American rites across the country

Abigail, New Mexico

At the Monastery of Christ in the Desert, a remote abbey on the banks of the Chama River in northern New Mexico, about two dozen Benedictine monks begin their days in darkness.

At 3:30 a.m. on a Sunday last winter, a bell called the monks awake for night prayers. Under a clear sky full of stars, they walked silently from their cloister cells to an adobe chapel. Seated on wooden pews, the brothers, mostly in black robes, began to sing the first of the 12 psalms. They used the ancient Gregorian melody, but with English words: “Open my lips, O Lord, and my mouth will declare your praise.”

Just before 6 o’clock, the sky was still dark when the second bell rang, calling the monks to dawn prayer. Back in the church, now wearing white cowls over their habits, they chanted again. As they began Psalm 150 – “Praise God in His Holy Place” – the high windows above the sanctuary turned from black to midnight blue, marking the first hint of day.

Over the next hour the sun rose, illuminating the backdrop of the church—the 500-foot rock walls fading in a luminous gradient from red to shades of sand and cream. Save for the faint murmur of the Chama River, a sage-green tributary of the Rio Grande, the valley was silent.

The setting is carefully selected. The monastery was founded in 1964 by Rev. Aelred Wall, he and his brother monks searched the country for a “return to sources” – a place of quiet and solitude necessary for their contemplative profession. An old farmhouse for sale 75 miles northwest of Santa Fe while passing through New Mexico – 115 acres surrounding Chama, surrounded by national forest.

The adobe church of the Monastery of Christ in the Desert.

Father Val found the property at the end of a 13-mile dirt road. He sent an ecstatic letter to his friends at Mount Xavier Monastery in Elmira, NY, waxing poetic about the river valley and its “great sentinels” of colorful rocks. “Then came cathedrals in stone, some of them Romanesque, some Gothic,” he wrote.

Father Val bought the farm house. He asked his friend George Nakashima, a master woodworker and architect, to design a church.

The church was built in the shape of a Greek cross, with arms of equal length, using clay from the site. The hand-carved doors were brought from Mexico, and the bell from an old church in the northern New Mexican village of Questa. Mr. Artist Ben Shawn, a friend of Nakashima’s, provided two large stained glass windows. Georgia O’Keefe, who lived 25 miles away in Abigail, worked as an art consultant.

Set against towering cliffs, the adobe church looks otherworldly. The Cistercian monk and author Thomas Merton, who visited the monastery in 1968, once compared its bell tower to “a sentinel looking for something or someone who doesn’t speak”.

After 9 am, the mass bell rang again. About 20 visitors sat in chairs at the back of the church. Abbot Christian Leacy, dressed in purple robes, circled the altar, swinging a censer. Smoke swirled and swirled in the light as it rose.

Tabernacle in the Abbey Church.

Brother Pat in the Cloister.

Brother Chrysostom offered the rosary.

A saint read from the book of Baruch: “Put off your cloak of sorrow and distress; Wear the glory of glory that comes from God forever. The second text is from Paul’s letter to the Philippians. The Gospel comes from the third chapter of Luke, in which John calls the people of Judea to repent and be baptized and “prepare the way of the Lord.”

Abbot Christian’s text noted that the first lines of the Gospel place us in history—”the 15th year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea.” Luke, he said, we need to understand that these events actually happened. The passage also reminds us that God is often surprised. God intervenes on the margins, not through Caesar or Pontius Pilate, but through John—”a stranger, a desert dweller, eating wild honey and insects.”

Abbott ended up reading Jewish folklore from the Christian philosopher Martin Buber. A Rabbi Eisic in Krakow dreamed three times that someone was looking for treasure under a bridge in Prague. The rabbi travels to Prague, only to discover that the treasure is at home, buried under his stove.

After Mass, most monks retreat to private quarters. A raucous group from the Washington National Cathedral visited the gift shop, laden with items made by the brothers: goat-milk soap; scented candles; Gregorian Chant’s latest album, “Blessings, Peace and Harmony.”

After 11 am the bell rang again, calling the monks. As the visitors went in a caravan, sending clouds of dust into the blue sky, the brothers re-entered the church. – Abby Aguirre

Monastic cemetery near the church.

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