May 27th, 2017
“There, in the desert, there’s hunger, thirst, prostrations-and God. Here there’s food, wine, women-and God. Everywhere God. So, why go look for him in the desert?” – Nikos Kazantzakis, The Last Temptation of Christ
“Christ in the Desert” has been called the most remote monastery in the Western Hemisphere. It is. I have no doubt of it. The abbey is hidden in New Mexico among mountains of breath-taking beauty, and it is an absolute bitch to reach. The journey to this monastery is probably easier than a trip to Lhasa in Tibet, but it also not for the faint of heart.
The Monastery of Christ in the Desert appears to be located near the tiny New Mexican community of Abiquiu. One might get that notion from the monastery’s website. This is totally misleading. This is like saying that Milwaukee is near La Crosse. It is true that both Milwaukee and La Crosse lie within the borders of Wisconsin, just as Christ in the Desert and Abiquiu are both in New Mexico. However, that doesn’t mean that these locations are anywhere near each other, in the usual sense of the word.
The monastery uses Abiquiu as its mailing address, and for good reason. There is no post office closer than the one in Abiquiu. It is still quite a haul from Abiquiu to the monastery. First, a person needs to drive twelve miles north through the mountains along Route 84. Then the fun starts. There is U.S. Forest Service Road 151 that eventually takes the traveler to Christ in the Desert. This dirt road is thirteen miles long, winds through Carson National Forest, and it dead ends at the monastery. On a daily basis, the monastery posts the road conditions for 151 on its website. This is important information. If the road through the mountains is muddy or snow-covered, it is impossible to get to the abbey. Don’t even bother making the attempt in those conditions.
Forest Service Road 151 is not a private road. Other people, besides monks and visitors to the monastery, use the road for various reasons. The Chama River flows swiftly through a valley, and the Forest Service has set up recreational sites along the river for kayaks and canoes. There are a few ranchers in the area. So, this road gets more traffic than one would expect. It’s not necessarily busy, but it is not always empty either.
I didn’t mind the condition of the road. It was bumpy and dusty, but Karin and I traveled some other roads that were much, much worse during the course of our journeys. I wasn’t so much bothered by the steep grades and hairpin turns. I didn’t get too excited about the fact that 151 clings to the sides of cliffs without even the thought of a guardrail on the edge. I was concerned that this road had only one lane. True, there were occasional turnouts along the side, but these were few and far between. I was very worried about climbing around a steep curve and then suddenly facing an F-350 coming in the opposite direction. In that case, somebody needed to back up, and I wasn’t interested in doing that.
Karin drove the Toyota to the monastery. I drove us out when our visit was over.
Karin was amused by my nervousness.
As she went around a tight curve in second gear, she asked me, ”Are you scared? You’re holding on to that door handle pretty tight.”
“No, I’m okay.”
Karin smiled. “Don’t worry. I’m in control.”
“Focus on the road.”
“I am focusing on the road. Hey, that’s a beautiful view across the valley! Look at those mountains! We should take a picture.” The car got close to the edge of a drop off as she said this.
“Focus on the ROAD.”
Forty-five minutes later we arrived at Christ in the Desert. The car was coated with fine, red dust. There is no check in procedure at the monastery. Nobody greets you. There is simply a note telling you where your room is located. Ours was in the ranch house, just beyond the church.
The monks require that any visitors making a retreat stay for at least two nights. This seems reasonable. Why would anybody make this kind of trip and only stay overnight? We were arriving on a Friday night, so we would be spending most of the weekend at the abbey. It takes at least a two nights and a full day to appreciate the experience. We had arrived at the monastery after supper time, and the sun was setting over the tops of the surrounding mesas. It wasn’t dark, but the shadows were getting very long.
Christ in the Desert has a guesthouse and a ranch house for retreatants. Karin and I stayed in the ranch house. That house, like everything else in the monastery, is built in an adobe style. Massive walls painted a kind of reddish-tan color. Many buildings in New Mexico have that look. The thick walls of the house keep the rooms cool during the summer. The ranch house has three rooms for guests, and then another room containing a kitchenette, bathroom, and a shower. The guestrooms don’t have any of those things.
Our room had two single beds, each of them with a fluffy comforter. The beds also had extra-large pillows. The floor was made of brick with a carpet over a portion of it. There was a free standing, wooden closet for hanging clothes. There was a small desk and a comfortable chair. Of course, there was a crucifix on the wall.
The most remarkable thing in the room was a large reproduction of Rembrandt’s Return of the Prodigal Son. I didn’t get to see any of the other guest rooms, but I suspect that each one held some work of religious art. The monks have excellent taste. They have examples of religious art in most areas of the monastery: murals, icons, statues, paintings, sculptures. Everything I saw there was beautiful. Modern religious art tends to be cheesy and sentimental. For art to inspire, it needs to be a little edgy, a little mysterious. I looked at Return of the Prodigal Son several times, and I always found something new.
The monks had left guest instructions in the room for us. There were prayer times listed, and the times for meals. The instructions made it clear that we were not to interact with the monks, and to maintain a respectful distance from the other retreatants. If we had issues, we could speak with the guest master, Brother Andre. The note showed that there would the evening prayer, Compline, at 7:30 PM. We went to the church to attend the service, but the monks had some kind of meeting going, so Karin and I just went back to our room and got ready for bed.
I got up at 3:50 AM. That is when I heard the bells ring for Vigils, the earliest of the morning prayers. Karin had told me to take her along if she woke up on her own. She didn’t. So, I got up in the dark, dressed, and went outside to walk the gravel path to the chapel. I had to stop on the way.
It is difficult to express just how dark it gets at Christ in the Desert. I stepped out of the ranch house and I looked toward the sky. I have never seen so many stars. The Milky Way crossed the heavens like a ragged band of white. I could pick out a few of the constellations: Scorpio, Sagittarius, and Cassiopeia. Mostly, I was overwhelmed by the sheer number of stars, shining above me like frozen fire. After a while I had to look away again. My mind couldn’t take it all in. There was just too much to see.
I looked to my left and saw the open door of the church. The light from inside shown like a beacon. I stumbled toward the light.
The chapel is not very big. There are two sets of choir stalls facing each other. Near the entrance door are the seats for lay people. There aren’t many seats there, because usually there aren’t many lay people in attendance. The chapel is dimly lit. It seems much brighter from outside.
The monks find their seats and start chanting the psalms at 4:00 AM. The service starts with the sound of wood striking on wood. It reminds me a bit of how meditation practice begins at the Zen Center at home. The monks use Gregorian chant. They do most of it in English, but they occasionally say a prayer in Latin. The service lasts for almost an hour. The monks alternate singing the psalms. First one side chants, and then the monks on the other side of the church chant. There is a rhythm to the prayers that draws a person into them.
Karin and I went to Mass with the monks later that morning. We also celebrated with them on Sunday. They use many Latin versions of the prayers during the Mass: the Agnus Dei, the Gloria, the Sanctus. They do the Kyrie in Greek, but then it’s supposed to be in Greek. They love to use incense while they pray. Somehow, when these monks recite or sing the Latin prayers, it sounds right.
I have sometimes met Catholics who like to show the world how traditional and pious they are. They seem to have an intense nostalgia for the days before Vatican II, or for how they imagine those days must have been. These people bow and genuflect at odd times, and generally come across (at least to me) as being superficial and inauthentic. It is not like that with the Benedictine monks. It is all real. They are old school in a lot of ways, but that’s just who they are. They never have to talk about their faith; they live it. Their devotion to God is clear and clean, because it flows from the core of their being. These men seldom said a word to us. They didn’t need to do so. Their daily lives were a sermon.
Karin and I did talk with two of the monks. Brother Andre and Brother Benedict are guest masters, so they have to interact with visitors. Brother Andre is a short, compact man. He speaks in a clipped staccato that reflects his years of living on the East Coast. He’s wound tight. Brother Andre is a native of Connecticut. Brother Benedict is a tall black man with hair going grey. Brother Benedict has drooping eyelids that partially cover gentle brown eyes. He smiles slowly and broadly. He has a deep chuckle in his voice when he is amused. Brother Benedict is as relaxed as Brother Andre is hyper. They make a good team.
There must be around thirty monks at Christ in the Desert. Many of them are young. Many of them are from foreign countries. The community is multi-racial, multi-national, and dynamic. At other monasteries, the communities seem to be barely hanging in there. Christ in the Desert feels alive and growing. It would be interesting to me to find out why this group is different from the others.
The landscape around Christ in the Desert is gorgeous. The towering mesas have sheer cliffs that extend down into the river valley. The lower strata of rock are red in color. Above them are layers of yellow and grey stone. Pines cling to edges on the cliffs. During the day, the sunlight plays on the rock formations, and brings out the various hues. The Chama River flows green and peaceful down in the valley.
The land has an odd smell. I noticed it mostly in the water, but the scent is everywhere. It’s in the red dust. I can’t really describe it. It smells like flint. Maybe a little like iron. Maybe a little like blood. Maybe it’s just a desert smell. Whatever it is, it is now part of my memory of the place.
Years from now, I will forget many things. If I think back on Christ in the Desert, I will most likely remember stars and dust and prayers and blood. That’s not too bad.