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A (virtual) monastic retreat in the desert

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Jesus reportedly liked to go off to the desert to pray — and if you visit the Benedictine Monastery of Christ in the Desert near Abiquiú, N.M., you’ll certainly understand why.

 

Even though you can’t make an in-person retreat for a while, due to closures of  the monastery’s guesthouse and public facilities to prevent the spread of the new coronavirus, you can still make a virtual retreat ­– thanks to the monastery’s extensive website, with dozens of beautiful photos and a wealth of information about Benedictine spirituality and monastic life. You can also plan a future retreat, because this is definitely a place you will want to visit someday.

 

The website is much more accessible than the monastery’s physical location, in a federal wilderness area 75 miles north of Santa Fe. When you are surrounded by the spectacular red-rock outcroppings and canyons of Northern New Mexico (famously painted by artist Georgia O’Keeffe) an awareness of God’s handiwork is inescapable. In fact, you’ll find yourself praying before you even get to the monastery, as you drive into Chama Canyon on a steep and winding 13-mile dirt road high above the Chama River. As one monk noted, “Our road is our cloister wall.”

 

The scenery isn’t the monastery’s only remarkable feature.

 

You will find a thriving international community of monks of all ages, which may come as a surprise if you believe the popular wisdom that all monasteries are dying out. The monastery was founded in 1964 and remained small for many years. Many monks found their way there from India, Africa, South America and other places after discovering Christ in the Desert through the internet, where the monastery has had an impressive presence since the mid-1990s. The monks still maintain an extensive website of their own, that includes monastery news, a photo blog and a sophisticated online reservation system for their two guest houses. Along with a large gift shop that sells monk-made crafts and books, the guest houses are the monastery’s main income source, along with donations, which also can be made online.

 

When you are a guest at Christ in the Desert, you will experience true Benedictine hospitality, and that comes across even on the website.

 

“As a community of Benedictine monks, we follow St. Benedict’s rule, which asks us to treat each guest and visitor as Christ would be treated,” writes Abbot Christian Leisy in an online welcome letter. “It is, therefore, our special privilege to have all people of whatever faith or belief, ethnic or cultural background come to our beautiful canyon and find a place of silence, solitude, and peace. It is in this setting and by sharing time with this community that I believe that you can experience that wisdom of the desert, which has called so many seekers to come to a place of timeless beauty and profound realness.”

 

Guests can join the monks at all of the daily prayer services — starting with Vigils before sunrise at 4 a.m. — and experience the beautiful contemplative chanting of the psalms in the candle-lit stucco chapel, originally designed by George Nakashima, the famous Japanese-American woodworker and designer. (You can hear snippets of chanting online as well.) In the chapel, how-to booklets are provided to help newcomers get the hang of the simple musical notation of Gregorian plainchant, and after a short learning curve, there is a kind of euphoria in finding oneself able to keep pace and sing along with the monks.

 

Guests also join the monks for their main meal in the beautiful refectory (dining room), usually at midday, and for a light supper; continental breakfast is provided in a separate guest breakfast room. Retreatants can also sign up for morning work hours, where they might find themselves watering the garden or restocking books and rosaries in the gift shop. 

 

But the monks make sure there is ample time for quiet reflection, reading, hiking or just sitting outside and watching the cliff swallows gracefully glide up and down on the air currents along the walls of the canyon.

 

Until you can arrange a real retreat, it’s worth taking a virtual one — and discovering a unique and fascinating modern monastic life, in a desert right here in the United States. 

 

IF YOU GO:

 

The Monastery has closed all public facilities and put public Masses and liturgical services on hold until further notice as a precaution against the spread of COVID-19. For more information and updates, go to the monastery website at https://christdesert.org/visiting/.

 

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2020