It was the silence that awed me. Last weekend, I was a frail whisper of humanity in the soundless glory of blue sky and towering sandstone mesas and that swirling sash of river.
I heard nothing but the wind snaking through that canyon. It began as a distant hushed whisper. It huffed and swelled into thunderous dragon breaths that burst into our little clearing. Little grasses and wildflowers bowed their heads. Chamisa fluttered and junipers shuddered and the paperback book I was reading flapped wildly. Then, like ebbing labor pains, the wind quieted.
I had slipped away from the world for 48 hours and retreated to the Monastery of Christ in the Desert, a wee Benedictine sanctuary tucked into the remote Chama Canyon in northern New Mexico. The silent monastery dozes at the end of a 14-mile dead-end dirt road that twists and writhes on cliffs high above the Rio Chama before circling down and down like water draining from a bathtub until it hugs the river.
I know this road. I drove it to Mass every Sunday during my two years at Ghost Ranch, a Presbyterian retreat and education center not far away.
The monastery has no television, no radio, no cellphone service and sputtering Internet, but it shimmers with far more divine glories like mesas and a canyon and the river and spectacular sunsets and monks chanting their Divine Office eight times a day between 4 a.m. and 7:30 p.m.
I opened the unlocked door and slipped into my tiny room. Inside were a single bed, two lamps, a desk, a chair and a rustic armoire for my clothes. The 12 guest rooms were lined up under a portal with two communal bathrooms, one for men and one for women.
I unpacked, shook off the dirt of civilization and crawled deep inside myself. I maintained silence for 36 hours. I gazed at Mother Nature, who was finer here than anything Michelangelo ever perfected. I listened.
I sparred with a New York Times Sunday crossword. I browsed in the monastery library and curled up with a book by Thomas Merton. I opened my dog-eared book by Anne D. LeClaire about how she has kept silent Mondays for 20 years.
I took a long, solitary walk down the dirt road past ponderosa pines, junipers and pinon pines, my eyes reaching out to the river and my ears hearing only the wind.
Later, I opened and closed two gates to get down to the river. At its banks, I sat down on a couple of old logs. Birds sang and the water swirled and fish jumped and I lost track of time.
Meals were silent, too. Breakfast was serve-yourself cold cereal, hard-boiled eggs, toast and orange juice in the guest breakfast room.
For lunch and dinner, we ate in silence with the monks in their dining room. For lunch, aproned monks circled around offering yawning plates of rice, fish, beans, cheese, fresh salad and homemade bread. Dinner was a buffet of homemade soup, meat or fish. We had water or hot tea to drink.
We live in a wildly frantic world. Periodically, we need to turn off the racket, the computers and smartphones and Hulu and Roku and HBO and step into the power of silence.
At night, dazzling stars appeared. Outside the guesthouse, the only light was three tealights as tiny as mosquitoes, not far from a Christ figure made from a couple of logs lashed together. His arms were outstretched to welcome people of all faiths, and no faith, anyone who seeks peace and quiet. All are welcome here.
Sometime during that first night, I woke up and looked out my window and saw the ragged-edged cookie of the waning moon rising silently above the canyon.
Sunday, I went to Mass. The 24-seat chapel was drenched in sunlight from mammoth windows high over the altar. As monks chanted and swung clouds of incense, I raised my eyes and looked up at those mighty red sandstone mesas. High on their rim, nearly as high as heaven, three bare white crosses stood.
I never wanted to come home.