The desert is a good place to refuel, and it was with that vague objective I recently visited Christ in the Desert (CID), a Benedictine monastery deep in the high country desert of northern New Mexico.
I wanted to unplug from reality in a place without cell phones, email, internet, 24-hour news cycles, liberals/conservatives, ISIS and :60 Cialis commercials. The pace and distractions of the world had subsumed me, and I was officially run aground.
I had stumbled on CID during a business trip several years before. After reading Willa Cathers’ “Death Comes for the Archbishop” and visiting the cathedral in Santa Fe founded by the novel’s inspiration, Archbishop Jean-Baptiste Lamy, I saw a brochure for the monastery. A “vacation” there sounded remote, reasonable, and exotic. An opportunity to visit someplace foreign yet domestic, to live alongside Benedictine monks, praying and working with them. A chance to participate in their ancient world without the requisite vows of poverty, chastity and obedience.
It sounded like a good time. And what appealed to me most was the promise of silence. The Benedictine’s believe God is everywhere, but that we hear him best when we turn off the chatter of our lives and just listen.
There are few better places than the desert, and it is not without precedent. Jesus went into the desert for 40 days to pray, and the Desert Fathers (and Mothers) – early Christians who left society for hermetic existences in some of the most barren expanses on earth, followed him in the third and fourth centuries. Today, monks and religious continue to leave the comforts of the world in an attempt to get closer to God, called by some unseen voice that most of us do not hear nor understand.
I wanted to understand it better. Why do this with your life, and why here?
In terms of place, the Rev. Donald Goergen describes the transformative power of the desert:
The desert is not conducive, immediately and completely, to producing “inner peace” as are some other landscapes. Rather than turning inward, the experience of the desert is more about recognizing God’s glory in the created world than about finding the spark within. The desert experience calls forth gratitude, thanksgiving and trust, not brooding introspection. I thank God for the goodness of creation, for the glory he has decided to share with his creatures. I praise him for the gift of life, of existence, he has bestowed on me and all creation. I am grateful for his help in sustaining me in the face of all the dangers intrinsic to my contingency, my helplessness. For an age that is fascinated with subjective spiritualities of every stripe and too often seeks religion in the comfort of a “stress-free” zone, the desert is the ultimate antidote.
We may, like Jesus, meet and be tempted by the enemy in the desert. We may, like the Baptist, be forced to dine on grasshoppers and wild honey or, like Paul, discover our life’s mission in a desert encounter with God’s grace. One thing is certain, however: if we come to the desert, we will change.”
Rev. Donald Goergen, “The Desert as Reality and Symbol,” Spirituality Today, Volume 34, 1982
When I arrived at the monastery my first reaction was to flee. This is normal. Initially, the monks are otherworldly, scary caricatures. As I entered the church they were separated from the visitors and seated on the right and left sides of the altar, wearing long, black, hooded robes that looked straight out of The Hobbit.
Beginning at 4 am, seven times a day, they gather in church to sing the Psalms in Gregorian chant, read from the old and new testaments, and hear sermons dating back to the 4th century. Once a day they celebrate the Eucharist. They eat three meals a day in silence, and spend 4 hours each day (with the exception of Sunday) working in a variety of jobs on the property. The rest of their time is spent in prayer, meditation and scholarship.
The music is mostly 5th-7th century, and the Psalms are the dominant, guiding scripture. There is seemingly no end to these lamentations and cries of Israel. They are beautiful, wrenching, often violent, and difficult to understand in terms of 21st century relevance:
When you stretched out your mighty hand,
The earth swallowed them!
When Your wind blew, the sea covered them,
And they sank into the sea like lead
… And the waters swallowed (our) oppressors.
Not one of them was left
Who on earth could spend a day here, much less a lifetime? And why is everything so slow, including the reading and singing of scripture? Is everybody getting paid by the hour?
I was told that in an era where slow readers usually require remedial teaching, an epoch of speed-readers and strategic skimmers, there was a method to the madness. The pace here was painful, but their monastic technique dates back to St. Benedict in the 6th century, and probably even further back to Origen in the 3rd century who viewed “Scripture as sacrament.” The practice of Lectio Divina, “divine reading” or “reading for salvation” depending on your Latin translator, is explained simply by author Christopher Jameson:
Lectio has three key features that taken together make it a distinctive approach to reading Scripture. First of all, the text is seen as a gift to be received, not a problem to be dissected. So we read for delight and for wisdom.
Second, the Lectio tradition teaches us that in order to receive what a text has to offer we must read slowly. This brings to mind the recent “slow food” movement in Italy, where villages guarantee to visitors that there are no “fast food” outlets and that all can enjoy their meals in peace. As an antidote to speed-reading, we need to foster slow reading.
Third, this way of slowly letting the text speak to you is a way of prayer. Before reading, the Christian prays that God will speak to him through this text. When he is reading, he allows this to evolve into meditation and then into prayer. Finally, when the reading is concluded, he keeps some phrase in his heart and repeats it throughout the day. Prayerful reading becomes prayerful living.”
Christopher Jameson, “Reading between the lines” in The Tablet, 2 April 2005
For three days I did not understand this strange world, and fought it. Then something started to happen.
After an initial period of uptightness, boredom and incredulity, the constant barrage of scripture, helpful commentaries and deep, profound silence started to break me down. The pressures of the world evaporated, allowing me to make some personal assessments that were illuminating and occasionally painful.
Silence, and slowness, works.
Even the slow, monotone chanting of the Psalms started to make sense with some professional instruction:
When we pray the Psalms, even in our most personal moments and even with the most personal and private of the Psalms, we are praying in solidarity with the whole company of God’s elect community from the first moment of its formation at the call of Abraham. We are, whether we are aware of it or not, as vulnerable to history as the ancient Israelites once were, and our praying the Psalms is an admission of that vulnerability. The Psalms are not prayers set before us for our admiration or edification, as if we are required to imitate the particular attitude of a particular Psalmist at each point in his prayer. They are rather prayers of a people whose greatest single lesson is a reliance on God alone.”
Edward T Oakes, S.J. in America, March 14, 1992
And the Gregorian chanting, which seemed inexplicable, started to make some sense with more insight:
Gregorian chant – treasured, maligned, abused, synthesized, has (somehow) survived. The reasons for its tenacity are many, varied and highly speculative. Perhaps Gregorian chant survives because it is built on a firm foundation: proclamation of the word. Perhaps the melodies were divinely inspired, or crafted by a superior artist. People of all times and all places stand in need of divine providence. Perhaps Gregorian chant enables us to set aside all else and open ourselves to the grace of God.
In an age of instant breakfast, instant replays, and instant intimacy, we all may have an inclination to seek a quick spiritual fix by relaxing with a few tracks of our favorite chant CD. Yet there are no instant relationships with our neighbor or God. We should not confuse an emotional transcending of the cares and anxieties of daily living with the deep transformation that enables us to be the person God calls us to be.
Conversion, hopeful and firm growth in the virtues of faith and charity, is rarely easy and never complete. It is a perpetual cycle animated by prayer. Prayer is a gift bestowed upon those who humbly acknowledge that God is the one who initiates the covenant relationship. God invites; the disciple responds. A life of prayer is a life lived in the continuing presence and providence of God.
Gregorian chant, rooted in Jewish prayer and nourished with Christian ideals, is pure prayer. Uniting God’s word with the humblest musical elements, Gregorian chant is the star that guides our pilgrimage. Musical inventions have not depleted its wealth, nor has its brilliance faded through time. It is a star that never sets.”
D.M. Flynn, Unfailing Treasures: Gregorian Chant and Spirituality, Review for Religious, November- December 1999
Over the course of the week, things came together. Slowly, of course. And then I had a breakthrough of sorts.
It reminded me of years ago surfing for the first time. After watching surfers on television and in the movies I had always dreamed of this moment. We surfed for five hours, and after being thrashed all day I finally got up on the board, standing, once, for maybe 2-3 seconds. That was all I needed. Instantly I understood the drug that causes otherwise sound people to devote their lives to wearing cargo shorts, smoking weed and chasing waves. It was incredible and spiritual in a self-seeking way. It was also my first and only surfing experience.
Singing with the monks, I had a similar sensation, but at a much deeper and more profound level. After a full week at the monastery and some 22 hours of chanting the Psalms, I felt “it” for maybe 7 seconds.
As they sang I began to lose track of where I was, and who I was. I could feel myself gently drifting down a river of human suffering, toil and triumph 4000 years long. For a few seconds I was no longer reading from the page, just trying to keep up. I was floating in time.
Suddenly, I understood the silence and the robes. I understood the Psalms. And I have never felt closer to God.
A surprising thing happens when you speak with a caricature. The black-robed automatons chanting in their slow, controlled way quickly become human. The range and diversity of life experience they bring to their monastery, and each other, was eye opening.
At CID there are monks of every age, ethnicity and background, from all walks of life ranging from priests and plumbers to PhDs and MBAs.
Father P, for example, heard my confession. At 83, he is suffering from a variety of ailments and frequently makes the 90-minute rickety drive (each-way) to Espanola for medical treatment. A visit to the doctor is an all day affair requiring the assistance of at least one brother monk, and just getting there and back requires significant stamina and patience.
He was born in what is now North Korea, the son of an American expatriate working at a mine now part of the North Korean gulag. At five his family returned to the states, where his father died when he was in junior high, and his mother died just a year shy of his high school graduation. With a strong call to vocation after reading Thomas Merton’s Seven Story Mountain and perhaps nowhere else to call home, he entered the seminary at 18 and eventually became a Dominican priest, serving happily for many years.
In his early 40’s, he had what he termed a “mid-life” crisis.
He received permission to the leave the priesthood for a 3 year sabbatical, and was “on the run” for the next 8, a single man “doing all of the things I should have done in my 20’s and lets leave it at that.” Tired and struggling, he again turned to Merton, reading Seeds of Contemplation and returning to the priesthood, this time for 16 good years. Then, after visiting CID on vacation, he felt a strong tug and convinced his superiors to allow him to leave the Dominican order, this time to become a Benedictine monk. He has been at Christ in the Desert for the past 26 years. ”I’ve always been a monk” he said, “it just took me awhile to figure it out.”
We spoke for 2 hours before realizing we were still in the middle of my confession, and after chuckling, a quiet sweetness and seriousness came over him and he absolved me of my sins.
Brother D, a stern looking fellow initially, spent 4 years at Christ in the Desert as a young man, and then got the itch to leave. He received his law degree and practiced as a Federal defense attorney in Colorado for 20 years. Feeling unfulfilled as a lawyer, he entered the seminary and became a Catholic priest, serving in various capacities for the next 20 years – including President and COO of a small Catholic college, just recently “retiring” back to the monastery where his journey began. He was discerning whether or not to stay, and after so many years running a college joked “it remains to be seen if my ego can handle the downsizing.”
Brother D’s job during my stay was to read from Benedict’s “Rules”, and commentaries on the Rules from various authors as we ate lunch. Picture 30 monks and 8 guests, seated on long wooden tables, facing each other and eating silently as Brother D speaks from a podium. In one talk he spoke about the importance of there being no competition within the monastery for rank or privilege. Although there are jobs that require monks having decision-making “authority”, should anyone get too big for their britches the Benedictine way is to immediately remove them from their post. I asked if in practice this actually occurred, because if effective I was interested in bringing the management technique back to the mainland. “A monastery is not the moon” he said, “and we humans can and will screw up just about any good plan.” My take was that the Rules are no doubt divinely inspired – monks have been living by them for over 1500 years, but it doesn’t mean there aren’t bumps and accommodations along the way.
Finally there was Brother Q, a 20-something Kenyan who found Christ in the Desert while surfing the Internet. He had been living in a monastery in East Africa where the monks prayed together four times a day, and then left to work in the villages. He felt called to try a more contemplative community, one that was even less connected to the outside world, and a strong urge to live in a “different kind of desert.” So, like 20 somethings everywhere, he went on the Internet and found one. With community prayer 7 times a day, little outside contact and very spotty satellite Internet, he was finding northwestern New Mexico and CID to his liking. It is not uncommon, apparently, for monks untethered by parish responsibilities (as priests often are), to move about in their search for precisely where God wants them.
Brother Q plays the organ during the Divine Office or Liturgy of the Hours, in which the monks attempt to “pray without ceasing.” He diligently keeps the monks in tune and time. It is not a glamorous job – the small organ is bare bones and it’s not easy keeping 30 or so strong-willed men of varying talents and temperaments on task, but he does it with a remarkable joy. St. Benedict said everyone has a special talent, and Brother Q is clearly delighted to find his here.
It is a misnomer to think of the monks as bachelors. They are in a sense “married” because of their complete commitment to the monastery and each other. Just as the Christian marriage ideal demands a sacrificial love that requires dying to self, monks are given plenty of opportunities to die to each other living in such close quarters and sequestered from the outside world.
The Benedictine Rules, designed to keep order and harmony, have been studied and analyzed by sociologists of every political, academic and religious persuasion – because they somehow work. Monasteries are one of the few social structures that have stood the test of time. And the reason, particularly today I am told, is these are “intentional” communities based on freedom. You freely choose to live completely and unselfishly for your brother monks and God, and to obey the rules designed to keep you in harmony. If you don’t, you can leave at any time or you will be asked to leave, with one brother telling me they had about a 60% first year attrition rate.
I found the monks to be warm, engaging when engaged, deeply spiritual, often intellectual, and happy. These are not medieval throwbacks, but modern men with a profound belief in the existence of God and a yearning to dedicate their lives to a deeper relationship with Him. They are far from perfect, and monastic life can no doubt be extraordinarily difficult and dysfunctional like any human endeavor.
But there is a point to all they do, from the chanting to the robes to the solar-powered everything. They live off the grid, literally and figuratively, betting their very lives that ultimately God will provide. And so far, He has. This monastery is not a static, historic edifice to history. When you get past the exteriors it is a surprisingly contemporary, living organism with all of the laughter and tears, sickness and health, and everything in between of a full and vibrant life.
After I got comfortable and knew it wouldn’t be taken the wrong way, I spoke with Abbot W, the person in charge, and asked the “why” question.
Why walk away from society in the selfish pursuit of your own spirituality? Why not do something, create something, help your fellow man and woman, and be more “productive” with your life?
Apparently he gets this question a lot, and the defensive posture it comes from. It may be my own schoolyard psychology but perhaps I am not alone. When I am confronted with someone who appears more virtuous, successful or good looking, I find ways to diminish them which somehow makes me feel better about myself.
He’d have none of that.
As he patiently explained it, the primary business of the monastery is to pray for the world, to serve as a sign that God exists and is worth giving every moment of your life to, and to offer a quiet place for guests of any faith to refresh and regroup spiritually.
They believe the world needs prayer more than it needs a few more plumbers, PhDs, MBAs or NGOs – not to denigrate any profession, but to put it in relative terms. The scarce few who choose this life do not take away from the planet’s collective productivity in any meaningful way. They believe their prayers do help others, and that their witness is an important reminder – a signpost for the rest of us driving by at 75 miles per hour, of a living God we cannot see. They recognize that this view of a “life worth living” is one that very few will ever understand or appreciate.
The monks do not see themselves as “holy” men, and certainly no holier than you and I. If anything, their life of silence and prayer only makes their human foibles, weaknesses and sin more apparent. I was surprised to learn that even in this setting they often struggle with the mere existence of God, much less their relationship with Him. “I have good years, and bad years” one monk told me. Their life is based on humility, perseverance, community, prayer, hope and most important – a simple faith.
Their daily struggle, and willingness to share it with me, made my own more bearable. More feasible. And more hopeful. I made a promise to slow down when I got back to the world. To stop spending so much of my limited quality time on distractions that if they aren’t patently bad for me, do little good. To be more reflective. And to start listening.
I got in the car, and as I left Psalm 89 sung slowly and in unison hung in the air behind me:
Make us know the shortness of our life.
That we may know the wisdom of the heart.
A fitting epitaph, perhaps, but what a beautiful way to live.
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