Abiquiú, New Mexico
Photograph by Justin Kaneps
Two dozen Benedictine monks start their day in darkness at the Monastery of Christ in the Desert in northern New Mexico.
One Sunday in winter, a bell rang to summon the monks for night prayers, vigils. They made their way from their cloister cells, in silence, to an adobe church under a full sky of stars. The brothers, all in black, sat down on wooden pews and began to chant the first 12 psalms. They used the ancient Gregorian melody, but with English words: “O Lord, open my lips, and my mouth shall proclaim your praise.”
When a second bell rang just before 6, the sky was still dark and the monks were called to the dawn prayer. They chanted once more in the chapel, now in white cowls. As they began Psalm 150 — “Praise God in his holy place” — the tall windows above the sanctuary turned from black to midnight blue, the first hint of daybreak.
The sun rose over the next hour, illuminating the chapel’s backdrop — the Mesa de las Viejas, whose 500-foot rock walls faded from red to shades of sand and cream in a glowing gradient. The canyon was quiet save for the slight rush of the Chama River. This is a sage-green tributary from the Rio Grande.
The setting was carefully selected. The Rev. Aelred Wall, who founded the monastery in 1964, had scoured the country for a spot where he and his brother monks could “return to the sources” — to the quiet and isolation necessary for their contemplative vocation. Passing through New Mexico, he heard about an old ranch house for sale 75 miles northwest of Santa Fe — 115 acres along the Chama, surrounded by national forest.
Father Wall located the property at 13 miles from the nearest road. He sent an ecstatic letter to his friends at the Mount Saviour Monastery in Elmira, N.Y., waxing poetic about the river valley and its “great sentinels” of colorful cliffs. “Then came the cathedrals in stone, some of them Romanesque, some of them Gothic,” he wrote.
Father Wall bought the ranch home. George Nakashima, a master woodworker, and architect, was asked by Father Wall to design a chapel.
The chapel was made of adobe and clay in the form of a Greek cross. It has arms that are equal in length. Hand-carved doors were brought in from Mexico. The bell came from an old church located in Questa in northern New Mexico. The artist Ben Shahn, a friend of Mr. Nakashima’s, contributed two large stained-glass windows. Georgia O’Keeffe, who lived 25 miles away, in Abiquiu, served as an artistic consultant.
The adobe chapel is set against towering cliffs and looks extraordinary. The Cistercian monk and writer Thomas Merton, who visited the monastery in 1968, once likened its bell tower to “a watchman looking for something or someone of whom it does not speak.”
Soon after 9 a.m. the bell rang for Mass again. Around 20 people settled in chairs at the back of chapel. Purple vested Abbot Christian Leisy moved around the altar swinging a thurible filled with smoldering incense. As the sun rose, smoke swirled and billowed in its light.
A monk read from the Book of Baruch: “Take off your robe of mourning and misery; put on the splendor of glory from God forever.” The second reading was from Paul’s letter to the Philippians. The Gospel was from the third chapter of Luke, in which John calls on the people of Judea to repent and be baptized and “prepare the way of the Lord.”
Abbot Christian’s homily noted that the first lines of the Gospel situated us in history — “the 15th year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea.” Luke, he said, wants us to understand that these events really happened. This passage also reminds us that God surprises us often. God intervenes on the margins, speaking not through Caesar or Pontius Pilate, but through John — “someone unknown, someone living in the desert, eating wild honey and insects.”
Abbot Christian ended his talk by reading a Jewish folk story from Martin Buber. It was about a Rabbi Eisik from Krakow, who has three dreams and someone suggests that he search for treasure under the bridge in Prague. The Rabbi travels to Prague to find the treasure, which was buried under his stove at home.
The monks returned to their homes after Mass. A boisterous group from the Washington National Cathedral migrated over to the gift shop and loaded up on wares made by the brothers: goat-milk soap; scented candles; their latest album of Gregorian chant, “Blessings, Peace, and Harmony.”
Soon after 11 a.m., the bell rang again calling the monks. The caravan of visitors left the chapel, sending dust clouds in the sky. — Abby Aguirre
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