Christ in the Desert Monastery

Tony O'Brien, A Quiet Moment, Monastery of Christ in the Desert, 1996, available in various sizes, courtesty of Verve Gallery of Photography

Tony O’Brien, A Quiet Moment, Monastery of Christ in the Desert, 1996, available in various sizes, courtesty of Verve Gallery of Photography

“I yearn for happiness, I ask for help, I want mercy and my love says, “Look at me and hear me, because I am here just for that. I am the moon and the moonlight, too. I am your flower garden and the water, too. I have come all this way, eager for you, without shoes or shawl. I want you to laugh, dissolve all your worries. To love you, to nourish you. I will bring you roses. I, too, have been covered with thorns.”

—Rumi, 13th century mystic Persian poet

By the end of last year, I was so far away from myself that my body and my head were in separate rooms. With my thoughts racing around and around the same tree, I felt deeply depressed and, alienated from the whole human species, more than once I made a public fool of myself. Limping into 2015, I just wished I could escape. Not a vacation but a retreat.

I’ve tried homemade retreats but those rarely work. Unless I’m sick, it’s been so hard to give myself permission to just stop, especially while all around me my neighbors are noisily living busy, productive lives. Books beckon to me seductively—“Enter my world!”—along with public radio shows and unexpected phone calls. I couldn’t go to a motel, either; that same weirdness factor, of being the cheese stands alone, would follow me.

But I was broken, and I needed a safe place, plus time, to heal. Then a friend suggested Christ in the Desert, a monastery deep in canyon land outside Abiquiú. It’s run by monks; silence and solitude are encouraged, she said. It’s not a guided retreat, although the monks welcome you into any part of their communal lives that calls to you.

So I booked myself (they require you stay a minimum of two days and two nights in order to really begin to let go), packed my bag and left. As I drove up through the stunningly gorgeous wilderness beyond Santa Fe, through Cuyamungue, and up past Española, I noticed I was taking deeper, longer breaths and relaxing more and more into my seat. At some point, I even turned off the radio. (“Might as well get used to the silence!” I joked to myself.) As I continued north, marveling at how long it’s been since I’d actually paid attention to the landscape, I slowed down to the speed limit—unheard of!

I’d never gone to hang out in a monastery before. I was entering the unknown. That’s usually enough, right there, to start low-grade dread churning in my stomach. But I knew I seriously needed to get my groove back. And somehow I trusted that this experience was going to do it for me, although I was a little worried about walking into a monastery trailing my self-doubts and self-loathing, try as I might to shove them back inside my coat.

But if any of my recent troubles were apparent when I got there, the monk who welcomed me, Brother Benedict, didn’t let on. With one of those lived-in-looking smiles, he described the routine and then, even though I was officially too late for lunch, he showed me into the dining room, where a few of his brethren were finishing up. Handing me a schedule, he said, “You can do some of these, all of these, or none of these. We welcome you here and just ask if you have any questions!”

My room, a small cell literally about the size of the owner’s room in “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” had a single bed built into the wall, a desk, a chair, a free-standing closet and two windows. It was comfortably humble, clean and mine. The shared women’s bathroom was just a few doors down.

According to the Guest Guidelines brochure, the key elements of the Benedictine way of life are love of one another, prayer, reading, study and manual labor. “The atmosphere most conducive to this kind of sharing,” it explains, “includes silence and some solitude. We encourage guests to take part in the common prayer, the meals and the work of the monastery.”

You wouldn’t believe what a relief silence is! No small talk! It’s amazing what people can communicate just through eye contact and a smile. I felt total solidarity with so many of the other guests, even though for the most part we didn’t talk. In your self-directed retreat, you’re free to spend hours in solitude or just part of your days. The Chama River runs right through the canyon so, this time of year, you hear Canadian snow geese loudly squabbling, as well as other birdsongs, and there are all sorts of little meditation nooks all through the gardens.

Prayers, hymns and responses, often in Latin, are mostly sung. I heard a beautifully moving sermon at the Sunday Mass, given by a priest originally from Vietnam, about an incident with a leper when he was a little boy. He and his friends would run away laughing when they saw the man walk by every day, until the day his mother caught them. She made him give the man a bag of rice and some money, looking him in the eye as he did it. Giving credit to his mother, Father Gregory likened this experience to the story of Jesus who, when approached by a leper, didn’t run but heeded the man’s request to heal him by putting his hands directly on the man’s sores. This level of compassion, the priest said, is radical. It’s being proactive, giving to another what you yourself would want, even if you think you can’t do it. We can all follow this example, he said. No matter how impossible the act, all you have to do is ask God for help and then take the first step.

With this context in mind, I headed back to my room. Feeling safe on my bed, I imagined God sitting next to me, as another brochure suggested, welcoming me home and inviting me to describe all that was troubling me, as I would with a most trusted friend. All of it—the loss of my mom, the loss in a different sense of my brother Scott, betrayal by a friend, political attacks against me and an ensuing crisis that I felt blamed for—seemed overwhelming. But it all came pouring out, along with impassioned grief, anger, loneliness. And I felt heard. The voice that responded, wise and deeply compassionate, came from inside me. I was supported, I was loved, the voice said, and I was assured that this level of love was always here for me. All I had to do was ask.

You don’t have to believe in God to make this kind of connection. This voice is the presence that Rumi sometimes describes as The Friend. Others refer to it as our Witness self. You don’t have to go to a monastery, either. If you’re more self-disciplined than I am, you can do it at home, at a sacred site, or—why not?—even in your airplane seat, pretending to be asleep. Mostly it’s a matter of giving to ourselves the focused attention to ask and be heard.

When earlier I had mentioned to one of the monks that I was worried about making mistakes during the prayer services because I wasn’t raised Catholic, he burst out laughing. “It’s all right if you make mistakes,” he said. “God doesn’t care—he’s not Catholic!” In fact, a large number of guests at Christ in the Desert aren’t Catholic; some, another monk told me, are even non-believers. And, unlike many other monasteries worldwide, this one continues to thrive. Partly, I believe, that’s because of its uniquely majestic, out-of-this-world setting. With its towering red rock cliff walls, etched by the elements over a long period of time with ancient storytelling figures, the serpentine beauty of the Chama River passing by, the wide, clear, ever-changing sky with its magnitude of stars, you can’t help but know that you belong to this Earth.

There is also exhibited here such expansive hospitality by the monks that no one could feel excluded. The food, prepared by them, is exceptional. As Saint Benedict says in his Rules for Benedictine monastery life, “Let all guests be received as Christ.” These monks at Christ in the Desert—some so young it could break your heart—are genuinely warm, joyful and the possessors of great humor. Unlike most other monasteries, it’s these monks’ chosen life path to include in their prayer and contemplation “the cursing Psalms,” those filled with passionate revenge, rancor and unbearable violence in response to life’s most inexplicable sorrows and horrors. Rather than shying away from the less attractive of our human traits—including self-loathing, doubt and doing heinous harm to others—these monks hold it all, with a profound level of empathy.

This we can also do for ourselves, following their example. Even if it seems impossible. Wherever we are, whoever we are, we each have been the moon and the moonlight, too. We too have been covered in thorns. Which makes us uniquely qualified to give this same level of empathy to ourselves. All we have to do is listen, and ask for help.


Story by Gail Snyder

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