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American Rituals Across the Country

Abiquio, New Mexico

At the Monastery of Christ in the Desert, a remote site along the Chama River in northern New Mexico, about two dozen Benedictine monks begin their days in the dark.

At 3:30 a.m. one Sunday this past winter, a bell called the monks to night prayers. Under a clear sky full of stars, they quietly made their way from their cluster cell to the adobe chapel. Seated in a wooden pew, the brothers, mostly in black habits, began chanting the first of 12 psalms. They used the ancient Gregorian chant, but with English words: “Open my lips, O Lord, and my mouth shall declare thy praise.”

The sky was still dark when the second bell rang shortly before 6 o’clock, calling the monks to Fajr prayer, praise. Back in the chapel, now wearing their customary white cowl, they chanted again. As they began Psalm 150 – “Praise God in his sanctuary” – the high windows above the sanctuary turned from black to midnight blue, the first hint of dawn.

Over the next hour the sun rose, illuminating the chapel’s backdrop—the Mesa de las Viejas, whose 500-foot rock walls faded in a shimmering gradient from red to sand and cream. Save for the gentle rush of the Chama River, a sage-green tributary of the Rio Grande, the valley was silent.

The setting was carefully chosen. Rev. Aelred Wall, who founded the monastery in 1964, scoured the country for a place where he and his brother monks could “return to the source” — the quiet and solitude necessary for their intellectual vocation. by the. Driving through New Mexico, he heard about an old ranch house 75 miles northwest of Santa Fe — 115 acres with 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 a passionate letter to his friends at Mount Savior Monastery in Elmira, New York, waxing poetic about the river valley and its “great sentinels” of colorful rocks. “Then came the stone cathedrals, some of them Romanesque, some Gothic,” he wrote.

Father Wall bought the farmhouse. He asked his friend George Nakashima, a 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. The hand-carved doors were brought from Mexico, the bells were cast from an old church in the northern New Mexican village of Cuesta. The artist Ben Shahin, a friend of Mr. Nakashima, contributed two large stained glass windows. Georgia O’Keefe, who lived 25 miles away in Abiquiu, worked as an artistic consultant.

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

After 9 am, the bell rang again, for mass. About 20 pilgrims sat in chairs at the back of the chapel. Abbot Christian Lizzi, in purple robes, walks around the altar, swinging burning incense. The light swirled and flickered as the smoke rose.






The Tabernacle in the Abbey Church.







Brother Bede in the Cloister.







Brother Chrysostom was holding a rosary.



A monk read from the Book of Baruch: “Put off your mourning and sorrow. Put on the glory 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 the people of Judea to repent and be baptized and “prepare the way of the Lord.”

Abbot Christian humbly notes that the first lines of the Gospel place us in date – “the 15th year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea.” “Luke wants us to believe that these events really happened,” he said. This passage is also a reminder that God often surprises. God intervenes on the margins, speaking not through Caesar or Pontius Pilate, but through John—”an unknown man, living in the desert, eating wild honey and insects.”

Abbott closed by reading a Jewish folktale by the Christian philosopher Martin Buber. He tells of Isaac, a rabbi in Krakow, who dreams three times that someone suggests he find treasure under a bridge in Prague. The rabbi travels to Prague, only to discover that the treasure was at home, buried under his stove.

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

A little after 11 o’clock the bell rang again, summoning the monks. As the pilgrims left in a caravan, sending clouds of dust up into the blue sky, the brothers re-entered the chapel. – Abe Aguirre






Monastic cemetery near the chapel.



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