The sky swims with stars in the high desert at four in the morning. After a thirty-minute trek off the state highway along a rutted gravel road I breathed in the sage and juniper desert air as I stepped out of the car. Located in the northwest corner of New Mexico, at the end of fourteen miles of forest service gravel-road, tucked away in a desert canyon surrounded by mesas and sage, Christ in the Desert Benedictine Monastery is what you would call remote. People warned me to avoid traveling the forest service road in the rain as it turns to slippery muck in summer flash storms. Some stretches of the road sneak precariously along cliffs above the Chama river.
Four in the morning is not my favorite time of day. Part of the monastic vow of poverty is giving up sleep in order to pray before dawn. Benedictine monks regard prayer as more important than sleep. The true "work of God", the “opus Dei”, begins at 4:15AM, a time which seems to me the absolute middle of the night, and one of most difficult hours of the 24 hour cycle of a day to pray. Benedict calls monks to begin the new day with Psalm 51:15, “O Lord, open my lips, and my mouth will declare your praise.” Most people require divine assistance to jump start their spiritual life in the middle of the night. Benedictine monks begin their work day at 4:15 in the morning, chanting the Psalms. Leaving the canopy of stars behind us, we quietly stepped into the darkened Sanctuary awaiting the beginning of the new day.
Entry into the contemplative life is like trying to catch a cat. Go directly after a “contemplative experience” and it will coyly dart away. Sit still before dawn, waiting for the sun to rise, and the contemplative life will quietly climb into your lap, lie down and begin to purr. But sitting still in silence doesn’t come naturally or easily.
A fourteen-mile driveway helps. Something about driving mile after mile of a one lane gravel road through sage fields beside ancient mesas gives you a feeling of withdrawal from society into that inner space of the soul where the river of our lives have their headwaters. Guests are invited to leave the highways of civilization, and enter by the narrow road that leads to life (Matthew 7:14).
A monk once told me the road to the monastery is seven years long. That’s the preparation period before taking final vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience. Along a cloister drive, you have a topographical reminder to let go of the busy world, and truly enter the quiet of the spiritual life. It takes a willing heart to get away from the busyness of our ordinary life, head down a cloister drive and step into sacred space of Vigils before we can slow down and truly welcome the gift of silence.