Monks and Mediation: What some Benedictines taught me about conflict

Chapel steeple, Monastery of Christ in the DesertSeventy-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.

Father Aelred (left), Father Basil, and Father Placid en route to the Chama Canyon, circa 1964.

This piece originally appeared September 4, 2014 at

Chuck It/Love It: #1

IMG_1206As anyone knows who’s been around Church for more than twelve minutes, the whole thing is a seriously mixed bag. I’ve been a pastor for twenty-seven years and every week I have two alternating thoughts:

This is the best life imaginable!
Could I make it as a barista?

This I know for sure: Every church on the planet includes some of the pettiest, crabbiest, gossipiest people who ever drew a breath. And every church on the planet includes people whose faith and generosity and down-to-the-bone kindness make God, I’m sure, want to go galloping Gangnam style up and down the golden streets.

So in honor of this crazy duality and in acknowledgment of my ongoing, simultaneous desire to chuck the church off the top of Sears Tower and plant a big, sloppy kiss on its beautiful, pimply forehead—I offer today the first installment in the Chuck It/Love It series.

Entries are from my journal and span twenty years and three churches in California, Texas and Georgia. Names and identifying details have been tweaked.

Today somebody slipped a copy of Sunday’s worship guide under my office door, covered in notes made with a red pen:
You need to tell the teenagers not to talk during the offertory.
Too many announcements today. 
The chandeliers need dusting.
The benediction was four minutes late.

No signature. Just, “A concerned church member.” 

The next sound you hear will be me banging my head against the nearest tree.

On the other hand . . .

Last night a woman in our congregation, Lydia, graduated from Hope House after completing her residential treatment program for alcohol addiction. I was thrilled and honored to be invited to the celebration, which basically consisted of an A. A. meeting followed by cake and punch.

There were maybe twenty people there. No one was smoking but there was a thick smell of smoke in the air. The woman in front of me clutched a package of Pall Malls as if it were a life preserver. She’s been at Hope House two weeks.

As the honored graduate, Lydia got to lead the meeting.
Hi, I’m Lydia and I’m an addict.
Hi, Lydia!

So this is an A. A. meeting, she said. But mostly I want it to be a gratitude meeting. Would anyone like to share some things they’re grateful for?

A young woman named Moira described what a calming presence Lydia’s been in her life. I told Lydia how grateful I am that she’s part of our church and that she’s a gift to all of us. D’Shauna, who has a gazillion piercings, including a pencil-size spike through her chin, announced that Lydia’s pep talks have pulled her back from the brink more than once.

Then Kari stood up, who’s also at our church and one of my favorite people on earth.
Hi, I’m Kari and I’m an addict.
Hi, Kari!

She said how much she loves Lydia’s courage and kindness and amazing hugs. Then Kari, an avid runner, said:  “I was jogging over the freeway overpass this morning. And as I did I thought of how, not that long ago, I used to want to jump off that overpass. And now, thanks to my Higher Power and my church family, that’s the farthest thing from my mind.”

I love Church.

And here in dust and dirt, O here
The lilies of His love appear.

~ Henry Vaughan