DEEP IN a canyon of northern New Mexico, there is a place where hooded men in coarse tunics make their own bread, milk Nubian goats, pitch silage for their sheep, hem one another's garments, and sing centuries-old psalms. In the middle of million-starred nights these men rise from their cells and move toward a chapel made out of mud and straw. Their oil lanterns swing beside them, like tubes of arc light. In their adobe chapel, which has no pews, only pallets on a dusty floor, they kneel or sit in the lotus position in a semicircle. The light is eerie, shadowy, covenlike. The temperature on the desert floor has dropped 40 degrees. Some of the men, dim forms now, wear gloves and have stocking caps pulled down over their faces so that only noses and lips protrude. It could almost be happening in the Catacombs, and if you didn't know this was holy, you might guess it demonic. The abbot blows into a pitch pipe. He wears Acme Rough-Out cowboy boots and grins when mistakes in the singing are made.
"You have folded up my life/ like a weaver who severs the last thread," a dozen voices chant with odd dirgeful joy, warmed by faith's fleshy heat.
The name of this place is Christ in the Desert. On a cold, crystalline November weekend two years ago, I went there as a tourist and a pilgrim.
We were living in Santa Fe that fall. I was struggling to write a book and fishing for trout on weekends and, generally, trying to get closer to the bone of nature, though in truth I had no real idea of what I meant by that. Aside from my wife and dog, I had few friends, and didn't want any, either. What I wanted was some sense of living in harmony with the natural world around me. Increasingly in Washington I had begun to feel I had shut out nature, bulwarked myself against it.
In New Mexico the natural world can demand your attention as relentlessly as a child. Nature will roll at you like a boulder. You can't hide from it, you can't be cavalier about it. I have seen skies as blue as oceans turn in minutes to glowering thunderheads brawling down from Taos, the wind slamming and pushing at the side panels of your car so that you think you are going to capsize.
And at other times the sky will begin to spangle like sun-whitened gold, like a monstrance at evening benediction. In the minutes before sunset the silence seems deafening. Everything goes soft--mountains, trees, the roofs on the adobe houses. The sky goes from pinks to reds to purples, and the landscape takes on an eerie iridescent tinge, dreamlike. The mountains that rise behind Santa Fe are known as the Sangre de Christos, the Blood of Christ. That is what they must have looked like at eventide to the men who named them hundreds of years ago. Down by Albuquerque, which is not as high as Santa Fe, the mountains are called the Sandia. Sandia means "watermelon." That is the color they turn at dusk.
New Mexico is a land deep with mystery and dream. You can drive into the valleys north of Santa Fe, up by the Spanish village of Chimayo, and see rude wooden croses just stuck into the sand in the middle of nowhere. Who or what lies beneath these apparent graves? Often I have seen these homemade markers staring down at me from roadside bluffs. You just come upon them. It is startling as hell. In these same valleys, up by a place called Truchas, where some inhabitants can trace their ancestry to 17th-century Spain, live the controversial brotherhood of the Penitentes. The Penitentes are a lay religious sect whose members are said to scourge themselves, even hang themselves on crosses, at Eastertide. Their rituals can seem strange to Anglos, though the Penitentes would say it is an Anglo's inability to understand. In New Mexico, the white man is the newcomer.
Christ in the Desert lies across the Rio Grande valley from the Penitentes. The monastery is up beyond Abiquiu, which is the Spanish village where Georgia O'Keeffe, another kind of monastic, lives and paints her own legend. Someone in town that fall told us about the monastery. We could visit Christ in the Desert if we had a sturdy car, or better, a pickup truck. There were no phones, no electricity, no speech in this canyon; we would be far from the city of man. We were also warned about the drive into the canyon: a rutted forest service road full of gullies and washes and dried-up arroyos. If a storm came up, we might not get back to the highway for several days. But the Catholic Benedictine monks who lived in the canyon would accept us. They accept anyone--gentile or Jew, atheist or deep believer. It is part of their Rule. The guest at the door is always welcome. He may be Christ Himself. "I was a stranger and you took me in," it says in the scriptures.
I found out that Thomas Merton, Trappist monk (Trappists are the most austere branch of the Cistercian order), came to this canyon on a scouting mission a few months before he died in 1968. His own monastery, at Gethsemani in Kentucky, had become clogged with the curious, and he was seeking a new solitude for whatever seeds of contemplation lay left to him. But New Mexico wasn't to work out for Thomas Merton. He left Christ in the Desert and went on to Asia for a religious conference and electrocuted himself while rising from a bathtub.
Christ in the Desert. Something about the name itself seemed to fuel speculation in me. Imagine: Him actually out there, waiting, not his vicars, not his gold icons, but the Man-God Himself. If I had only faith enough and time. If one had faith enough and time, I thought, not finishing, turning my mind on other things. But what would He/She/It look like? Would there be a shimmer like a mirage? some blazing noonday devil? a shining of shook foil? That was Jesuit poet Gerard Manley Hopkins' image in "God's Grandeur." The grandeur will flame out, he wrote. It will come to a greatness, "like the ooze of oil crushed."
There were reasons, proximate and remote, why I should have been interested at all, of course. Twenty years earlier I had known my own paler version of going out into the desert. I was a seminary boy studying for the Catholic missionary priesthood then, at first in the Deep South, later in central Virginia. I had gone in a few months after my 14th birthday and come out at 21--a virgin and scared stiff. I had never met a Jew; I had never been on a date; most of my cultural heroes had "saint" affixed to their name. The book I was now trying to write, with an increasing sense of despair, concerned those seminary years--how I got in, how I got out, what became of all of us who were there. I suppose I hoped, at a minimum, that a visit to Christ in the Desert would provide some memory spurs, dislodge emotions about religious life that seemed all but dislodgable. With quiet panic, that fall I had begun to feel myself running out of imagination and money.
We drove in on a steel-blue morning. We brought along sleeping bags and food for our cocker spaniel. We were in our aged, rancid pickup, bought on a gas station lot the summer before for $675.
There were no signs at the spot where you turn off the main road. Soon a swollen brown river was winding off to our left. I wondered if there could be trout in it. Didn't look trouty. Horses had come down to drink at the bank. There were fine old cottonwoods, pinyon pines, rabbit brush. Purplish sage made the air fragrant as a walk-in humidor. I didn't feel tensed; I felt bowered, protected.
The road, if that's what it was, abruptly ended about a quarter of a mile from the monastery. I looked at the odometer. We had gone not quite 11 miles; it had taken an hour. We parked and started to hike in. I could see the main building with its sky-reaching gold cross. The chapel was cinnamon-brown, the same color as the sheer wall of rock rising behind it. The monastery seemed part of the rock, somehow, part of the canyon, as if it had sprung directly from the desert floor along with the other flora. As we got nearer, I lost sight of the place. Where did it go? It was right there in front of me a second ago. Then it came back.
No one was around, so we went into the chapel. It was one of the barest places I have ever seen. It was like walking into a tomb where the ark of someone's covenant lay. Light from a bank of huge mullioned windows overhead was lashing bars of yellow on a flat stone altar. There was a single chair for the celebrant, a lecter's stand carved from tree root. Against the brown adobe walls were clumps of dried grasses and flower stalks and simple folk carvings known as santos. The floor looked biodegradable. It was like standing on a bed of crushed gray talc.
When we came out into the fierce sunlight, the guestmaster was waiting for us. Most seminaries and monasteries have a guestmaster. He is charged with greeting the strangers at the door. I think this guestmaster's name was Brother Gregorious, though my wife thinks it was Gregory. He showed us to our quarters. Earlier we had written him a post card, announcing our hoped-for time of arrival. He was a thin, bearded, serious-looking man with a vaguely Texan accent, maybe 25 years old. He was friendly right off, but there was no small talk in him.
Our quarters were set off from the main buildings by perhaps a quarter of a mile. Our room had a wood-burning stove and two narrow beds and piles of army blankets. We would have to gather our own firewood from the canyon, the guestmaster said. He told us the work period would begin shortly. One other thing: We were expected to keep the silence. There were three other guests staying at the monastery, he informed us. One of them, I was to learn, was a buxom nun from the Midwest who looked like Hollywood's vision of the Mother Superior and would soon keep shushing our cocker when we left him alone in the cell.
For work period my wife and I were assigned to the chapel. Our principal job that first morning was overhauling two dozen oil lanterns. It wasn't just busy work. New wicks had to be put in, oil added to each bowl, every globe washed and dried. We underestimated the amount of time required for the job and toward the end found ourselves racing to finish. I broke two globes and wondered whether I'd have to eat alone.
No punishment. My wife and I ate with the monks in their convento at a great U-shaped wooden table. The meals were vegetarian--rough-grained breads, coffee with goat's milk, steamy soups made of barley and honey and whatever was left over from the day before. There was no talking at the meals. But glances and grins and non-verbal cues got exchanged as food was passed. It instantly brought back the wordless communication at the refectory table I had once known. Back then, at Holy Trinity, Ala., circa 1959, we ate like packs of wild dogs. Seconds only lasted so long at my seminary; it was survival of the fastest. To this day I still eat like the house is afire. My wife will slow me down, but in a week I'm back up to cruising speed. On Sundays in my seminary, we always got small, limp, shredded pieces of bacon in our eggs. We lived for Sundays.
At one monastery meal the food was set out buffet-style in the kitchen. I ladled out a bowl of soup into a clay pot, took some salad, broke off a gob of bread. On an opposite table were some cinnamon buns and so I went over and helped myself to one of those, too. A furry patch tickled my ear. "They're for Sunday," a bearded monk whispered. He was the cook. "Oh," I said, putting it back with a red neck and self-loathing, certain every eye in the place was on me.
I discovered there was a hermit attached to the monastery. He lived at a remove from the others and was said to show up once a day for the Eucharist. (The buxom Mother Superior had passed this on.) I kept trying to figure out which one was the hermit. The one with the Santa Claus beard and the crazy-quilt patches on the seat of his jeans, I figured.
There was another monk who had a precise English accent. You could hear it when he intoned prayers. How did he get to this place from London or Liverpool, I wondered. It seemed a journey of more than space.
The guestmaster had said we could visit the monastery's library at an assigned period each morning. I browsed through the shelves and came on a Raymond Chandler novel. There was also the Rule of St. Benedict and I opened it at random to Chapter 33, which concerned "Whether Monks Ought to Have Anything of Their Own." This is what the passage said: "This vice especially is to be cut out of the monastery by the roots. Let no one presume to give or receive anything without the abbot's leave, or to have anything as his own--anything whatever, whether book or tablets or pen or whatever it may be--since they are not permitted to have even their bodies or wills at their own disposal."
At one meal the abbot read to us from a book about Maria Martinez, the New Mexican potter. He kicked off one cowboy boot, blew his nose viciously into a blue bandanna. His reading to us was a kind of conversation. We nodded at points, laughed at others. I kept watching the abbot as though from some middle distance. It was as if there a paper-thin invisible plate between us. The abbot looked in his middle '30s. Had they elected him to his office or had he been appointed? Was it my imagination or did he seem as eager to talk to us as we to him? I remember getting this same feeling once driving through Amish farmland in Pennsylvania and coming upon a boy in a horse and buggy. The boy was wearing a broad-brimmed hat and had features as chiseled as Currier and Ives. I felt sure he wanted to stop and speak, but the horse and horseman passed by. I was struck by the abbot's seeming gregariousness, held just in check. Talk is something he gives up to get something else, I figured.
Many memory spurs came back--the feel of huddling morning cold, the noiseless and communal joy of meals, the exact tone and texture of Sunday, that holy of holies. At my own seminary two decades ago, Sunday meant 10 trips to chapel splintering our day instead of the usual eight. No riddles about celibacy were solved this weekend. These men, I suspected, would just as soon not be celibate.
I think I experienced a few wispy feelings of peace, even goodness. I almost felt holy. But there were no shinings of shook foil, no desert visions of He/She/It, no falcons swooping to meet. I kept waiting for the windhover to come to me, float into me, and maybe that was the problem. One might wait existentially for Godot, whoever he is. But God, I suspect, whoever He is, expects a seeker. The emphasis is active voice. Even if you are in the contemplative life.
I was glad to leave when it came time. Back in our rented adobe in Santa Fe, we turned on every appliance we could find. I found myself beginning to write okay again. A week or so later I met an earthy young woman who told me she had been to the monastery, too. In fact, she tries to go several times a month. She is a "monastery groupie," she said. She said it and laughed. She said she feels herself pulled toward that which she cannot have.