Jonathan Merritt – Christ in the Desert
MAY 16, 2014
Jonathan Merritt encounters Jesus in the silence. He really is better than you imagined. Jesus, that is.
I’d been wondering how to begin my quest to experience God in fresh ways when my phone rang. My friend Carolyn was about to take a retreat to a Benedictine monastery near her childhood hometown. The more she talked about this inconspicuous hermitage nestled in New Mexico’s high desert, the more intrigued I became.
Monastery of Christ in the Desert seemed the perfect starting point for my journey because it is about as different from my suburban Atlanta home as I can imagine. I envisioned orange mesas rising out of the dirt while red-tailed hawks soared overhead. Additionally, a Benedictine monastery is a strange place for a Southern Baptist to search for God because I grew up thinking that Catholics weren’t actually Christians.
I interrupted Carolyn midsentence to declare I’d be joining her on the trip. An adventurous woman by nature, she thought it was a great idea. Less than a month later, my belly full of butterflies, I boarded a plane.
I’d determined to do a silent retreat, taking a vow of quietude from the time of my arrival to departure. The monastery’s Web site tempted me:
The world is immersed in a “noise culture.” People conditioned by this culture have experienced uneasiness and even fear of solitude. Here in the monastery, we hope to help you turn off the “noise” in order to tune in to God. To quote Psalm 46:10, “Be still and know that I am God.”
When modern Western Christians want to encounter God, we usually make sound. We sing or preach sermons or pray or attend a Bible study discussion to speak an “Amen.” Taking the opposite approach seemed an appropriate way to begin my spiritual quest. For sixty hours, I would refrain from speaking, taking the Psalmist’s advice to listen for God’s voice rather than talk.
When my plane landed, the sun had risen to the height of my unease. I met up with Carolyn, and we decided to take the scenic route. For almost nine hours, we found excuses to stop by coffee shops, dine at restaurants, and detour to every tourist attraction in the self-proclaimed “Land of Enchantment.” Long after sunset, we spotted a rickety sign with an arrow directing us down a dirt road.
Our car snaked through the dark canyon on the thirteen-mile “driveway” that takes almost an hour to travel. With each tire turn, our cell phone signals faded until they disappeared. By the time we pulled up to the modest guesthouse, I felt totally cut off from civilization.
A wooden gate opened into a courtyard where I picked up a Coleman lantern and made my way to the door bearing my name. The room reminded me of a jail cell, similar in size with cold concrete floors and walls. A handmade desk nested against the back wall under a three-foot square window, which let in the tiniest bit of moonlight. A string of rosary beads fell limp over a petite chair and a bearably soft twin bed lay underneath just enough blankets to keep a guest from catching cold. A wooden medallion on a leather band was draped atop my bed pillow with a note taped to it:
Gentle Guest: If you wish to observe a stricter silence during part or all of your time here, WEAR THIS MEDALLION. The other guests and monks will respect your desire for silence. If someone does not respect your silence, please let us know. When you leave, please leave this medallion for the next guest who may also wish to have silence.
Thank you! God bless!
(I learned quickly during my stay that I needed to keep the necklace with me at all times. The second day, I forgot to wear it and stopped by the kitchen to fill a water bottle. One of the older monks asked me how my stay was going. When I only smiled in response, he joked to another guest that I was “hard of hearing.” I bit my lip.)
“Well, friend,” I said, sizing up my new companion. “It looks like you and I are going to be spending a good bit of time together.”
Having spoken my last words, I placed the medallion around my neck and unpacked my clothes.
The next morning, I woke before dawn to attend a prayer service in the oratory. Still half-asleep, Carolyn and I chose seats close to the wood-burning stove to steal a little heat while the monks, dressed in black hooded robes, filed in one by one. I fought to avoid commenting on the unusualness of the setting or how much I wished to be back in my bed, literally having to press my lips like a clamp at one point.
When I decided to travel to Christ in the Desert, I knew I was in for a bit of a shock. After all, a saying among monastery dwellers is, “If there’s anything you need, let us know and we’ll teach you to live without.” But crossing the boundary from the noisy world to a silent space was more startling than I expected. The transition from rush to hush is not easy. Like pulling the emergency brake on a semitruck in full motion, my body screeched to a halt. With every step, my mind raced to fill the void. I’d say prayers in my head, but found I could only fill the space for a few seconds. I’d try to sit still but my knees would bounce, and I’d want to pace. Perhaps this whole silence thing wasn’t such a good idea after all.
As the service progressed, the sun began to rise and my soul began to settle. Through the windows above, beams of light uncovered mountains hidden by darkness moments earlier. Each cliff a riot of white and red hues smearing down their rocky faces as if they’d been painted just before a rain shower. I felt like Dorothy must have when she opened the storm-beaten door and first experienced Oz in Technicolor.
My mind rejoined the service just as the monks were singing from Psalm 51: “Create in me a pure heart, O God, and put a new and loyal spirit in me.” And then from Psalm 63: “O God, you are my God, and I long for you. My whole being desires you; I thirst for you, my whole being longs for you, in a dry and parched land where there is no water.”
Their chants echoed the prayer I’d prayed for God to show up and speak to me. In this liturgy, I felt confirmation that God had heard my request. The tension inside me broke and the grip of worries, frustrations, and expectations loosened. My heart’s ears were now opened.
Taken from Jesus is Better than You Imagined by Jonathan Merritt ©2014, published by FaithWords. Used by permission.
The image used with this post was altered and is licensed under the
Attribution: Wolfgang Staudt