Thursday, January 15, 2009

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.

No comments: