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American Rituals

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Abiquiú, New Mexico

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

At 3:30 a.m. one Sunday this past winter, a bell summoned the monks to vigils, the night prayer. Under a clear sky full of stars, they made their way in silence from their cloister cells to an adobe chapel. Seated in wooden pews, the brothers, most in black habits, began chanting the first of 12 psalms. They used the ancient Gregorian melody, but with English words: “O Lord, open my lips, and my mouth shall proclaim your praise.”

The sky was still dark when a second bell rang, just before 6, calling the monks to the dawn prayer, lauds. Back in the chapel, now wearing white cowls over their habits, they chanted again. As they began Psalm 150 — “Praise God in his holy place” — the tall windows above the sanctuary turned from black to midnight blue, the first hint of daybreak.

The sun rose over the next hour, illuminating the chapel’s backdrop — the Mesa de las Viejas, whose 500-foot rock walls faded from red to shades of sand and cream in a glowing gradient. Save for the faint rush of the Chama River, a sage green tributary of the Rio Grande, the canyon was soundless.

The setting was carefully chosen. The Rev. Aelred Wall, who founded the monastery in 1964, had scoured the country for a spot where he and his brother monks could “return to the sources” — to the quiet and isolation necessary for their contemplative vocation. Passing through New Mexico, he heard about an old ranch house for sale 75 miles northwest of Santa Fe — 115 acres along the Chama, surrounded by national forest.




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

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

Father Wall bought the ranch house. He asked his friend George Nakashima, the master woodworker and architect, to design a chapel.

The chapel was built of adobe in the shape of a Greek cross, with arms of equal length, using clay from the site. Hand-carved doors were brought from Mexico, the bell from an old church in the northern New Mexican village of Questa. The artist Ben Shahn, a friend of Mr. Nakashima’s, contributed two large stained-glass windows. Georgia O’Keeffe, who lived 25 miles away, in Abiquiu, served as an artistic consultant.

Set against the towering cliffs, the adobe chapel looks otherworldly. The Cistercian monk and writer Thomas Merton, who visited the monastery in 1968, once likened its bell tower to “a watchman looking for something or someone of whom it does not speak.”

Shortly after 9 a.m., the bell rang again, for Mass. About 20 visitors settled into chairs in the back of the chapel. Abbot Christian Leisy, in purple vestments, walked around the altar, swinging a thurible of smoldering incense. Smoke swirled and billowed in the light as it rose.




The Tabernacle in the Abbey Church.



Brother Bede in the Cloister.



Brother Chrysostom held a rosary.

A monk read from the Book of Baruch: “Take off your robe of mourning and misery; put on the splendor of glory from God forever.” The second reading was from Paul’s letter to the Philippians. The Gospel was from the third chapter of Luke, in which John calls on the people of Judea to repent and be baptized and “prepare the way of the Lord.”

Abbot Christian’s homily noted that the first lines of the Gospel situated us in history — “the 15th year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea.” Luke, he said, wants us to understand that these events really happened. The passage is also a reminder that God often surprises. God intervenes on the margins, speaking not through Caesar or Pontius Pilate, but through John — “someone unknown, someone living in the desert, eating wild honey and insects.”

Abbot Christian closed by reading a Jewish folk tale from the philosopher Martin Buber. It told of a Rabbi Eisik, in Krakow, who dreams three times that someone suggests he look for treasure under a bridge in Prague. The rabbi travels to Prague, only to learn that the treasure was at home, buried under his stove.

After Mass, most of the monks retreated to private quarters. A boisterous group from the Washington National Cathedral migrated over to the gift shop and loaded up on wares made by the brothers: goat-milk soap; scented candles; their latest album of Gregorian chant, “Blessings, Peace, and Harmony.”

Shortly after 11 a.m. the bell rang again, calling the monks. As the visitors drove off in a caravan, sending dust clouds into the blue sky, the brothers filed back into the chapel. — Abby Aguirre




The Monastic Cemetery near the chapel.

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