Christ in the Desert Monastery
“What can we gain by sailing to the moon if we are not able to cross the abyss that separates us from ourselves? This is the most important of all voyages of discovery, and without it all the rest are not only useless but disastrous.”
Thomas Merton, The Wisdom of the Desert, p. 11.
The East German border guard held my passport photo beside my face and sighed, followed by a long silence. Suddenly he shouted something at me in German. I am fluent in German, but this time I was having a brain freeze. He shouted the same phrase at me two more times and the guard next to him bristled to attention. I looked at the lady guard to his right. She responded with a soft voice, “He wants to know where you are going today.”
“I have a hotel reservation in Magdeburg. Here are my reservation papers.”
She quickly gazed at the papers and returned them to me with the passport.
“Thank you. Have a nice visit to the German Democratic Republic.”
Bad cop. Good cop.
Heart pounding and with parched dry mouth, I drove the rented Mitsubishi Colt past guard towers. I could see several guards watching me leave this DDR checkpoint at Helmstedt, heading east on the autobahn toward Magdeburg.
The year is 1980. I am on a two-week study trip in Germany doing research for a magazine article contrasting the vitality of Christian spirituality in West Germany and East Germany.
I had visited Braunschweig, Germany, fifty miles west of Helmstedt to interview seminary professors and pastors about West Germany spirituality.
A Evangelical Lutheran seminary professor reported, “My experience has been that many of our students who study for ministry had as a first choice for profession to be a lawyer or university professor. They did not past the entrance requirements and chose pastor as the backup plan. It is not a bad choice. The State gives financial support to the Church through taxes. The work is not difficult and if you like to read and study, this is the place to be.”
In West Germany, there seemed to be none of the anxiety about fundraising or parish conflict that American pastors know so well. But West German State support of religion resulted in active participation of less than 3% of the population.
As I headed east on the Berlin autobahn toward Magdeburg, into the depths of Cold War Russian occupied territory, what would I find?
The first sign of the city is a massive pile of ancient stones faintly visible in the distance, the Magdeburg Cathedral. My hotel, The Internationale, was nearby. After checking in, I walked through the old town toward the majestic Elba River.
Barges loaded with coal and lumber pushed upstream, perhaps toward Dresden.
I walked toward a church a block away to my left. A surprise. Clustered outside was a group of university age students. I introduced myself as a college professor from California, needing to keep the parish priest identity under wraps. I saw a short, stocky older man walking toward us. After introductions and with my professor identity revealed, Pastor Georg Nuglish invited me into the assembly. In a large hall, several tables were pulled together to create an inclusive square of seated participants. I could see that there were over one-hundred in attendance. How strange. These young people had lived their whole lives under the atheist theology of Communism. Here they were, so many of them, at a church event. Pastor Georg told me before the meeting that this was the largest college age religious group in the DDR.
The presenter that night was a Roman Catholic priest from Karl Marx Stadt, whose topic was “the Socialist themes in the Gospel of Mark.”
“We meet every Wednesday for discussion of theology and philosophy. The students really want to be here and it is not without risk. Participation here can compromise their advancement at University.”
“So, you have to be careful about your discussion topics?” I asked.
“Yes, of course. I know there are Stasi agents or informers here. The philosophers we choose to discuss are on the margins. We do push the envelope. But I want to help them be critical thinkers. That will not happen in their university experience.”
After the presentation and discussion of the evening topic. Pastor Georg introduced me. California! Exotic.
Students gazed at me with hard, focused looks. The questions flew like barbs:
Why do Americans abuse Black people? Why is there so much racism in your country? Americans are polluting the world.
My responses did not seem to be adequate. Tough questions.
As the meeting closed, all were invited downstairs to the Bierkeller. Now this was amazing. A college age church group with their own beer cellar. I went with the group and shared the beer. That was when the real questions were asked.
What is life like in California?
Had I met the Beach Boys?
Do they still have cowboys?
Had I ever seen a movie star?
A wonderful ending to the tensions of the discussion group.
The next day I invited Pastor George and his wife Ulla for an outing. We drove to the medieval town of Tangermunde, which still had the ancient city walls and six hundred year old fachtwerk houses.
Pastor George and Ulla shared with me what life was like for them in the DDR.
“Being a pastor here is a precarious profession. The family suffers. When Ulla was in the hospital last year, they put her in an isolation ward to limit access to her. Our daughter graduated at the top of her high school this year, but she can’t go to the best university, because her father is a pastor.”
“What could happen to you if you cross the line? Would you go to prison?”
“That is unlikely. Probably they would kick me and my family out of the DDR as corrupting influences. The ones I really worry about are the students. They have a passion for our religious studies. They begin to question life as it is and if they become too critical, there could be real trouble for them. Some students have disappeared. Maybe they are in the prison at Bautzen.”
On Sunday, I attended the Gottesdienst at the church. The service was much like the Lutheran liturgies I had participated in in the West, but the building was packed. One reason was that the city had been severely damaged in WWII bombing. Few churches were rebuilt. But there was wonderful energy in the singing and presence of the parishioners.
Was spirituality stronger in Communist East Germany? There was certainly a price for discipleship, as Dietrich Bonhoeffer declared.
My observations about State support of religion and the dilution of spiritual passion in West Germany contrasted with the fervor and spiritual seeking I witnessed among East German students. I am reminded of an earlier time of State support of Christianity.
When the Roman Emperor Constantine gave Imperial endorsement of Christianity after decades of violent persecution of Christians, great church buildings and basilicas were constructed. The underground, secretive house churches were no longer necessary. Christianity could grow and thrive openly in this new world of official sanction.
But there were others who felt that this compromised the demands of life with God. The answer for them would be found in the desert.
Pachomius grew up in a pagan Egyptian family. At the age of 21 he was conscripted into the Roman Army. He was in effect a slave recruit and kept in confinement at night. He encountered Christians who visited him and others in prison and brought food and clothing. After several visits from the Christians, he asked “why do you do this?”
“We are Christians. This is what our Lord commanded us to do.”
“Tell me what it means to be a Christian.” The door to faith opened to him.
He was able to escape from the army, joined the Christians and was baptized in 314. Passionate Christians at this time were leaving the cities of Egypt, Palestine and Syria and heading out into the desert for solitude and silence, to be closer to God. In this desert Pachomius met Anthony of Egypt.
Male and female Christian hermits sought isolated wadis, arroyos, or dry washes where they dug small caves into the embankments and lived off the land. Solitude and silence were preferred. Occasionally, they would gather for a worship event.
These “Desert Fathers and Mothers” sought a life stripped away, leading to their true self, their Christ self. They wanted to be freed from their false self (who I am, what I have, what I do, and what others think of me). Much of the collected wisdom of these desert sages would be practical guidance for the journey to the true self and away from the temptations of the false self.
Pachomius believed that God told him to build shelters where the monks could live together. This was his first monastery built around c. 320 at Tabennisi, Egypt. Soon his brother John and about 100 monks had gathered there and Pachomius organized them into a more formal unit. The Rule he developed as Abba or Abbot became foundational for the Eastern Orthodox Church.
This Rule anchored their life with God and together in community. However, at the heart of their desert spirituality was discernment centered in intimate relationship with God.
St. Anthony counseled:
“Therefore, whatever you see your soul to desire according to God, do that thing, and you shall keep your heart safe.”
Verba, Number 1.
As Thomas Merton studied the wisdom of these desert fathers and mothers, he saw the hard work of detachment from ego.
“He could not retain the slightest identification with his superficial, transient, self-constructed self. He had to lose himself in the inner, hidden reality of a self that was transcendent, mysterious, half-known, and lost in Christ.”
Wisdom of the Desert, p. 7
The wisdom of these desert fathers and mothers gives guidance to us today. There is a raw simplicity that comes from their personal experience of wrestling with the false self and seeing their true self emerging from the practice of silence, solitude and prayer. Their sayings were passed on in an oral tradition and endure today because they give practical guidance to how to love God and our neighbor.
Here is an example from this tradition:
“They said of Abbot Pambo that in the very hour when he departed this life he said to the holy men who stood by him: From the time, I came to this place in the desert, and built me a cell, and dwelt here, I do not remember eating bread that was not earned by the work of my own hands, nor do I remember saying anything for which I was sorry even until this hour. And thus, I go to the Lord as one who has not even made a beginning in the service of God.”
VI, p 26, Wisdom of the Desert.
Thomas Merton, one of the most influential spiritual writers of the twentieth century, had his own desert monastic experience at the Monastery of Christ the Desert, near Santa Fe, New Mexico.
The Jemez Mountain and Sangre De Cristo ranges frame Santa Fe, enclosing a powerful desert spirit place. For over a thousand years, Pueblo Indians have encountered the sacred here, as well as more recent Spanish Catholicism. As eastern religions immigrated into America in the 1970s, Santa Fe has become a center point for world spiritualities, including Sikhism and Tibetan Buddhism. I wonder what it is about Santa Fe that has made it so fertile for spiritual exploration? My experience has been that recent residents have come here as spiritual seekers. Many seem to be people of means and college educated. It is a sophisticated population, including artists and writers.
Thomas Merton joined the Trappist Community of Gethsemane, Kentucky in the mid-1940s. He chose one of the most severe Cistercian monasteries, where silence was the rule, food and housing were spartan, and the monks worked hard at manual labor. In this vestige of medieval Christianity, Merton found freedom and creativity. His famous book, Seven Story Mountain, is his autobiography. He didn’t want to write it, but the Abbot, discerning the creative writing talent cooking within Merton, ordered him to write it. It became one of the best-selling books on spirituality.
Rather than letting the silence and solitude foster a withdrawal from the world, Merton found that these elements drew him deep into communion with God, whose inspiration ignited in Merton more passionate writing about struggles in the outer world for civil rights and nuclear disarmament. As a mystic, he found partnership in other world spiritualities. He became a serious student of Chinese philosophy and Zen Buddhism, fostering deep friendships with spiritual leaders as the Dali Lama.
For several years I have used the DVD of the film: Merton: A Film Biography, to help my world religion students at Saddleback College see how an orthodox Roman Catholic Monk could become a foundational bridge between world religions.
By the 1960s, Merton received a rare gift which was permission from the abbot to live as a hermit, living in a forest hut by himself away from communal life in the monastery. Here silence and solitude enriched his long hours in prayer and meditation. In his reading from scripture and the desert fathers, the image of the desert became an inviting companion to silence and solitude.
In his book Thoughts in Solitude, he contemplates:
“The desert Fathers believed that the wilderness had been created as supremely valuable in the eyes of God precisely because it had no value to men. The wasteland was the land that could never be wasted by men because it offered them nothing. There was nothing to attract them. There was nothing to exploit.”
“The mountain may be the most pervasive image in Merton’s journey metaphors, but the desert—-mysterious, deceptively barren, frequently foreboding—was a special and holy place for him. The desert theme resonates through his life and work—from the images in his poetry to those in his journals. There was, of course, his book The Wisdom of the Desert (1960) in which he ‘rendered’ several of the stories of the Desert Father of the fourth century.”
P 9 Thomas Merton: the Desert Call, Tobert E. Daggy (Santa Fe, New Mexico, 1993).
The problem with being a famous writer and monk meant for Merton a constant flow of friends and visitors. He received permission from the Abbot to explore another place for his hermitage.
In 1968, Merton came to the Benedictine monastery of Christ in the Desert at Abiquiu, New Mexico.
Distant View of Christ in the Desert
You have to want to come to this raw desert wilderness within the Chama River Canyon, 75 miles north of Santa Fe. Driving past Georgia O’Keefe’s home and the Ghost Ranch Center, you would turn on to Forest Road 151, a 13-mile rough dirt road off US 84. You drive through a sagebrush ocean walled in by looming rusty red cliffs. It is a breathtaking drive as the road climbs hundreds of feet about the Chama River. This is a Class I good dirt road, but when it rains, the road has the consistency of pancake batter and is impassible.
At the end of the road is the “mystical nowhere” Merton sought, Christ in the Desert Monastery.
Merton describes the scene:
“The monastic church, designed by the Japanese architect George Nakashima, fits perfectly into its setting. Stark, lonely, stately in its simplicity, it gazes out over the sparse irrigated fields into the widening valley. The tower is like a watchman looking for something or someone of whom it does not speak. The architectural masterpiece is a perfect expression, in adobe brick and plaster, of the monastic spirit.”
Woods, Shore, Desert.
I find that it takes at least one day to mentally shake off the journey and detox from the daily stimulus that caffeinates my restless life. The dry, sweet silence and solitude along with breathtaking beauty seen from every angle, desert spirit seeps into the body with a precious embrace. Every few hours, there is a chapel service with the monks, based on the 1500-year-old schedule set up by St. Benedict in his Rule. Ora et Labora. Work and prayer build a healthy monastic community. The monks chant several psalms at each service, sung antiphonally, one side sings, then the other, in a hypnotic rhythm. I listen to the readings from the Bible and the voice of God sounds like it speaks to me in the here and now of my life.
Merton arrived at Christ in the Desert, searching for a mystical “nowhere.” In the desert, he found communion with the people of the Exodus, totally dependent on God’s grace for daily survival, and with Jesus, whose temptations revealed to him his true self as God’s beloved. Merton’s restless searching brought him here.
This desert spirit place revived him as he considered what was ahead for him personally and for his monastic community in Kentucky:
“In our monasticism, we have been content to find our way to a kind of peace, a simple undisturbed thoughtful life, and this is certainly good, but is it good enough? I, for one, realize that now I need more. Not simply to be quiet, somewhat productive, to pray, to read, to cultivate leisure, live in peace, let change com quietly and invisibly on the inside…A return to genuine practice, right effort, need to push on to the great doubt. Need for the Spirit. Hang on to the clear light!
Woods, Shore, Desert.
After his last visit to Christ in the Desert, Merton traveled to San Francisco, where he was hosted by his old friend and poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti. He flew to Bangkok, Thailand, for a conference for Christian and non-Christian monks. The Communists tried to control their Buddhist monks. Merton made a presentation in which he contrasted Marxism and monasticism, contending that the philosophy of the common life doesn’t work with Marxism; it does work within monasticism. At the afternoon break, Merton took a shower to cool off from the humid weather. His body was discovered a brief time later. There has been a mystery about that death. Did someone not approve of his criticism of communism? The consensus today is that his body was found close to an electric fan. He must have touched the ungrounded fan with his wet hands and was electrocuted. He was a vocal critic of American involvement in the Viet Nam War. Ironically, his remains returned to America in a US Air Force plane along with remains of American soldiers killed in that war. Thomas Merton was buried at his Gethsemane Abbey home in Kentucky, perhaps the best-known monk of all time.
Christ in the Desert extends traditional Benedictine hospitality to visitors seeking that mystical “nowhere.” Men and women can stay in eleven rooms in the guest house for private retreats and join the monks for worship and meals. The minimum stay is two nights. You may help with “labora”, manual labor with the monks, which may include the monastery garden. The rooms are comfortable with no electricity in the guest houses. No cell phone or internet service. The water comes from the monastery well. The church bell signals meal times and prayer times. They make their own brew from hops grown in the garden. The beer is sold at Whole Foods markets.
Walking around the property reminds me very much of Mt. Calvary Episcopal Monastery that was high in the hills above Montecito, California, but was destroyed in a fire several years ago. I made many retreats there over the past fifty years. Both have extensive desert plantings and both have walks down to a river. Christ in the Desert has trails leading to the Chama River, which runs all year.
The Chapel is rich in iconography. There are large icons of St. John the Baptist, the ultimate desert saint, and St. Benedict. The Blessed Sacrament is closeted within a montage of icons. Behind the altar are huge windows which give views of high vaulted cliffs which are the protective backdrop to the monastery.
The monks at Christ in the Desert want you to know that you are invited to visit and make retreat at this special desert spirit place.
Wood, Shore, Desert, Thomas Merton (Santa Fe, NM: Museum of New Mexico Press, 1982)
The Wisdom of the Desert, Thomas Merton (New York: New Directions Publishing Corp, 1960).
The Monastery, BBC Series 2005
The Word in the Desert: Scripture and the Quest for Holiness in Early Christian Monasticism, Douglas Burton-Christie (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993)
A History of Spirituality in Santa Fe: The City of Holy Faith, Ana Pacheco (Charleston, SC: the History Press, 2016).
Christ in the Desert Monastery, https://christdesert.org/
Merton: A film Biography. (2003). DVD.
Youtube video of Christ in the Desert Monastery: