Monks aren’t the ones living in silence and solitude. We are.

Photo by charlotte on Unsplash

Monks. What do they do all day long? Why would anyone pursue such a solitary existence? How do they get through that every day?

The assumption for some of us in the “real” world is that monks do not really do anything. We quickly qualify, so as not to judge these holy people so harshly, by acknowledging that, sure, they pray a lot and do their chores and make their fruitcakes (or whatever) in the comfort of their cloisters. But I wanted to see for myself. So I recruited my sister and flew across the country to spend three days at Christ in the Desert, a Benedictine monastery nestled in New Mexico’s remote Chama Canyon.

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Monks. What do they do all day long? Why would anyone pursue such a solitary existence?

I was ready for a spiritual safari, excited to observe these fascinating creatures in their natural habitat. Little did I know how unprepared I was for what I would actually see: the sad truth of my own existence and a window into the weary soul of the modern world.

•••

We slowly sank into their pace of life—although it is more accurate to say we were shaken into it for 13 miles, the length of the rugged dirt road that connects the monastery to the outside world. It was a balancing act, on the one hand, navigating the precarious twists and turns above the Chama River, and, on the other, marveling at the kind of majestic landscapes that inspired Georgia O’Keefe at the nearby Ghost Ranch.

Christ in the Desert is a Benedictine monastery nestled in New Mexico’s remote Chama Canyon.
Christ in the Desert is a Benedictine monastery nestled in New Mexico’s remote Chama Canyon.

Arriving at the adobe guesthouse, we followed the protocol for guests, chief among them keeping quiet. The directions were etched on wood, crudely yet artfully, the way I imagined it might have been done 1,000 years ago. Settling into our room, furnished with the ascetic amenities I expected—bed, desk, closet, crucifix—and the real kicker, without cell service or a WiFi connection, we began internet withdrawal and gravitated toward the schedule.

Vigils: 4:00 a.m. Lasts one hour. Followed by Lauds: Lasts 30 minutes. Followed by Holy Mass: Lasts one hour. This was followed by Terce, Sext, None, Vespers, Compline. My eyes widened. Not only am I not a morning person, but I also grossly underestimated the amount of time we would spend in prayer.

Settling into our room, furnished with the ascetic amenities I expected—bed, desk, closet, crucifix—we began internet withdrawal and gravitated toward the schedule.

Sitting in the chapel before Vigils, I watched half asleep as the monks trickled in from behind the sacristy, monks of all shapes, sizes, ages and ethnicities. They walked, waddled, loped and processed to their place on either side of the altar, pausing to bow. I am sure I was not the only guest whose eyes gazed at them with a mixture of admiration and bewilderment.

Knock knock. This was the sound the abbot made to commence. We chanted. And chanted. And chanted some more. During those three days at the monastery, we chanted our rear ends off, sitting and standing and kneeling and bowing. I felt like a couch potato in a Zumba class, struggling to follow along. It was a Benedictine boot camp for which I was badly out of shape but a welcome challenge for my sister and me. As fitness buffs, we lamented the lack of structure and discipline exercising our faith.

It was a Benedictine boot camp for which I was badly out of shape but a welcome challenge for my sister and me.

I was reluctant, in retrospect, because of the premium put on the idea of silence. Silence made me drowsy. It implied deadness, a lack of activity and an emptiness over which BORING hung in flashing lights.

But silence is a poor adjective to describe the monastery. The dramatic skyscapes and rustic beauty of the canyon created a splendor that was intensely dynamic. The soundtrack—the chanting, church bells, bugs and birds chirping in every direction, even the sound of the monks blowing their noses—blended as moments to be meditated upon (monks need to blow their noses, too).

Powerful currents of action flowed amid the tranquility. Monks walked like chefs in a busy kitchen, with a sense of purpose and urgency. One elderly monk in a wheelchair, unable to walk, attended all the activities and was just as focused as the rest.

Silence is a poor adjective to describe the monastery.

The meals we enjoyed after prayer were eaten in silence. But instead of fostering an awkward awareness of forks and knives scraping on our plates, the silence allowed a deeper spiritual conversation to take place. We faced the monks and the monks faced us in a dining hall adorned on one end with a roster of patron saints painted in vivid color and on the other with luminous stained glass. We listened to music or spiritual reading while eating vegetable soup, sausage and potato casserole, and chocolate pie. The food tasted like a culinary extension of the spiritual nourishment we were receiving, elevated as part of the larger, almost overwhelming feast of the senses.

Meals at the monastery are eaten in silence.
Meals at the monastery are eaten in silence. 

Then it hit me: Silence better described my life outside the monastery than the life of the monks. I stare into screens for hours, often lonely and isolated. I live in a crowded, cut-throat city where a famous resident once advised, “If you want a friend, get a dog.” For all the loud happy hours and decadent dinners, it is well known that people are starved for connection, sick of superficial small talk and living like strangers afraid to say what they really feel and who they really are.

Forget the monks: How do I get through that every day? Why do I pursue such a solitary existence?

A tall, gregarious monk noticed my seriousness and pointed out my lack of a wedding ring with a mischievous twinkle in his eye. He was the novice master. In exchange for me hearing him out on the perks of being a monk, he offered me a behind-the-scenes tour and a chance to answer all my curious questions. Do they ever get a day off? There are no days off. Do they watch movies? Once a month, in community. Do they have hobbies? Required the approval of the abbot (sheesh). Are there social gatherings? Half an hour on Thursday and Sunday. It is suffocating, surely? My guide flashes a joyful smile.

Forget the monks: How do I get through that every day? Why do I pursue such a solitary existence?

I struggle to think of a single person living in a busy city who would describe their lifestyle with such confidence and security. With the world at my fingertips, with freedom to change careers, entertainment on demand, time to pursue my passion, I often feel trapped and in need of an escape. While walking through the monastery I thought of the places I spend my time and wondered: What do I do all day?

On the morning of our departure, I walked alone under the stars to the chapel for Vigils. Listening to the crackling of the gravel beneath my feet, I thought of the times I walk in the city where I live, Washington, D.C. It is the symbol of our nation’s power, and it is enveloped in a frail and hollow silence. At Christ in the Desert I discovered a different kind of silence that I can still hear and that haunts me from across the country.

Driving away, I was aware of my high from the retreat, a sense of intoxication that was surely unlike the sober reality of the monks. Some of the monks will leave, and some will spend the rest of their lives at Christ in the Desert, praying, working, seeking God and blowing their noses. With the internet and a faster speed of life awaiting my sister and me on the highway, I returned to civilization feeling a deeper sadness. I knew it was not the monks whose lifestyle I should question. It was mine. It was those of us in the “real” world, living like hermits in the cloisters of our souls.

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Beth Cioffoletti
8 months ago

I've been out to that monastery too - it is a gorgeous place.

Having watched and read and joined monks for most of my life, I have come to the conclusion that we are all monks, some are just more visibly monkish.

Lucian Lopez
8 months ago

That sounds so beautiful and romantic! I want to be a monk! Oh wait -- I am. The truth is, you can get used to anything and it becomes routine. In the end, the fundamentals are what matter: love of neighbor and love of God. Even monks have to fight the inevitable noisiness (mostly from within) in order to carve out some silence and solitude.

Peggy Frey
7 months 2 weeks ago

I returned to civilization feeling a deeper sadness. I knew it was not the monks whose lifestyle I should question. It was mine. It was those of us in the “real” world, living like hermits in the cloisters of our souls."

You have written such a sad commentary on your particular lifestyle using a monastery as a springboard for you despair and lack of faith. I used to need the spiritual solace and silence I found at a cloistered monastery, but now, in my old age I have found this at home and in my own solitude. I have realized that there are many "hermits" out here in the "real world" who are very close to God in the poverty they endure, who have grown into the most astounding humility, through enduring sickness, old age , death of a long time spouse or a child, and who don't have the resources to leave their homes to fly across the country to a monastery. I have observed a particular closeness to God I could never hope to attain in these people. The people I've met in what you would probably consider dire and sinister circumstances, read their Bible every single day all day long; they speak directly to God about their lives; and they report that God actually speaks directly to them within their suffering, and within the simplicity of their lives. Perhaps you should think less of yourself, and pay more attention to the poverty-stricken people you probably pass everyday on your way to work, and,I suspect, don't really see. Solitude and silence aren't just the domain of the cloister recognized by the Church,; and poverty and silence are not always equal to the loneliness and despair as you describe as your life in this article. We take ourselves wherever we go, and there are a lot of people out here in the real world praying who have a very special closeness to their god. How Blessed are the poor, for they shall see God.

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