I just completed a six-day retreat at Christ of the Desert Monastery in northern New Mexico. The monastery is located in a remote canyon along the Chama River and is accessible only by thirteen miles of winding gravel road. For six days, I disconnected completely – no cell phone service, no internet, email, news, or social media – and I put myself under the care and discipline of the monks of this Benedictine community.
Returning to civilization after these six days, I feel like a load of laundry after it’s gone through the washer and dryer. Clean and fresh. The monastery is thoroughly faithful to the ancient Benedictine tradition. The monks come into the chapel seven times a day to pray, beginning with Vigils at 4:00 am (yes, 4:00 am), and ending with Compline at 7:30 pm. Their prayers consist of beautifully sung Gregorian chant, singing the Psalms and canticles until they soak into the soul. As a singer, I loved participating in the chant with the monks, alternating from side to side of the chapel. The effect is mesmerizing and enchanting (I guess that’s where the word ‘enchantment’ comes from). No wonder it feels sacred.
I attended nearly all the services except for 4:00 am Vigils. But the last two mornings I pried myself out of bed at 3:30 and made the five minute walk down the gravel road to the chapel. My memory of that walk is crisp: the stars were glimmering in the dry desert air, the breeze was bracingly cold, and the sagebrush was pungent in my nose. For an hour we chanted the Psalms and the prayers as the eastern sky began to glow with the promise of day.
Silence is the order of the day at the monastery. Guests are asked to refrain from talking except in certain designated areas, so any guest who wishes may have a completely silent retreat. Although I felt the urge to get to know my fellow retreatants, I found it a great relief not to have to make perpetual small talk with strangers.
Without the constant bombardment of the news cycle, emails, phone calls, and texts, I found that a gentle peace slowly began to emerge within me. I noticed I was less tense, less tight, less stressed. My shoulders began to relax, my thoughts slowed down, and I became more attentive to my surroundings – the dry desert heat, the sweet smell of sage, the crunch of gravel under my shoes.
The first couple of days were a kind of decompression, as if I were unfolding after being tightly wrapped. Then the rhythms of prayer and silence began to feel natural and life-giving. The beauty of the setting, the holiness of the monks, and the peaceful atmosphere began to do their work.
To be continued…