Thoughts from the New Mexico Desert
At the monastery of Christ in the Desert, twenty-seven miles from the village of Abiquiu, the night is still save for coyotes and birdsong. A few seconds after the coyotes howl, signaling a kill, their cry echoes eerily from canyon walls. A red clay-and-pebble road snakes its way among the cliffs, which are striped with layers of beige, ochre, pink, russet, and purple rock. By the banks of the Chama River, a lush but narrow strip of piñon pines hints at spring. Elsewhere nothing grows except cactus, dwarf spruce, and stunted juniper. “Truly this is a desolate place”—beautiful, but desolate.
About thirty monks, a mix of Hispanics, Anglos, and Vietnamese, observe the Benedictine Rule in this wilderness with a rigor that St. Bernard himself would have approved. Seven times a day they sing God’s praise, beginning with Lauds at 4 a.m. in a church of adobe and native rock, its east window staring directly into a cliff. The monks chant precisely, half-whispering. Otherwise silence reigns. A guidebook for guests reminds us that conversation is forbidden in the refectory, the courtyard, the canyon, and even our rooms. Over our meal of rice, tofu and vegetables, a monk reads from a history of the church in New Mexico—grim tales about a Pueblo revolt in 1680, punished by the Spaniards with enslavement and the amputation of hands and feet.
The next day we visit a medieval village, the Taos Pueblo, built around 1350 and inhabited to this day by the descendants of its founders. A river runs through it. About two thousand Taos live here intermittently, clinging to their traditional culture with a determination as fierce as that of the monks. Their tribal council has banned electricity and plumbing.
We are fortunate to arrive on the day of a Corn Dance, which visitors are allowed to observe. As the daylong dance winds through the village, a circle of elders chants and drums while the dancers, aged from about ten to thirty, perform their rounds. Women make up the outer circle, wearing vivid dresses, with their left arms and shoulders bare and their right covered, a sash around the waist, a leafy stalk in each hand. In the inner circle, men and boys dance in loincloths, their upper bodies naked except for jewelry and body paint. Each shakes a gourd in his right hand and wears a single feather in his hair.
What does this dance mean? It “has to do with fertility,” but that’s as much as non-natives can be told. For the dance is only an exoteric part of what is, in effect, a mystery religion. Only male initiates are allowed to enter the kivas or ritual chambers. Likewise, at Christ in the Desert only monks are allowed to enter the cloister, which is decidedly not about fertility. Yet the core of the monks’ prayer is the Psalter, sung in its entirety every week. This is the prayerbook of ancient Israel, another desert people, whose culture was far more like that of the Taos Indians than of these Catholic monks. Lineal descent, fertility, and their sacred land meant everything to them. What would they have made of these celibate men who leave their families, homelands, and native tongues behind forever to sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?
The Taos language is strictly oral, so no one outside the tribe understands the elders’ chant. The Israelites, on the other hand, chose to write their songs in a book—and that has made all the difference. From writing there followed translation, exegesis, rival hermeneutics, and all that we know as Judaism and Christianity. In the beginning was the Word.