Saturday, January 17, 2009

Bandelier National Monument

Archeologists believe that today's Pueblo people descended from groups of hunters and gatherers who came to northern New Mexico over 10,000 years ago. These Ancestral Pueblo People were farmers, weavers, and potters. By the mid-1200s some of the communities were made up of villages of as many as 40 rooms. The Long House at Bandelier is an 800 foot stretch of adjoing, multistoried stone homes with hand-carved caves as back rooms. The ruins at Bandelier include many homes with cave extensions, as well as kivas (round, underground caves that were the center of religious life), petroglyphs, footpaths, and the spirits of those Ancient peoples who came before today's Pueblo People. By the mid-1500s villagers had moved on, settling into new homes in villages along the Rio Grande River. Descendents of this group continue to live in several Pueblos in the region of the Frijole Valley.

Red rocks of Abiquiu

The Rio Grande River

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Thursday, January 15, 2009

The Abbot

The Abbot

The role of the Abbot is one of extreme importance. The Abbot is elected by a community of monks; he becomes not only ‘father’ but also represents Christ in their midst. The Abbot is responsible for the spiritual welfare of the Community, as well its physical well-being. This means that he is the father/patriarch of a band of brothers (and sisters if nuns are also part of the community), a businessman in charge of the financial support of the community, an administrator, a counselor, clergy, church bureaucrat, and more.

Abbot Philip at Christ of the Desert has lived the monastic life for 50 years, and been an Abbot for 30 of those years. His journey into monasticism, he believes, literally saved his life. His devotion to the men and women of the monasteries under his care is evident in his conversation. You can read his weekly homilies and bi-weekly newsletter at We were struck by his ready laugh, loving spirit, quick wit and wisdom, and family resemblance. When he spoke of his youthful rebellion and downright orneriness, we knew that under the Benedictine habit was a real human heart transformed by a lifetime of following Christ. We are so happy to be part of his family.

Other Spaces

Other Spaces at Christ of the Desert

Visitors to Christ of the Desert Monastery are invited to a place of immense quiet and spiritual formation. Its buildings are constructed of adobe covered straw bales with both their interior and exterior spaces filled with silence. You will not hear a radio, television, or any electronic noise while visiting. There are places and times for talking, enough that a person physically experiences the silence, but does not feel alienated from sound. Meals are taken in silence, but the space is filled with the voice of the reader or of music (not Chant). The guest houses are simple accommodations with little more than a bed, desk, chair, and closet; bathrooms are shared and accessed outside one’s room.

A gathering space outside the Refectory fills with monks and visitors after mass, as coffee and cookies provide a natural extension of hospitality and a chance to visit. One wall is filled with a vibrant painting of the face of Christ, it’s reds and burnished gold filling the space. Nearby are offices—the guestmaster, accountant, and more—and the large gift shop. The gift shop is filled with high quality books, music, and gift items of a religious nature; soft music and the smell of polished wood fill the air. One can visit freely here during its hours of operation; it’s a nice chance to converse with one or two of the resident monks.

Behind the closed doors are those spaces private to the monks. The kitchen and laundry rooms are large, well-appointed, and a reminder that this is a great big family with a lot of guests. A library, study tables, gathering room (a conference room without a table), recreation room, and cloistered cells provide the private space of daily life. They work in other buildings making sandals and ale, which are sold to support their community.

Church at Christ of the Desert

The Church

“In America there is no monastic foundation which has found so perfect a desert setting as that of the Chama Canyon, in New Mexico, where the small Benedictine Monastery of Christ in the Desert now stands. “ –Thomas Merton, 1968.

The Monastery emerges at the end of a 13 mile dirt road, dissolving into the rock and brush of the canyon. The buildings appear deceptively simple, in red adobe to match the red rock spires of the surrounding outcroppings. The Church, designed by Japanese architect George Nakashima, fits starkly into soaring rocks but remains the stately center of monastic life at this magnificent place. Its soaring clerestory windows capture views of light, blue sky, red rocks, and sometimes the birds circling on thermals with wind-swept wings.

A few, but precious, religious artifacts adorn the Church’s walls. Mostly, its beauty presses on you from the vaulting clerestory. Local monks had just repainted the sacristy, which holds the consecrated host, and seeks to represent the diversity of the monks living there. The fragrance of incense lingers in the air, and probably permeates the stucco of the walls. A small wood-burning stove keeps the high-desert chill at bay in the area’s cold winter months. Three of its four short wings is filled with chairs: two opposing sides seat the monks, and one side the visitors and pilgrims. A large square altar fills the central space, with lecterns at two corners and an electronic keyboard at a third. Fresh flowers, arranged by one of the Asian monks, graces the space at the altar’s front.

The Church’s front entry is made up of two large, carved doorways. These provide entry for the visitors since monks enter from their quarters at the back. Monasteries have long been places of hospitality and guests are invited to join the monks at any of their prayers, songs, or masses. Programs are provided, along with brief instructions, so that even those complete newcomers will feel at home. Traditional Gregorian Chant at this Monastery is mostly in English, but some masses were completely in Latin (with English translation on the side). The Chant is sung slowly on a single staff, which limits the variety of notes, and generally without harmony. I am told that the harmonic music one finds in some monasteries is Byzantine, but that only the older, more traditional Gregorian Chant is sung at Christ of the Desert. Interestingly, Chant continues to be written here—with specially designed computer programs.

Monastic life is ordered around the eight set times of daily prayer, beginning here at 4 a.m. with Vigils and ending at 7:30 p.m. with Compline. This schedule of prayer is called “The Divine Office” and is interspersed with times of work, study, recreation, and meals to create a designed balance. In addition to the shared, chanted prayers, monks are also expected to spend private time in personal prayer and scripture study. The lifestyle values prayer, silence, simplicity, liturgy, hospitality, community, and care for the poor. In addition to Scripture, it follows the Rules of St. Benedict, laid down in the Sixth Century.

Christ in the Desert

Christ in the Desert

What memories do I bring back from our weekend at Christ in the Desert Monastery? First, some disbelief that Alan can actually have a cousin who is Abbot of a monastery—a cloistered, silent group dedicated to prayer and the ascetic life of monks in the desert. And yet when we met Chet Lawrence, now Abbot Philip Lawrence, he was fun-loving, outgoing, laughed readily, and was so gracious and hospitable. His gray beard flowed down (although not required as a monk—he just found shaving took too much time in the wee morning hours when he arose for prayer at 3:30) and his black habit bloomed around him in generous volumes under his smiling face and above monk sandals.

For me the marked moment came during the singing of the Gloria in Sunday morning’s mass. For those minutes the combination of the beauty of melodic chant, men’s voices reverberating from adobe walls, freshened incense, the blue sky and soaring red rocks visible beyond the vaulting windows created a time unbearable except by tears. I believe God’s presence filled the room that day.

Abbot Philip showed us all through monastery, even behind those doors and beyond those signs marked Private. We saw the laundry room with its pile of black habits, the kitchen, the recreation room (a circle of hard, wood chairs), the library, the reading and computer room, as well as the cloistered cells—even taking us into his own cell. They are simple rooms, all of them, with the cells being rather small and sparse, with a bed, some space for storage, and a personal prayer kneeler. The regular monks have to go outside and down the portico for their bathroom, although the Abbot has the benefit of an attached bath and small office. We saw the hermitages where monks still live in solitude, joining the others only for mass. We saw the solar panels and the mechanicals that keep all the buildings electrified and warm. We joined the monks for lunch and dinner in their ‘refectory,’ a beautiful room with a splendid mural of iconic painting on one end and a huge abstract of stained glass on the other. Meals are taken in silence except for either music or a reader, who reads from a chosen book while all eat (right now they are reading the biography of Mother Teresa). The monks ate fast. I always eat rather slowly, a good thing because it took time to relish the simple yet wonderfully fresh and tasty meals we had. I especially liked the fresh baked bread—especially the loaf they sent home with us!

We stayed in a guest house, with a simple and comfortable room, although with a walk outside to the bathroom. The thick straw bale walls allow deep silence to cover everything. Actually silence is why many people come to the Monastery; they come there for silent retreat. Most go to the prayer times, meals, and linger talking quietly. The 25 extra seats were full for Sunday morning’s mass, but scattered for prayer times (seven prayer times, beginning at 4 a.m. and running at intervals all day until the final one about 7:30, which marks the beginning of the silent night hours). The monks balance their day with 4 hours of prayer, 4 hours of work, and then a schedule of recreation, meals, free time, and reading. It is a most regimented and disciplined schedule possible, but one that orders the lives of those given to the ascetic life.

We enjoyed the times we could visit with the men and learned a bit about them. They represent 8 countries, are considerably younger than many Benedictines, smiled easily and welcomed us graciously. Some had successful professions earlier in life; some escaped abusive families in Catholic boarding schools; some continue their earnest search for God. I still can’t help but wonder what drives them to this life in the desert.
It was a beautiful weekend and a wonderful memory. My prayers will sometimes go up for them, as they asked. I will check their website, read the newsletter, and continue to correspond occasionally with the Abbot. Perhaps, we will make our journey to the desert again someday.