I just returned from a week at the Monastery of Christ in the Desert in the Northern mountains of New Mexico. The Monastery can be found at the end of a 13 mile dirt road in the middle of a national park in the Chama Canyon area - the home of painter Georgia O'Keefe. The area is a place of interest.
I visited 9 years ago and promised myself I would return every few years, but as we mark time, time marks us as well. As you enter the dirt road toward the Monastery, you are presented with a lot of western high desert. Look forward and you see color striated pinnacles that mimic the hoodoos of Zion National Park, drive through another turn of the road and there are folding hills, dot spotted with pinion pines that mother the unsteady sagebrush against the constant push of the wind. Take another moment to look up and you will see the resolute cliffs composed of red rocks as if transported from Sedona: the continuing play between the sun and clouds offer a visual scene of gratification - God's creation as a motion picture. Negotiate one more turn and you expect to find Gary Cooper riding a Palomino with six gun drawn looking for cattle rustlers, but what you will find instead are 23 Monks, dressed in black robes, praying and chanting to God.
These men have turned away from the world's conversations to dedicate their existence in total praise of God. Their days comprise living under the Rules of St. Benedict, public prayers of office that have periods ranging from 15 minutes to one hour, starting at 4am and ending at 7:30pm that involve chanting (150 Psalms a week); daily Mass; manual labor, individual prayer, and 3 meals. The Monks are self- sustaining and self-supporting : they receive no money from the Catholic church and would have to close down if the money ran out. They take a vow of silence, trying to make it "as common as talking is in the secular world." They make and sell craft items at stores in Chama and Santa Fe, provide room and board for guests like myself at $60.00 per night including meals (enough for 20 guests), accept donations, and brew beer (Monks' Ale: made with care and prayer) which I'm told is very good.. What can I say. Life's a conundrum.
The Monastery was started by three Monks from New York in 1964. The Monks now range in age from 20 to 90 years old and come from many countries. Their mission is to pray for the world and give praise to God through the chanting of the Psalms - period. My understanding is that they do not leave the Monastery to evangelize, but do so by creating "...a sanctuary where both Monks and retreatants, Christians, believers in other faiths and those with no religious beliefs at all may experience something of that peace which the world cannot give..." They do. If I was asked to describe them in one word I couldn't - it would take two: happy and content.
Usually my mind resembles the "scan" button on the car radio. Constant unrelated thoughts pinging against each other much like a cue ball in a game of pool between two teenagers after imbibing in umpteen energy drinks, that's me. So you imagine I'm not the best candidate for contemplative prayer, but the Benedictines don't go college on you. It's very basic and I only had to be in the church for one minute of chanting and praying on the first day to realize the specialness and good of it.
The first time I was there I was curious and just wanted to dope it all out, participate, then leave, but like anything else, with practice, God let's us see lower layers of ourselves. Through Him we realize there's more to us than we thought and more of Him in us than we thought. I've been back in North Carolina two days and find myself missing aspects of my visit already. They should have no worries though, there will be no "Brother Grumpy" in the future; I'm not cut out for that life ( "What, fish stew again! We had it last week!") and guess most are not either. But I take comfort in the fact that there are people in a wilderness worshiping God without interruption for a world they will never experience.
One word about the "silence" that seems to grab everyone's 'attention. There are places where you can converse with one of the Brothers if you have questions, it's no big deal. They will also readily break their vow if you need an answer on something important - they also took a vow of love that supersedes the silence. There are no creature comforts: no TV, electricity, internet, or cell phone reception. All good. I had a 5 hours layover in DFW Airport on the way back and assiduously stayed away from the hanging TVs in the terminals, I did not want to "catch up" and now that I'm home, sorry I have.
One more thing. I was there with a Methodist Minister and Presbyterian Minister last week. For a good part of the stay I was the only Catholic there. In a common area, Brother Andre asked me where I lived and I told him Raleigh, NC. He pointed out that two groups come every year from Duke Chapel and the Divinity School and mentioned their largest group was coming in April, a Southern Baptist divinity college in Waco. Point being, you don't have to be Catholic. Martin Luther is probably on his way there right now.
"Be Still and Know that I am God" Psalm 46.