In my six days at Christ of the Desert Monastery, I essentially adopted the rhythms of monastic life. The monks of the monastery follow the ancient Rule of Benedict, written in the year 516 by St. Benedict, the founder of their order. The monks are quite disciplined about it. They all gather in the chapel to pray seven times a day: at 4:00 am, 5:30 am, 8:45 am, 1:00 pm, 2:00 pm, 5:50 pm, and 7:30 pm. As I joined the monks, I took on the monastic pace of life.
I counted about 33 monks. The older monks and the abbot are mostly white men who have been part of the monastery for many years. But the majority of the monks were younger men from Africa and Asia. I suppose young American males don’t value a cloistered life of celibacy and prayer, but these young immigrants do. By recruiting these prayerful young men from other parts of the world, the monastery is preserving its vitality and ensuring that it has a future. In a way it mirrors what’s happening in other parts of our country.
Meals in the monastery were eaten in silence in the refectory, a large room with beautiful timbers supporting the roof and an entire wall of life-sized saints painted by an iconographer. The tables are heavy planks stretching the length of the room, with stout chairs in the rustic Spanish colonial style. Monks eat on one side of the room facing the guests, who eat on the other side. At the main meal in the middle of the day, a monk reads from a book while others eat. I thought the reading was quite dull – a scholarly description of Carthusian monastic life.
I enjoyed eating in silence. The food was simple and plentiful, but there was no lingering after the meal. It was clear that you were supposed to finish your meal, stack your dishes in the cart, and disperse quickly. After one meal, I sat for a bit with a cup of coffee, but the monks started cleaning up around me as if I were a piece of leftover furniture!
The Benedictine Rule of Life includes time for prayer, meals, study, sleep, and labor. Mornings are set aside for work, and the monks are busy with their chores keeping up the monastery. Guests are encouraged to volunteer for work, and I was assigned to Paul, a cheerful lay Catholic who has come every summer for 35 years (!). Paul has taken on the responsibility of applying oil to all the wood surfaces exposed to the weather. He handed me a brush and a tin can half full of shingle oil and pointed me toward the gates and railings of the guest house. I worked a couple of hours each morning. It was rewarding to see the wood glow with the oil and to know that I had contributed something useful.
After lunch it was usually hot, so I went to my room and lay down. I drifted off into a nap each afternoon – after all, there was nothing on the schedule. I found these naps amazingly refreshing and restorative. I read a little and wrote in my journal, a practice that I would like to continue. In ordinary life, I don’t have time to write in my journal – or at least I tell myself I don’t have time – but it’s a good way to live a more reflective life. Writing with pen and paper slows you down and helps you collect your thoughts (I’m writing this entry in my journal and typing into my laptop later).
To be continued….