Peace Be with You: Monastic Wisdom for a Terror-Filled Worldby David Carlson Ph.D.
In the wake of the ten-year anniversary of 9/11, as tensions rise between Christiansand Muslims, author and religious studies professor David Carlson seeks guidancein the modern-day deserts of monastic communities across America.See more details below
In the wake of the ten-year anniversary of 9/11, as tensions rise between Christiansand Muslims, author and religious studies professor David Carlson seeks guidancein the modern-day deserts of monastic communities across America.
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PEACE BE WITH YOUMONASTIC WISDOM FOR A TERROR-FILLED WORLD
By DAVID CARLSON
Thomas NelsonCopyright © 2011 David Carlson
All right reserved.
Chapter One"Where Are the Prophets?"
The Monastery of Christ in the Desert Abiquiu, New Mexico January 11, 2007
I began my travels to monasteries fully aware that monks and nuns might not wish to offer advice to the outside world. I was prepared to reply that I was not asking them to lecture American culture but rather to respond to the thousands of others like me who are seeking some light, some way forward, in an increasingly dark world. This hope for light was precisely what drew me to monastic communities.
Nearly all religions have a contemplative branch, an option that encourages reflection and solitude. Very early in Christian history, men and women chose to live apart from society where they could devote their lives to the disciplines of prayer, reading, and manual work. Even before Christianity was legalized in AD 312, these men and women found the Christian life in urban areas to be too lax and too comfortable. The first religious desert dwellers were hermits living alone in caves, but soon communities formed around a leader, an abbot or abbess, who led the group in a common rule for life.
Monasteries that go bad, as many monastic houses have done in Christian history, go bad for the same general reason. The monastic salt loses its savor when the community loses its seriousness, sacrifice, and solitude. When monasteries find it easy to conform to the surrounding culture, monasteries lose their reason for existence.
Nearly every monastic community I visited expressed the same worry, that its life was in danger of becoming too comfortable, its sacrifices too few, its contrast to the culture too faint. Father Columba Stewart of Saint John's Abbey in Collegeville, Minnesota, expressed a concern of all monks and nuns: "In common with most monasteries of our kind, we are finding that our forms of entertainment are becoming more and more like those of the culture around us. We see the same videos and TV shows, read the same books, visit the same restaurants, stores, and websites. With the coming of the Internet, 'separation from the world' has become even more challenging."
While planting a monastery in a remote forest or desert does not by itself protect a community from these dangers, physical isolation brings with it certain logistical challenges—food, shelter, medical care—that make life more difficult. The Monastery of Christ in the Desert, lying thirteen miles off the highway down a forest road in northern New Mexico, is just such a place. Founded in 1964 by Father Aelred Wall, the Monastery of Christ in the Desert was deliberately set in an inconvenient location.
From the moment this project became real in my mind, I knew that my first visit would be to Christ in the Desert. This Benedictine house in New Mexico was where I had heard the first "knock on the door" while doing research there in 2001. I also believed that the extreme solitude of the place would help me find my footing with the project. In that hope, I was echoing the belief of Father Aelred, who, in 1964, understood the desert to offer "a place where one sees the true proportion of things, a place of purification and repentance, a place where God's providence becomes unmistakably clear." Finally, my previous work with Brother Isaac in 2001 led me to believe that Abbot Philip might be open to my request to interview in the community.
In early November 2006, I wrote to Abbot Philip, explaining the project and asking permission to visit. Not long after Thanksgiving, I received word that my request to come in mid-January had been granted. About the same time, I received an invitation to conduct interviews at St. Michael's Skete, an Orthodox monastery located about forty miles away in another canyon near Cañones, New Mexico.
The prospect of beginning the project began to affect not only my waking hours (composing interview questions, making travel arrangements, and applying for grants), but also my dream life as well. In late December, I dreamed that a colleague, a counselor at the college, was telling me that I needed heart surgery. Something very deep in my upbringing, he said, needed to be repaired.
Clearly, my psyche was aware that something major in my life was coming, something demanding a deep change. At least, that was what I hoped the dream meant.
One unexpected change in my plans occurred when our older son, Leif, expressed a desire to accompany me to Christ in the Desert. He had become acquainted with Christ in the Desert through a program on the Learning Channel entitled Monastery, a series that Leif then drew to my attention. A cross between a documentary on monastic life and Survivor, the program followed five young men as they struggled for forty days in monastic life at Christ in the Desert.
When Leif asked if he could tag along on my visit, I told him he was welcome to do so, if he could get time off from work at the Peace Learning Center in Indianapolis. At the time, I had no way of knowing that Leif's own experience at Christ in the Desert would contribute so much to my own.
On January 9, the day before our flight, US planes bombed Somalia. While the war on terror gave birth to yet another battlefront, Leif and I arrived safely in Albuquerque and learned of record snowfalls in the northern canyons. To be on the safe side, we rented a four-wheel-drive vehicle and headed north.
Several hours later, we found the turnoff and followed the forest road for thirteen miles down to the Chama River and then to the monastery. The road was as bad as I remembered it from my trip there six years earlier, and the drive was breathtakingly frightful. Later that evening, at compline, the last service of the evening, the monks prayed for guests and monks who had to travel in and out on the road. The prayer is necessary. While we were there, one guest straggled in on the morning after she was supposed to arrive, her truck having gotten stuck in the two feet of snow that had fallen overnight.
During our stay, the skies alternated between blinding sunlight and heavy snow showers. At times, we could not even see the church from the guesthouse, while at other times we were overwhelmed by the cliffs and canyons that surround the monastery. Some of these rock formations are jagged. Others are so smooth and striated that the canyon seems to be made of Neapolitan ice cream.
As is true of many monastic houses, the history of Christ in the Desert has been one of financial struggle. This reality is obscured, however, by the stunning adobe buildings, particularly the wondrous church by the noted architect George Nakashima.
The visitors' center and refectory are also new and impressive, the massive frescoes alone contributing to a sense of luxuriousness. Leif and I entered the building and found the bookstore open. Hoping to make contact with someone, we ran into Prior Christian. Tall, bearded, and sockless in sandals despite the cold, Prior Christian sent my heart into near arrhythmia when he confessed to knowing nothing about my visit.
But as I briefly explained the project, Prior Christian brightened and immediately shared his own memory of being in Mass on September 11 when the planes hit the towers. Why, I wondered, had I not brought my tape recorder?
Prior Christian described how the monastery, with no radio or TV on that morning, had first heard about the tragedy via the Internet. Then he mentioned a column he'd just finished writing for the monastery's newsletter, the subject of the column being why World Trade Center and Flight 93 were his two favorite movies of the past year. "What will be hit next?" he asked. "The Golden Gate Bridge?"
My heart was racing. I'd not been at the monastery more than thirty minutes and hadn't even asked one question, but this monk was talking about the very subject that I'd come to discuss. I took it as a good omen that I'd run into the monastery's leader (the prior is in charge when the abbot is away, which was the case during our visit) and that he was giving me gold without my even having to pan for it. I pictured the two of us sitting down for a longer chat, when, with my tape recorder running, he could share to his heart's content—and mine—his memories and thoughts.
When I told him of my hope, the prior shook his head. My heart took another dive as he told me that I was asking the impossible. With the abbot away on a much-needed sabbatical and with one of the monastery's key board members arriving the next day for an important financial meeting, my request was completely out of the question.
I could hear the desperation and impatience in my voice as I asked him to consider finding fifteen minutes—which, in truth, would have been useless—in the four days of our stay. No, he repeated kindly but firmly. He wished my project the best but said that I should not count on him at all. But as he left the bookstore, he called back that he'd try to find a copy of his newsletter column on 9/11 before I left.
A PRAYER AT THE EMPTY ALTAR
I left for vespers feeling ashamed and chastened. In my first hour on the job, I had betrayed my own vow to be a patient listener and had tried to force my will on the project. I recommitted myself to taking whatever the stay at Christ in the Desert would give me, though it would not be the last time during the project that I would try to force matters to go my way.
At vespers, I scanned the small clusters of monks on both sides of the stone altar as they chanted my least favorite psalm. Psalm 137 is a lament of the exiles in Babylon and ends with a prayer for God to bring the day soon when Babylonian babies would be dashed against a rock.
I did my best to forget the words as I focused on the church itself. Built in a Greek cross plan, the stunning church has four wings that jut out from the central open space. Guests sit in the west wing, their eyes drawn to the massive windows soaring upward to the sheer cliff face outside. In the early morning, the cliff face seems to hold the sun back as it rises to light the valley, while in the evening the same cliff catches the day's last rays. The stunning sight was what I most remembered from my two previous visits.
But that night, my focus remained in the church and on the empty altar in the center, set precisely where the two arms of the cross intersect. The altar's stone base rises out of the ground like some ancient pillar. Rough-hewn, the stone base looks as if it had been transported halfway around the world from a catacomb of Rome. The altar top is a slab of stone as well, but smooth.
I aimed a prayer at the empty altar. "Lord, help me not to be so hungry for this work that I forget to wait upon You."
On the way to dinner after that service, Leif and I met Brother André, the guestmaster, who was my contact for the project. Short and bespectacled, Brother André looks a lot like Bob Newhart. And with Newhart's deadpan face and with the problem of another winter storm on the way, Brother André looked like a man shouldering many concerns, with my interviews being pretty low on the list. "We'll talk about the interview tomorrow," he said.
The interview? Was he saying there was only one? Yes, he replied, explaining that many of the monks at Christ in the Desert are from Southeast Asia, Africa, or Central America (as I'd noticed at vespers). They had told Brother André that they did not feel comfortable being interviewed. And the older monks had begged off, saying that their memories of 9/11 were too fuzzy. What about Brother Isaac? I asked, referring to the monk I'd interviewed back in 2001. Gone, he said. He'd left monastic life.
At the evening meal in the new refectory—monks sitting on one side, guests on the other, the prior sitting alone at the head table—I assessed the situation. We had flown out of Indiana at six o'clock in the morning and driven the crazy road to the monastery for one interview?
I remembered my prayer a few moments before in the church. "Lord, help me not to be so hungry for this work that I forget to wait upon You." I amended the prayer. "Okay, Lord, if it's one interview, it's one interview. But how about making it a good one?"
A CALL TO CHANGE—BROTHER ANDRÉ
Brother André and I sat down for the interview after the morning work period on January 11, 2007, my first full day at Christ in the Desert. He had avoided meeting my gaze earlier that morning, and I grew worried that he might cancel the interview. But I was also curious about his behavior. Brother André had e-mailed me several months before, inviting me to visit and to interview. Why the reticence now?
At the agreed-upon time, we met in Brother André's office, where a computer and phone provide the monastery's sole link to the outside world. I set up my recording equipment and explained briefly the origins of the project, all the while aware that this was the first official interview of the project. How many interviews would follow before the project was completed? I wondered. Ten, twenty, maybe more? Or maybe just this one.
Brother André began with a comment that I would hear several times over the life of the project: he was not the person to ask about how the community of Christ in the Desert had responded to 9/11 because he had been away at the time.
Monks and nuns do take vows of stability, meaning that they promise to remain at their particular monastery until death or until reassignment by the abbot. But monastics also take a vow of obedience. As the voice of Christ in the community, the abbot or abbess can send a member away for further education or to conduct needed work. In September 2001, Brother André had been sent to St. Anselm University in New York to take course work.
As Brother André shared his memories of 9/11, I realized that we had experienced that tragedy not very differently, as I had assumed, but quite similarly. We had both learned of the tragedy while in an educational setting. He heard the news from his professor, even as I, as a professor, knew that I would need to talk to my students about what had happened.
After attending a special noontime Mass at the university, Brother André retreated to the student pub, where he watched the same footage the rest of us around the country and world were watching. But Brother André focused on a smaller and perhaps more manageable memory of the day. The mother of one of Brother André's fellow monks in New York (he was staying at a monastery adjoining the university) had died the previous weekend, and her funeral was held the night of September 11. "It wasn't bad enough with 9/11," he said, "but I had to go to a funeral of someone I didn't even know." He described how disoriented he felt at the reception, trying to be pleasant to people whom he did not know, all the while struggling to grasp what had happened in New York City, at the Pentagon, and in Pennsylvania.
That evening, Brother André remembered writing in his journal, "Why did this happen? Why?"
But after writing "Why did this happen?" in his journal, Brother André wrote another question, one that few Americans considered on 9/11: "Why not?" While he was quick to say that he did not condone the actions of the hijackers, he realized, when he considered the radical Islamic view of the West, that, from their point of view, "they're getting back at us for the way we're living."
I could not tell at this point if Brother André was simply trying to view the tragedy from another perspective, or if he'd agreed with some aspects of the radical perspective. My confusion cleared when Brother André explained that 9/11 made him recall the ancient covenant between God and Israel. "When you look at the Old Testament ... when the people strayed from Yahweh, things would happen to them. [God] let the enemy come in, or they'd be sent to Babylon in exile."
The West, in Brother André's view, is in the same shape as Israel during the days of the early prophets. He shook his head, saying he couldn't accept the thought that God had directly caused 9/11, but he did believe that "God lets things happen ... I think we're paying for our sins. I think of that a lot." He shook his head again at the irony of our nation forcing change on Iraq when we need to change ourselves.
Excerpted from PEACE BE WITH YOU by DAVID CARLSON Copyright © 2011 by David Carlson. Excerpted by permission of Thomas Nelson. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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