The monastic day starts early at Christ in the Desert. The monks rise at 3:40 for Vigils at 4 A.M.. When I visited in October of 2003, I stayed in the Ranch House, which is 3 double-occupancy rooms and a fourth room which is a combination bathroom, kitchen, and common room.
When I made a month-long Observership in August and September 2005, I stayed in the old cells, which are a row of small Adobe casitas consisting of two one-room cells and one is used as a storage room and bathroom. This is also where I stayed when I made my second Observership in July and August 2007. It is also where I started my Postulancy in the spring and summer of 2008. The Casitas are the original cells and are still in occasional use as cells. Thomas Merton stayed in one of them when he made his visit here in the late 1960's.
Later in my Postulancy I was moved to the Noviciate, which is the former monastic cells of Our Lady of the Desert. It is an adobe structure consisting of 8 rooms and a shared bathroom.
It is still dark then, and a lantern or flashlight is occasionally needed to light the way. But sometimes the moon was still over the canyon. If it was a full moon, there would be plenty of light to find my way without a lantern or flashlight. The stark beauty of the Abbey and its surroundings is enhanced when seen by moonlight.
Mid October mornings in the Chama Canyon can be quite chilly. Chilly enough for a Canadian to put on a sweater, and a Texan to put on a coat, scarf, and mitts. Even in August, the early mornings can be chilly. It is a short walk up an incline to the Abbey Church from the Ranch House. It is a short walk through the abbey to the Abbey Church from the casitas. The Guest House is further downhill and in a different direction from the Ranch House. It consists of 11 single occupancy rooms, bathrooms and shower facilities, a large Common Room, and a self contained suite with patio and view of the valley.
Vigils starts at 4 A.M., with the invocation "O Lord, open my lips, and my mouth will proclaim Your praise." It is the custom of the house to make the Sign of the Cross over your lips when making this invocation at the beginning of Vigils. The other Hours began with the invocation "O God, Come to my assistance; O Lord, make haste to help me." Psalm 95 was the invitatory, along with a short hymn. One such hymn was Consors Paterni Luminis, a fifth or sixth century hymn of unknown origin:
O you who share the Father's light / You are the light and source of light / We break the silence of the night / to sing and ask your help for us.
Dispel the darkness from our minds / And put to flight all evil ways / Drive far away our sleepiness / And wake us to your presence here.
Grant pardon, Christ, to all who trust / And seek you with believing hearts / May you who hear our voices now / confirm us in your love and joy.
There were six psalms or psalm excerpts that were either chanted or read antiphonally, that is, from Choir to Choir. Then there were two readings. The first was from scripture, for example the Old Testament books of Sirach and Wisdom. The second reading was from a spiritual writer or Church Father. For example, one such reading was a sermon from St. Augustine. Then followed an additional 6 psalms or psalm excerpts were chanted or read antiphonally.
One exception to this is Sundays, when there would be a third "Nocturn", comprised of a set of 3 canticles from the Old Testament. The two readings would be placed in between the three "nocturns". There would also be a third reading at the end of the third Nocturn. Sunday Vigils also includes a 5th (or so) century prayer called the "Te Deum". After that the Gospel of the Day is chanted by the Abbot (or Superior if he is not home). Then the 5th century hymn "Te Decet Laus" is chanted.
Another exception is that sometimes Vigils and the the final daily Hour of Compline would be combined and thus there would be no early morning Vigils. These are called "Anticipated Vigils". Only the first three psalms of the next morning's Vigils would be chanted, followed by the two readings. For 2 - 3 weeks in January and February, Vigils is anticipated the night before. Also, sometimes one day a week is designated as a "sleep-in day", and Anticipated Vigils is held the night before and the first Hour of the day is Lauds at 5:45AM.
Vigils is the longest of the Canonical Hours, at about an hour. It was then time for the monks to have breakfast in the refectory. Breakfast, like all meals, is taken in silence. The bells once again called the monks and guests back to church for Lauds and Morning Mass at 5:45 A.M..
Lauds, or Morning Prayer, is one of the two "Hinge Prayers" of the Hours. This is the "hinge" that opens the day with praise to God. There are 8 psalms or psalm excerpts in all, some of which were very short. Lauds concluded with the "Benedictus" and some short intercessory prayers. Lauds is about a half-hour in length.
One more Sunday difference is that at the end of Lauds, there would be a short ceremony marking the changing of the Table Servers. The Table Servers of the previous week would kneel at the front of the altar and express thanks to God for his help in allowing them to perform those duties. The monks then echoed those prayers. Then the new Table Servers would kneel in front of the altar. They would pray for God's guidance as they began their week of service. The monks would then echo those prayers and a short blessing would be given.
On Sundays, there was a 15 minute break immediately after Tierce for a quick "Choir Practice" before Mass. On other days, Lauds would be immediately followed by Morning Mass.
Weekday Mass was simple and reverential. Sunday Mass was a bit more elaborate. There is a procession in from what they call the "Porch", and the nuns of Our Lady of the Desert join the monks in choir. Copious quantities of incense are used for the Sunday masses. The Abbey itself was built fairly close to the east edge of the canyon. The cliffs, which are primarily sandstone, can be seen through the church windows, located above, behind, and to either side of the altar. There are four small crosses on the top of the cliff immediately behind the Abbey Church.
The Abbey Church's furnishings are also simple and reverential. The altar is located at the center. The floor layout is in the form of a Greek Cross. At the front of the altar is where the guests sit. The pillar immediately to the right of where the guests sit doubles as the Bell Tower. On the back wall of the South Transcept is an icon of the Blessed Virgin Mary. On the Right Front pillar is a Crucifix. A small tabernacle and icon screen sits behind the altar. in a niche on the Left Front pillar, there is a statue of St. John the Baptist in a "shepherd of souls" pose. On the back wall of the North Transcept, there is an icon of St. Benedict.
Breakfast for guests was at 7:15, in a small conference room next to the Refectory. Some of the monks would have breakfast at this time rather than after Vigils. After cleanup, it was time for the Work Meeting.
The Work Meeting takes place in the Chapter Room Mondays through Saturdays. It begins with a short song. There is a time for announcements. Then each monk will say what his Work Assignment is for the day. Then the Martyrology of the Day is read out. It concludes with a short prayer and Psalm 130.
After the work meeting, there are usually classes for the Novice and Junior Monks. These might cover the Psalms or maybe the Rule of St. Benedict. Then it would be time for Tierce at 8:45. This Hour consisted of three short psalms or psalm excerpts followed by a few short intercessory prayers and a biblical reading. After Tierce, which lasted 15 minutes, was the Work Period. On Sundays, there is no Work Period.
There is a lot involved in keeping a contemplative monastery running smoothly. Laundry has to be done, floors swept and mopped, maintenance undergone, guestrooms need to be cleaned out and prepared for new guests, and the gift shop needs to be manned. Sometimes stoves need warrantee repairs. Sometimes gardens need weeding. Sometimes computers need to be reformatted. Guests do not have access to the Computer Room. Unless, of course, they have proven troubleshooting skills! Most of the work is done by the monks themselves. Any extra bits can be done by the guests. Sometimes there is more work than there are guests; sometimes more guests than available work.
The Work Period ends at 12:40, and the next Canonical Hour is Sext at 1PM. Another three psalms or psalm excerpts were chanted, along with an additional biblical reading and short intercessory prayers.
After Sext, it was time for lunch with the monks. This was also taken in silence and served by the monks. The difference here is that lunch features a series of readings by the Table Reader. The readings include biblical readings, but also include the daily Martyrology for the upcoming day, and a reading or two from a Catholic book or journal. For example, when I visited in October 2004, there was a lengthy journal article on the Catholic Church in China from the American Benedictine Review. When I visited in August 2005, there was a book entitled What Happens at Mass, by a Benedictine author.
Being that this is the main meal of the day, there is a sung blessing both before and after the meal. After lunch, the monks would file into the Convento for a short prayer. Then it was time for cleanup. That was usually finished by 2PM. There was an hour and a half of free time before the Canonical Hour of None at 3:30. On Sundays, None was at 4 P.M., and the main meal after that.
There is plenty of time between Sext and None on Sunday for private activites such as hikes. There are plenty of opportunities for hikes on or around the abbey property.
None consists of another 3 psalms or psalm excerpts, preceded by an invocation and hymn, and followed by some short prayers. It follows the exact same framework as Tierce and Sext and also takes about 15 minutes. One feature of each of the "Little Hours", was that a hymn prefaced each Hour. Here, for example, is a hymn that was used frequently for Sext. It is called Rector Potens Verax Deus, and is attributed to St. Ambrose:
O God of Truth, Almighty Lord / You rule the changing hours of Day / You send the beauty of the Dawn / And the burning heat of Noon
Put out the fire of strife in us / Remove the deadly heat of sin / Our bodies guard with loving care / Upon our hearts your peace bestow
At the end of Nones, there is a sort sung prayer called "Sub Tuum Praesidium", the oldest extant hymn to the Blessed Virgin Mary.
At the end of None on Sunday, there would be a blessing for the new Table Reader. He too would kneel in front of the altar. Then he would pray for guidance and understanding, among other things, as he performs these duties. There would then be a blessing.
There is also a scheduled period of private Lectio for the monks between 4PM and 5PM Monday through Saturday, which is to be spent in their cells. This could be a biblical passage or it could be some spiritual reading.
The bells ring again for a half-hour period of Exposition and Eucharistic Adoration in Church at 5:20. After half an hour, it was time for Vespers. Vespers and Lauds form the "Hinge Prayers" of the Hours. Lauds opens the day with praise; Vespers closes the day with thanksgiving. The arrangement is much the same as for Lauds and takes about as long. Instead of the "Benedictus" prayer, there was the "Magnificat". Four psalms were chanted. There was also a biblical reading and some additional prayers and intercessions. There was also a hymn for Vespers. Here is one such hymn, written by Pope St. Gregory the Great:
O Great Creator of the Sky / You would not let confusion reign / But set the heavens up above / To keep the waters far apart
A place for water in the clouds / Another for the streams below / That burning heat be tempered thus / As to not scorch the face of Earth.
Pour out on us, most gracious God / A stream of never failing Grace / That our past sins we not repeat / Nor may they wear our virtue down.
May faith increase and light our souls / O may that faith bring radiant light / May faith all vanity supress / May nothing false supress that faith.
There was one thing that set Lauds and Vespers apart. There was a short period of reflective silence between the chanting of each psalm. This is a practice that hearkens back to the practice of the Desert Fathers, and is being revived in some monastic communities.
After Vespers was supper with the monks. That too was taken in silence, with some music playing in the background. The guests were instructed to leave the dishes for the monks.
After cleanup, there was a brief Chapter meeting. Here, among other things, a section from the Holy Rule of St. Benedict was read out, and the Superior would make some brief comments relevant to the selection. On Sundays, however, the Chapter Meeting would be replaced by a recreation period. This gives the monks time to socialise or play board games.
The bells would ring for Compline at 7:30 P. M.. Just as Vigils bids farewell to the night and welcomes the day, Compline bids farewell to the day and welcomes the night. It is also done at least partially by candlelight. The language alternates between English and Latin on alternate days. The rest of the Hours are all in English. Compline begins with a few short introductory prayers followed by an Examination of Conscience. This is an opportunity to reflect on the day's activities, for both good or ill. Three Psalms and a hymn were then sung. It concluded with the Superior sprinkling everyone with Holy Water as a night blessing.
Thus begins what is known as "Grand Silence", where no unnecessary talking or noise is allowed between the end of Compline and the end of Mass the next day. As you can see, the monastic day at Christ in the Desert allows for four hours of work, four hours of public prayer, and four hours (or so) of private prayer, Lectio, and study.
It is not so much a hard life as it is a relentless one. There's no such thing as "calling in sick". If you miss one of the Canonical Hours, someone might drop by your cell and check in on you. If you are late or miss one of the Hours, you are expected to apologise for it at the next Chapter or Work Meeting. Not only that, the entire book of Psalms is chanted or read every week. Some psalms would be chanted several times during that week. Unless you are the Guestmaster, you are not going to interact very much with the guests. You are going to be interacting with the same people 24 hours a day 7 days a week. And that's the hardest part of monastic life. Not the hours and hours of prayer a day, or the work, but the fact that you have to deal with the same fallible humans day after day after day. And, don't forget, they also have to deal with you!
I always get a giggle out of people who assume that monasticism involves a flight from the world. If you join a monastery to flee from the world, you will soon have to flee the monastery. It involves a separation from the world in order to more completely engage it on a spiritual level. That's not the same as running away from the world.
I also get a giggle out of people who assume that monasticism is for loners. Being a loner would certainly make certain aspects of that life easier to bear, for example the silence and the aloneness. The monastic cell is a place of special encounter with God. When you are alone with God, however, you are also alone with yourself. You need to have the emotional maturity to handle that. Also, you are living in close proximity with other fallible humans. If you can't get along with people, you are going to have trouble adjusting to monastic life. The monk cultivates solitude so that God can speak. That is not the same as being a loner.