The Desert's Austere Grace

By McClay, Wilfred M. | First Things; A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life, January 2012 | Go to article overview

The Desert's Austere Grace


McClay, Wilfred M., First Things; A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life


It is not the kind of road you ever want to find yourself driving on in a hard rain or at night - or, if you are seriously acrophobic, at any time at all. To get to the Monastery of Christ in the Desert, you must drive about an hour north of Santa Fe, past the tiny town of Abiquiu and the places where Georgia O'Keeffe did so much of her New Mexican painting. Then you turn off the highway and head west into the Chama Canyon, creeping along for an hour or more on a rough dirt road, heavily rutted in places, extremely treacherous in bad weather, with hard turns and hair-raising drop-offs along the way.

Finally, the canyon narrows, and you begin to see impressive multicolored rock formations rising on both sides, lining the riverbed like rows of mute onlookers. Soon you can make out in the distance the monastery's adobe tower, peering out like a periscope at the severe landscape around it. The building's tawny earth tones make it seem entirely natural, at one with the craggy and vaguely threatening cliffs that loom behind it. It blends so fully with its surroundings that it shares in their primeval quality and offers itself as a place entirely set apart from the mundane present. As monasteries go, Christ in the Desert is very new, having been founded in 1964, but it has a sense of antiquity about it. It is an antiquity of nature and myth rather than history.

The longer you are there, as I was this summer, the more the rocky cliffs come to feel like ancient sentinels, brooding presences from a past inconceivably remote yet somehow also still living. You can imagine them as the gigantic remains of defeated primordial deities and demigods of old, like the brutal Titans of Greek mythology, semi-beings that have passed several eternities watching and waiting, with stony impassivity and geological patience, for the eon to come round when they will take things back from us, the clever upstarts, and return them to the way they once were. Or perhaps they could be taken for the remnants of Amerindian cultures that have had their time in the Chama Canyon and then moved on, leaving few traces of their former presence.

In any event, the monks at Christ in the Desert cannot help but be reminded that there are always rival metaphysics on offer in the world, and rival spirits all around them. So too have I been reminded, every time I have stayed at this deeply impressive place.

Why has the desert always played such a key role in the great religious narratives and traditions? Why have holy men and women of all persuasions been drawn to test themselves against extreme habitats and sought the peculiar peace and exhilaration - "the solace of fierce landscapes," as Beiden C. Lane has put it - that come of living in them? Partly because a rigorous landscape forces one to simplify radically and to strip away extraneous desires, all the way down to the core. Its impersonal brutality also inoculates against any easy romanticism, teaching one not to trust in the seeming benevolence and reciprocity of nature or in anything earthly that could ever mediate between one's frail and insignificant self and the overwhelming transcendence of God.

The desert's enormous power overwhelms all petty egotism, since no one could ever be so deluded as to think he could prevail against it alone. It releases one from captivity to a sense of self-importance. But perhaps the most easily grasped rationale for going to the desert is the same as that for fasting: In denying the body its customary comforts, one gains access to interior riches that might otherwise be invisible or undeveloped. By denying the body, one releases the soul.

The setting of Christ in the Desert also faithfully mirrors the real human condition, as Christians understand it, precisely because the desert cannot be a permanent home for human beings. It is at best an impermanent habitation, and often serves as a place of trial and intense tribulation, as in Jesus' forty days of temptation in the wilderness, or in the spiritual battles of the Desert Fathers of the fourth century, who were in turn so great an influence upon the Rule of St. …

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