Sacred Silence: Lessons from the high desert plains
I was 32 when I made my first trip into the high desert plains of northern New Mexico, known to many as the landscape that inspired artist Georgia O’Keeffe, and to a few as the home of the Taos Pueblo Indians. About an hour’s drive from Taos and 20 minutes more up the state highway from O’Keeffe’s home in Abiquiú, near Ghost Ranch, there is a small Benedictine monastery called Christ in the Desert, set against cliffs of red rock in the Chama River Canyon. Having read about the monastery in the writings of Thomas Merton, I was determined to see the place, and during spring break one year, I recruited a fellow teacher to join me. We drove all night from Denver, parked the car just off the main highway and, at dawn’s first light, shouldered our backpacks and set off on foot down the winding, single-lane dirt road that would lead us through the Chama Canyon and, some 12 miles later, to Christ in the Desert.
What I remember most about that long hike with my friend is the palpable, pregnant silence of the place. To leave the city with its constant din of automobiles, machines and the assault of words, words and more words—most of them trying to sell you something—and to be plunged into the silence of the desert is overwhelming, and not a little discombobulating. For me, at the time a high school theology teacher immersed daily in the challenges of communicating the faith, the silence was liberating.
Bathed in the blue-bright exposure of the New Mexico sun, I felt able to breathe again, just to be, without explanation. From head to toe I felt embraced by the stark beauty of things, things heard and seen with sudden clarity under the broad desert sky. The arc of an eagle alighting from a cluster of pine trees at river’s edge seemed almost apocalyptic, hitting me with a force of recognition I had never felt before, yet somehow seemed familiar. The nakedness of the landscape—my own nakedness, suddenly, precariously within it—seemed to strip bare all lesser concerns. I was alive; the dry breeze kissed my face, and that was gift enough for the moment.
Many years later, trying to understand better the particular magic of northern New Mexico, I came upon the remarkable writings of Mabel Dodge, a wealthy New York socialite who in 1918 left her privileged life behind to discover in Taos and its native peoples what she felt was the answer to both her emptiness and the discontentment of white, “cultured” American society. It was Dodge—later Mabel Dodge Luhan—who lured Georgia O’Keeffe and many other artists to New Mexico, convinced that its austere beauty and Pueblo peoples could teach America something essential and beautiful about itself; that in helping to preserve the sacred lands, waters and memory of the Native people, we, as modern-day Americans, might even save ourselves. For the Pueblo Indians, God speaks not only through the word, framed by human flesh, speech, ritual and action; but God sings, too, in the hushed splendor of nature, the looming symphony of silence. Incarnate life in the Spirit calls for the harmony of these two languages.
The greatest silence of all, of course, is death. The desert nakedness of northern New Mexico where the monks of Christ in the Desert dwell is a stark reminder of death, a confrontation with mortality. “You can’t make a big thing of yourself in New Mexico. It shrinks you down,” the Rev. William Hart McNichols, a well-known iconographer from Taos, once said to me. “It shrinks everybody down,” he said, in ways that human-centered environments like towering cities and air-conditioned shopping malls do not. Father Bill describes that feeling of smallness and vulnerability as a good thing, even a precondition for prayer. So long as we remain ensconced in the artificial womb of our own buildings, experiments and gadgets, and continue to place our faith as a nation in fabulously inhumane killing machines, how will we ever taste and see that great mystery of communion in which all things live and move and have their being and that beckons us, even now, from behind the veil of nature and our own inescapable mortality?
“One has to be alone, under the sky,” observed Thomas Merton in Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, “before everything falls into place and one finds one’s own place in the midst of it all.” To feel the maternity or womb of the earth as the Pueblo Indians do, submerged in their earthen kivas, is no romantic abstraction or New Age flight from reality. Especially for us who dwell in large cities, bathed in concrete, commerce and the relentless rhetoric of conflict, when we long for healing and replenishment, it is to the earth that we must return and find ourselves again. Indeed as we fill the skies in distant countries, and increasingly here at home, with unmanned attack and surveillance drones, our latest means of “communication” with the distant and feared other, how much harder will it be to recover our true selves, cut off from nature and others, and resigned to a functionally scientific or utilitarian view of nature without God?
For if the skies are nothing more than a theater of “enhanced security,” if nature is only an arid desert wearing a mask of beauty, to be mined, plumbed, penetrated and fracked for its resources, then death and burial for human beings—even for Christ, buried in an earthen tomb!—can be nothing more than void, darkness, suffocation. Georgia O’Keeffe discovered intimations of quite another possibility in the desert landscape of northern New Mexico. “When I think of death,” she mused, “I only regret that I will not be able to see this beautiful country anymore…unless the Indians are right and my spirit will walk here after I’m gone.” It is that hint and rumor of another possibility, seeded in the rocks themselves, that beckons me to be still and hear the silences speaking everywhere in the desert canyons of New Mexico.
Recently I returned to Taos with my teenage son, hoping he might feel something of what I felt during my sojourn many years ago to Christ in the Desert. As I watched my son skip rocks across the Chama River, my prayers reached beyond my family to embrace the country of my birth. I found myself praying, perhaps in the spirit of Mabel Dodge Luhan, for the United States and all its peoples, that we might learn the gift of gratitude and humility from the original inhabitants of this ancient and beautiful land.
When death comes among the Navajo, the family of the deceased traditionally sits for four successive days outside the chamber where the body lies, facing east and “chanting prayers to help the departing soul on its way.” Their prayers end with the following peroration: