling greatly uplifted. However, he happened to mention in passing that a few travelers were unable to get to the monastery today because of the surface conditions on the forest service road. I’m now a little apprehensive about getting to Santa Fe on Friday. Prayers during Vespers always include a prayer for travelers. (God, are you listening?)
On the way back to the guest house after Compline tonight, the moon broke through the clouds. I hope that’s a sign of clearer skies tomorrow.
Oh dear. At Lauds this morning, the canticle made reference to “flood waters.” I hope that’s not an omen. I tossed and turned in the wee hours of the morning, worried about the road and its flash flood areas and my ability to get out of here on Friday. However, the sun came through the clouds at daybreak and filled the canyon with warmth. The clouds are parting, and I’m hoping for the best.
I reported for work duty this morning after Terce. I have always enjoyed the work duties, because, in this place of silence and restraint of speech, it is always an opportunity to have an interesting conversation with a monk or another guest. I have gotten to know a few monks and met several very interesting guests from various parts of the country during these work assignments. This morning I met Don and Kathy from Nashville and enjoyed talking with them, and later, Frank from Chattanooga.
After the work session, I hiked about a mile (mile and a half?) up the road to see what condition it was in. Enough vehicles had been over it that the dirt, though still moist in places, seemed to be pretty hard-packed and firm. However, my heart just about jumped up to my throat while reading in the late afternoon. A dark cloud passed over and it started to sprinkle. Fortunately, the shower lasted only about fifteen minutes, but it again increased my anxiety of getting back to the highway safely. Words to one of the psalms we chanted tonight at Vespers were: “To you, Lord God, my eyes are turned: in you I take refuge; spare my soul!” My spiritual challenge today has been to trust God. We’ll see what happens tonight and tomorrow.
Tonight, walking back to my room after supper, the sun was low in the sky, spotlighting in rich hues the breathtaking canyon walls. I had to stop and just take it all in. How can you not sense God’s presence in the Chama Canyon? The cliffs, hundreds of feet high, create a spectacular temple. There is no question that this is a sacred place.
A doe and two fawns in the courtyard of the guest house cautiously turned to look at me as I came through the gate. It didn’t seem to bother them that I and another guest stopped to stare at them. When I went to the common room to fix myself a cup of tea, I happened upon Don and Kathy and Frank. Gathered in the little kitchen area, we struck up a long and interesting conversation about our religious upbringings, the Bible, and our current communities of faith. One of the blessings for me in coming here is meeting interesting people from other parts of the country and sharing faith stories.
Like many last day experiences I’ve had here, the beauty of the canyon and events of the evening made me emotional about leaving. When would I be back again? What part of my monastery experience will stay with me in the coming weeks and months?
I woke today anxiously checking the weather and thinking of my drive to Santa Fe, where I’d spend the night before returning the car to Albuquerque and catching my return flight to Portland. After breakfast, I picked up a little book I bought in the gift shop yesterday, All Will Be Well: 30 Days with Julian of Norwich. Since it was the 7th, I opened it to Day 7 and here’s what I read:
On one occasion, our good Lord told me:
every kind of thing will be all right.
He desires us to understand
that not only does he concern himself
with great and noble things,
but equally with small and simple things…
Julian of Norwich
After packing up my car and saying my good-byes, I said a little prayer before turning the ignition. The road wasn’t too bad. There were a couple of muddy places on narrow curves that made me a little nervous, but I successfully navigated them and breathed a sigh of relief when I reached the flat stretch that leads to the highway. Every kind of thing will be all right.