Seventy-five miles north of Santa Fe there’s a high desert canyon so ancient, so primordial, I half-expected to see pterodactyls in the sky instead of hawks as I steered my rental car along 13 miles of single-lane dirt road. The road runs along the Chama River where elk graze along the banks, and beavers big as bear cubs drag sticks from the woods to their dams in the greenish water.
At the end of the road is the Monastery of Christ in the Desert, where some 25 Benedictine monks from a dozen countries around the world share their lives with one another, and with the guests who come throughout the year to pray and work alongside them. Hospitality is embedded deep in Benedictine practice.
The robed, sandal-shod brothers gather in a beautiful adobe chapel seven times a day for prayer, starting with Vigils at 4:00 a.m. and ending with Compline each evening at 7:30. They pray the Psalms, all 150, over the course of each week, then start over again. They sing all the psalms, even the “cursing” ones that call down the whole gamut of affliction on the heads of the psalmist’s enemies. I can report that Happy is the one who takes your babies and smashes them against the rocks feels perhaps a wee bit less appalling when set to Gregorian Chant.
The monks not only pray; they also labor four hours a day and invite their guests to join them. My assignment the first day was pulling weeds in the cemetery with Brother Will from Atlanta and hauling rocks in a wheelbarrow with Brother John Baptist from Malawi. Other guests worked in the hops field. The monks brew and sell their own beer, called Monk’s Ale. “Brewed with care and prayer” it says on the label.
Trouble in the Canyon
I came to the Monsatery a week before their 50th anniversary celebration. In the gift shop I bought a history of the community, commissioned for the occasion. The monastery got its start in 1964 when an intrepid Benedictine monk named Father Aelred from Rhode Island stumbled upon the remote canyon by happenstance and was hooked. He and two close monk buddies from New York set up three tiny tents on the banks of the Chama and made a go of it. In the face of blizzards, floods, land disputes, wild animals and near-fatal injuries, they carved out a primitive observance of monastic life in the tradition of John the Baptist.
Fast-forward eight years to 1972. The monastery has grown! From three monks to four.
However, relationships between them have deteriorated to the point that Father Aelred and his one-time best friend, Father Gregory, are no longer speaking. They communicate now with each other only through notes passed to the other two monks. Things continue to go downhill until one day Father Aelred asks the groundskeeper to drive him to Santa Fe. Without a word to his three brothers he catches a bus out of town. They never see him again.
Ain’t for the Chickenhearted
I talked with Brother Andre, a spunky monk from Connecticut, about this. “For crying out loud,” I said “All you guys do is pray and seek God. How did things get so sideways?”
Brother Andre just grinned and said, “Yeah, well…”
Then he told me about a monastery in the Midwest where the brothers were in revolt against the abbot. “They said they’d rather see the monastery close than work with him,” he said. “They had to bring in a mediator.”
“Geez,” I said. “I’m torn between despair for the Church in general, and relief over the size of our occasional flair-ups back home.” Brother Andre grinned again, the skin around his eyes going all crinkly. Then he summed it up for me in a pronouncement worthy of a bumper sticker: “Sister,” he said, “Christian community ain’t for the chickenhearted.”
There’s a grace note at the end of this jangling story. Because the Spirit of God works just fine in spite of human silliness, the Monastery is a beautiful, thriving community today. I’m sure squabbles still flare up over this or that. But love pings around the place like a pinball and bounces off the red canyon walls.
And every night, as the monks wrap up their prayers, their liturgy includes mention of “our beloved founder, Father Aelred,” making no reference to his defection forty years ago. Instead, they bless his memory and thank God for all the gifts that have come since.
Father Aelred (left), Father Basil, and Father Placid en route to the Chama Canyon, circa 1964.
This piece originally appeared September 4, 2014 at http://www.abpnews.com.