Thursday, January 15, 2009

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.

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