It is not the kind of road you ever want to find yourself driving on in a hard rain or at night—or, if you are seriously acrophobic, at any time at all. To get to the Monastery of Christ in the Desert, you must drive about an hour north of Santa Fe, past the tiny town of Abiquiu and the places where Georgia O’Keeffe did so much of her New Mexican painting. Then you turn off the highway and head west into the Chama Canyon, creeping along for an hour or more on a rough dirt road, heavily rutted in places, extremely treacherous in bad weather, with hard turns and hair-raising drop-offs along the way.
Finally, the canyon narrows, and you begin to see impressive multicolored rock formations rising on both sides, lining the riverbed like rows of mute onlookers. Soon you can make out in the distance the monastery’s adobe tower, peering out like a periscope at the severe landscape around it. The building’s tawny earth tones make it seem entirely natural, at one with the craggy and vaguely threatening cliffs that loom behind it. It blends so fully with its surroundings that it shares in their primeval quality and offers itself as a place entirely set apart from the mundane present. As monasteries go, Christ in the Desert is very new, having been founded in 1964, but it has a sense of antiquity about it. It is an antiquity of nature and myth rather than history.
The longer you are there, as I was this summer, the more the rocky cliffs come to feel like ancient sentinels, brooding presences from a past inconceivably remote yet somehow also still living. You can imagine them as the gigantic remains of defeated primordial deities and demigods of old, like the brutal Titans of Greek mythology, semi-beings that have passed several eternities watching and waiting, with stony impassivity and geological patience, for the eon to come round when they will take things back from us, the clever upstarts, and return them to the way they once were. Or perhaps they could be taken for the remnants of Amerindian cultures that have had their time in the Chama Canyon and then moved on, leaving few traces of their former presence.
In any event, the monks at Christ in the Desert cannot help but be reminded that there are always rival metaphysics on offer in the world, and rival spirits all around them. So too have I been reminded, every time I have stayed at this deeply impressive place.
Why has the desert always played such a key role in the great religious narratives and traditions? Why have holy men and women of all persuasions been drawn to test themselves against extreme habitats and sought the peculiar peace and exhilaration—“the solace of fierce landscapes,” as Belden C. Lane has put it—that come of living in them? Partly because a rigorous landscape forces one to simplify radically and to strip away extraneous desires, all the way down to the core. Its impersonal brutality also inoculates against any easy romanticism, teaching one not to trust in the seeming benevolence and reciprocity of nature or in anything earthly that could ever mediate between one’s frail and insignificant self and the overwhelming transcendence of God.
The desert’s enormous power overwhelms all petty egotism, since no one could ever be so deluded as to think he could prevail against it alone. It releases one from captivity to a sense of self-importance. But perhaps the most easily grasped rationale for going to the desert is the same as that for fasting: In denying the body its customary comforts, one gains access to interior riches that might otherwise be invisible or undeveloped. By denying the body, one releases the soul.
The setting of Christ in the Desert also faithfully mirrors the real human condition, as Christians understand it, precisely because the desert cannot be a permanent home for human beings. It is at best an impermanent habitation, and often serves as a place of trial and intense tribulation, as in Jesus’ forty days of temptation in the wilderness, or in the spiritual battles of the Desert Fathers of the fourth century, who were in turn so great an influence upon the Rule of St. Benedict, which today orders the monastic life at Christ in the Desert in ways both profoundly spiritual and shrewdly practical.
As such, the desert embodies the pilgrim nature of Christian life: One makes the best of a hard and fallen world but puts ultimate faith in the restored and redeemed kingdom yet to come. That perhaps explains why the visitor to Christ in the Desert experiences such a powerful sense of its being a community that is waiting. As Thomas Merton wrote after a visit to Christ in the Desert, “The tower is like a watchman looking for something or someone of whom it does not speak.”
And yet the community of forty Benedictine monks at Christ in the Desert does speak of it—or rather, they sing of it, continuously in and through the entire Book of Psalms and other elements of their daily offices. They have, like those before them, come from all over the world to look for that something and someone together and to make consecrated lives amidst the peculiar solitudes and beauties of this desert. Founded in 1964 by a visionary Benedictine named Fr. Aelred Wall, who had been headmaster of Portsmouth Priory School but felt called to a more contemplative life, the monastery was intended as a place of order in a strife-ridden time, a place where one could “return to the sources” and live a radically simplified life of prayer, study, and work.
Still, there was something audacious about founding such an institution in such a challenging setting, at a time of diminishing vocations and cultural upheaval, not to mention the uncertainties being fostered by the then-ongoing Second Vatican Council. When I first visited Christ in the Desert in the late 1970s, there appeared to be only five monks in residence. Thinking in the manner that Protestant outsiders sometimes do in overestimating the solidity of Catholic institutions, I assumed that such monasteries could never lose the ecclesiastical equivalent of the mandate of heaven. It was only much later that I found out that the monastery had been struggling badly at that time and at numerous moments seemed very likely to go under.
I first came there as a vaguely seeking agnostic, drawn to this exotic place for reasons I could not possibly have explained at the time, but that seem providentially obvious in retrospect. Christ in the Desert has always had an appeal for people like that, curious seekers of various persuasions who perhaps are not able, or willing, to meet Christ anyplace else. I well remember the gruffness and suspicion with which I was received on that first visit by the monastery’s guest master, who clearly viewed me as just another drifter.
The singing of the offices was far from expert, and was accompanied only by a simple, battered classical guitar played languidly by an extremely young Latino monk whom I remember as a dead ringer for the painter Caravaggio. The beautiful chapel was unadorned except for a rude peasant crucifix and the benches on which we all sat.
Yet the large windows of the sanctuary made the light itself into a dynamic aspect of the space, and during moments of silent contemplation I looked out onto cliffs whose color and mood shifted with each passing hour. And the focus and determination of the monks seemed clear and undaunted. The spirit of the place was so powerful to me that I hardly noticed the ragtag qualities at its edges, and cared even less, for I was too busy inhabiting the archetypal.
The spirit of the monastery was not always pleasant. The silence and remoteness of the monks sometimes felt intimidating, and even cold. There was no electricity, only feeble oil lamps, so at night the darkness and silence were profound, profound enough to be disturbing, particularly when the quiet of the night would be shattered suddenly and violently by the cries of coyotes, often surprisingly close by. Staying in the monastery’s minimal guest housing, one experienced the terror and power of the coming of the night, in just the way most of humanity through most of the human past has experienced it. It was a vivid and enduring reminder of who and what we really are, in all our pathetic frailty.
Today, Christ in the Desert still lives by grace on the figurative manna that comes to it day by day. The rigors of the climate and landscape mean that it needs constant and expensive maintenance, and even the most rugged pickup truck is likely to last no more than three years. But the monastery has grown steadily in the past three decades, and its survival no longer seems to be at risk. Despite the continuing general decline in religious vocations, there is today a large waiting list of young men wishing to enter.
And the monks have shown great energy and enterprise in supporting themselves, as St. Benedict had insisted that they must, first by selling arts and crafts and CDs of their (now excellent) chanting and, more recently, by brewing for sale a Belgian-style ale and a wheat beer, named Monks’ Ale and Monks’ Wit. They live “off the grid,” generating power sufficient to their needs with what is the state’s largest array of privately owned photovoltaic equipment.
Yet all these endeavors are of secondary importance, meant to underwrite and serve the pursuit of lives tightly structured along the lines of Benedict’s Rule, divided between times of chanted common prayer in the daily offices, times of private prayer and study, and times of manual labor. For all the seeming stillness, the monks actually live extremely busy lives.
Visitors are encouraged to share in the offices and also in the work as well as the common meals, but there is a clear sense of separation, a cordon that keeps guests out of the monks’ space. For their part, the monks seem barely aware of the guests, except when an enthusiastic visitor sings too loudly during the offices or forgetfully wears shorts into the sanctuary (as I once did), either of which transgression is likely to earn him a sweet but emphatic reprimand from the guest master. Visitors must keep silence after the manner of the monks, something many seem to find very difficult. But perhaps the hardest thing of all for visitors is the increasingly rare sense of being cut off from the world, with no telephones, no cell-phone reception, no Internet, and no easy line of retreat, particularly when night falls and the difficult road becomes impassable.
Yet these difficulties are at the core of what the monastic life is and what it is for, and they are a source of the unaccustomed freedom one can experience living, if only as a temporary guest, that life. For with the strange and inhospitable magnificence of the setting in which they have taken root, Christ in the Desert and its inhabitants teach what it means to overcome the world.
Wilfred M. McClay is the SunTrust Chair of Excellence in Humanities at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga and a member of the First Things’ advisory council.