A Jewish Buddhist at Christ-in-the-Desert Monastery

I just saw the beautiful photography show at the History Museum in Santa Fe. Photographs of sacred places around the state ring the walls. Highlighted are Tony O’Brien’s photographs of Christ-in-the-Desert Monastery, which could only have been taken by a true insider–someone with enormous physical and imaginative access to the monastery. They’ve been gathered together into a new book.

I’m reblogging my essay on the same terrain:

The first time I was at Christ-in-the-Desert monastery it was winter, 1985, a wet and early Lent. I’d been told it was a good place to write, so Robert drove me in our ancient Dodge Aspen. The road was not frequently graded in those days, and the car sank in the caliche mud. We pried it out, using wooden boards lifted from an old corral, only to have the brakes fail.
We ditched the car and started to walk. It was dusk. We had no idea how far we were, but soon enough saw the church and its cross rising ahead. A very ancient feeling–coming out of wilderness to a monastery.
Indeed, there was hot soup and a general country interest in our car problems. As we were married, the monks gave us one cell with a narrow single bed to share. I had to talk the guest master into giving us a second cell. He looked perplexed that we didn’t want to share.
Snow cleared, tractors headed out, Robert cruised the car to Espanola. I stayed enclosed, with a woodstove and lantern. I knew nothing about this country, having come from San Francisco, and before that Boston, and New Jersey. There were a few guests, less than a dozen brothers. The heater in the church was broken. The greenhouse/cold porch off the old convento served for prayer and library.
Suddenly it was St. Patrick’s Day–whiskey, meat, laughter. Then I was supposed to leave. Huge storms swept in, covering the Chama River gorge. A hermit–brother Xaviar–and a woman anchorite would appear from time to time out of the snow.
I was very far away in time and space from what I knew…Why had I actually gone to Christ-in-the-Desert? To be sure, I was looking for something. I was thirty years old, and a failure as a Buddhist. I couldn’t sit still, that hallmark of Soto Zen. When I crossed my legs for zazen, I would shake violently. But my husband Robert wanted to be a Zen priest. We’d left a scandal ridden San Francisco Zen Center to come to New Mexico. Phil Whalen, beat poet and Zen monk, had simply banned me from the zendo.It was a negative introduction to a man I would come to adore. I was fifty before I realized what a great favor he had inadvertently done me.So there I was, unable to practice Zen and totally unacquainted with the Judaism of my birth. It would be years before I found a woman Hassidic teacher and studied Hebrew and Torah with her.
I was adrift. Monasticism was one of the virtues esteemed in my marriage–ridiculously contradictory as that now sounds. So I found myself in a monastery, a Catholic one to be sure, but this was a religion I was basically neutral towards. I liked reading the psalms, before I ever learned the Jewish practice of reciting them. I liked the two big dogs that followed the abbot everywhere.
Towards the spectacular red rock canyon that enclosed me in a larger version of a monk’s cell I felt an awe tinged with respect–a attitude that would serve me well as I came to know New Mexico. In the evening between Vespers and Compline, I walked the deeply rutted road south of the monastery as if walking home. But of course turned back after a few miles. I walked with a young woman about my age whose name I no longer remember. We used dead branches as walking sticks. Once on the road, we felt free to talk. She was trying to become a nun, but was stymied in some way. It was partly to do with her openness about her previous romantic history. In this, she reminded me of Thomas Merton.
I do wonder what became of her. She was more adventurous than I was, a solitary person. Sometimes we saw a coyote, but the packs kept their distance on the other side of the river.
What did I do all short winter’s day? I wrote the longest poem I had ever written, but I was also editing the complete poetry of Anna Ahkmatova, eventually published by Zephyr Press. I read Mary Stuart’s trilogy about Merlin as battered paperbacks left in the guest common room. And I worked the Ahkmatova–perfectly suited for the environment–full of candles, nuns, snow, suffering. I puzzled over the word “faience.” Convinced it was obscure, and lacking a dictionary, I had no idea what it was and circled it in red, only to fall prey to the translator’s wrath. It was a perfectly fine word for a pottery glaze. I just didn’t know it.The snow cleared. A guest with front wheel drive took me out. She was a professional woman from Albuquerque who drove with ferocious precision, looking coiffed and ironed even after a stay in mud season.
I went home.
I have returned to C-in-the-D three times since then for short stays. Now the Coleman lanterns are battery charged, the stoves gas. This summer’s day it is busy, with some visitors just stopping in for a few hours on that road I once found impassable. There are goldfinches, magpies, lizards, butterflies, and silence. It is still a place like no other, but it is not the place I first encountered. I cannot find that again, even as I cannot reclaim the thirty year old me.
So much has happened, and perhaps so little. I have been many remote places to write, But even today I am writing in a brocade notebook, just like the ones I used to buy in San Francisco Chinatown.
That first stay here did do one one thing–it turned me from a failed Buddhist into a New Mexican. It changed what I feared, what I admired. It did not give me what I was looking for, but it gave me a way to keep looking.

4 thoughts on “A Jewish Buddhist at Christ-in-the-Desert Monastery

  1. This is a marvelous experience. The human heart is always grateful for the stars that lead us, the fingers that point us, the funny and heartfelt experiences of life that allow us to touch that incarnation of truth within us. Many thanks for this. Merrill

  2. miriam, do you know of thomas merton’s beautiful little book of photos and text created during his stay at the monestary? it is such a deeply peaceful place. thanks for sharing your own experience there–mine remains very precious to me, twenty-one years later.

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