Renewal in Christ Jesus
The Right Reverend John C. Wester, Archbishop of Santa Fe, presided over the Solemnity of the Annunciation of Mary coinciding with the Abbatial Blessing of Abbot Christian Leisy, OSB on March 25, 2019 at Christ in the Desert Monastery.
Archbishop Wester prefaced his remarks with memories of living in Utah, particularly near the Covey Institute. His most poignant Covey Institute memory he recounted to those in attendance: “The main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing!”
Immediately turning to Mary and the Angel Gabriel Archbishop Wester restated that Mary’s role in salvation history is important; after all, she is the first disciple, our model of faith. “We are called to follow Mary in responding to God’s presence in our little moment of time by centering ourselves on Christ, as did Mary,” said Archbishop Wester.
The Archbishop told the assembled that Joseph is “worrying, deciding, dreaming, naming, renouncing: all to nurture the divine Child his wife bears and to care for Mary.” He continued, “I would like to encourage you, Abbot Christian, my brother, to be as Joseph for this community… And I know that your Prior, who benefits both from Joseph and Gabriel, will be a sure source of strength and support for you,” Archbishop Wester said.
Archbishop Wester declared, “I rejoice with you now, as in this Eucharist, we keep our eyes on Christ who first came to us in humility as a vulnerable child, and was in due time crucified in weakness and risen in glory so that we might be one with him forever in the fullness of his Kingdom…That is, after all, the main thing!”
ABBOT CHRISTIAN’S REMARKS
Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ,
Thank you all being here on this glorious day of the Annunciation of the Lord, 2019.
From the looks of things so far today, it may appear that I am the focus of it all. Appearances are deceiving, for in fact, it is the Lord who is the focus and the community of Christ in the Desert, under the guidance and inspiration of the Holy Spirit, who has called us here in the first place. I am the new abbot of the monastery, but really only that, the spiritual leader, who is really a servant of a band of brothers who are seeking God, and who should above all, desire unceasingly to be men of prayer and service in the church as Benedictine monks.
With that in mind, I want to pledge myself above all in my time as abbot to be forming monks “for life,” that is, assisting those who are truly called, to find here a permanent home, unto death, under a Rule and an abbot and fully committed to our vows of obedience, stability of conversion of life at this time and in this place. That can only be realized by a comprehensive program of initial, ongoing and permanent formation in the monastic way of life. We are now in the process of putting such a program into place and it will demand the time and energy of all of us to make it a reality, but I believe it is essential for the well-being of all concerned, monks and those who are our friends and associates alike.
With the formation goals in mind, the importance of knowing English, spoken and written, is vital. I will do all I can to make that a reality as well, perhaps summed up by saying that when a homily is preached in church, or talk given in the daily chapter meeting, or formation readings assigned, all of us will comprehend what is being said or explained and thereby be better formed and informed about the life we live in common.
Along the same lines, there needs to be obedience, not out of fear of punishment when obedience is resisted or neglected, but obeying out of love for Christ and the monastic life. When obedience is lacking, there needs to be sanctions, to awaken the heart to truly be engaged in the life here and not drifting by on the periphery outside the heart of the community.
This means commitment by all to really living the life fully, with its daily demands and challenges, and doing so joyfully, out of love for Christ and the brethren. There cannot be a true monastic life without discipline and sacrifice. Like Christ himself, we have come here to serve and not to be served, so that must be uppermost in our hearts and actions.
Coupled with this is the essential work of discerning well who is really called to be here. Formators, as they are called, are the ones especially in charge of working with the new members, have a very important role to play, but really every one in the community as well. This is a vital task in order to have a strong and lasting community. Yes, some will discern they are called elsewhere and some will die–in fact all of us will die–but we must hand on to the next generation of monks here men who are formed,
committed and persevering in the call to follow Christ in a humble and even simple form of monastic life, a manner of life intended of our founder Father Aelred Wall in starting this monastery 55 years ago.
Finally, we monks here must and can live within our means. This implies frugality in accord with the vow of poverty, which we do not formally make, but is implicit in our vows of obedience and conversion of life. We can witness well to the possibility of living with less, which does not mean destitution, but using well the resources that we earn or are given, to be good stewards of all God’s gifts that come our way.
These are my principle goals and hopes. They can be realized with the work of us all, dear brothers, and friends of our monastery. Many thanks from the heart to all for the ongoing support that makes our life here possible. Without that help we could not exist. With it, we can and must live responsibly, fully and joyfully, as disciples of the Lord Jesus Christ and as God’s children. What more can I say? Perhaps with the scripture, we can truly say, “With God we shall do bravely.” That is my prayer, that we may rise up and be doing what we must, today and every day. My motto as abbot is this: “Ad vitam eternam,” that is, “toward eternal life.” This is our goal and why we want to live well, in order to enjoy the fruits of a good life and the rewards of eternal life in heaven. Thank you again and may God bless you always.
WHAT IS AN ABBATIAL BLESSING?
In the Roman Catholic Church, abbots continue to be elected by the monks of an abbey to lead them as their religious superior in those orders and monasteries that make use of the term (some orders of monks, as the Carthusians for instance, have no abbots, only priors). The abbot is chosen by the monks from among the fully professed monks. Once chosen, he must request blessing: the blessing of an abbot is celebrated by the bishop in whose diocese the monastery is or, with his permission, another abbot or bishop. The ceremony of such a blessing is similar in some aspects to the consecration of a bishop, with the new abbot being presented with the mitre, the ring, and the crosier as symbols of office and receiving the laying on of hands and blessing from the celebrant. Though the ceremony installs the new abbot into a position of legal authority, it does not confer further sacramental authority- it is not a further degree of Holy Orders (although some abbots have been ordained to the episcopacy).
Once he has received this blessing, the abbot not only becomes father of his monks in a spiritual sense, but their major superior under canon law. The abbot wears the same habit as his fellow monks, though by tradition he adds to it a pectoral cross.
“New and Improved!” How many times have we heard or read these words? The American spirit can be captured in the slogan of General Electric: “Progress is our most important product”. Newer is better. When we think about “renewal”, we are always on the look-out for something fresh: a new way to pray, a new way to learn, a new way to relax. Spring is the season of fresh beginnings, and the time
of year when we celebrate Christ’s Resurrection.
A noteworthy Catholic author, Ronald Knox, once delivered an Easter sermon on the “newness” of Easter. He noted that for His enemies, Christ’s burial seemed to herald a new beginning. Pilate, Herod, and the Chief Priests breathed a sigh of relief that a crisis had been averted. Pilate and Herod patched up their quarrel. The removal of the Galilean wonderworker meant that there would be no popular uprising, no harsh Roman reprisals, no splinter group of fanatics to stir up the mob. But their perception of a new beginning was wrong: within forty years the holy city of Jerusalem, and its Temple, would be destroyed.
And for the friends of Jesus? Although we naturally picture the risen Lord appearing in a glorious way to His disciples, a careful reading of the Scriptures shows that this was not the case. He appeared very ordinary, so ordinary that at times they did not even realize who He was. They encountered Jesus in the same places they had met Him before: the Upper Room, on the shore of the Sea of Galilee. As the old song puts it, “I’ll be seeing you in all the old familiar places”. At first, it seemed that not much changed. Peter and his companions went fishing; the disciples kept worshipping in the Temple and synagogue as they had always done.
But of course, beneath these ordinary appearances, everything had changed – irrevocably. The revolution brought about by Christ’s death and resurrection was not primarily a matter of externals, it was first and foremost a matter of personal conversion. The renewal was not an “novelty”, it was a new life bubbling up from within. This renewal is at the heart of our monastic vocation: the Rule of St. Benedict (ch. 58) tells us that when a candidate enters the community, he or she is to promise conversatio morum, a phrase that has used up barrels of ink in monastic circles over the centuries. That unusual word conversatio came to be rendered as conversio; scribes assumed that this was St. Benedict was talking about. In a way, he was: conversatio means “a way of life”. In other words, the candidate embraces the daily routine of prayer, work, study, and community life that are the hallmarks of Benedictine monasticism, and by giving himself or herself to this, conversion will gradually come about. Like the first disciples, we encounter the living Christ in the humdrum, daily round of life.
This is why the Benedictine formula is also applicable outside the monastery, as the experience of thousands of Oblates can attest. We get to the “new and improved” by way of “the tried and true”. We can certainly seek spiritual encounters in special places, or with special devotions; this is part of human life. Many people come to stay at Christ in the Desert for this very reason, and once in a while we need to break our routine to re-evaluate our priorities, and let the Lord touch us in unexpected ways. But the lesson of Easter is that the risen Lord usually comes to us “in all the old familiar places”: our home, our neighborhood, our parish, our workplace.
RENEWAL FOR THE GUESTHOUSE
The Monastery of Christ in the Desert is pleased to announce a major refurbishing of the common guest room at the Monastery’s Guesthouse.
The work of this major and extensive refashioning of our guest lodgings was led by Ms. Kris Lajeskie, who has extraordinary taste and eloquence and is the President of a nationally recognized firm in the field of hotel and residential interior design. Santa Fe has been her home and headquarters for 25 years, and she splits her time between San Diego and New York. Hotels and restaurants throughout New Mexico feature her interiors which focus on an authentic cultural experience with signature artisanal touches. As a long-time friend and oblate of the Monastery, her generosity in gifting the monastic community
with her artistic talents and expertise for such a noteworthy design endeavor is deeply appreciated by the Abbot and the entire monastic community. Kris commented that “Creating a peaceful and comfortable respite for guests, has been a pure labor of love and I thoroughly enjoyed the collaboration process with the monks.”
The Guestmaster and the whole monastic community assure all who come to be with us that they will have a wonderful experience and one that will be enhanced by the recent additions to our common guest room.
REFLECTIONS FROM A SIMPLY PROFESSED MONK (a continuing series)
The idea of renewing my commitment to monastic life as it is lived in this monastery brings to mind, first and foremost, the vow of conversion that every monk in the Benedictine tradition takes. When most people speak of conversion, they often understand it to be a discreet event within a person’s life in which they “turn around.” For St. Benedict, however, conversion is primarily a constant and life-long process. Each day, maybe even multiple times a day, we must intentionally choose to turn back to the Lord, by his grace. Even St. Anthony of the Desert, the father of monks, said that every day he “begins again.” This tradition has been handed on by faithful monks for almost 2000 years. I even heard a story recently of a few people who were greatly impressed with a man because he had persevered in monastic life for 40 years. His response? He smiled and said, “It’s a good start.” Now, that is a real monk who is truly living the vow of conversion.
Abbot Christian, particularly in his remarks at the end of his abbatial blessing, has made very clear to the monks of this monastery that he wants all of his brothers to be zealous for their own conversion. Only when we renew each and every day this fundamental aspect of our vocation can we truly be called monks and can the place truly be called a monastery. It is all too easy to get caught up in the routine, go through the motions, and yet not have it effect one’s interior life. Many may be surprised by this. “How,” they might be thinking, “can someone live this relentless schedule, profess vows, chant the office, and not be changed by it?” The answer is surprisingly very simple: external observances do not automatically cause interior growth.
For example, I have often times gone through Vigils (upwards of an hour of constant chanting) without having actually prayed a word of it, due to allowing various distractions to gain a foothold in my mind and heart. This, of course, is exactly what the devil, the world, and the flesh desire: no real conversion.
In order to live the vows we have made we must renew our commitment daily, and be vigilant because “the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, looking for someone to devour” (1 Peter 5:8). And this is not just for monks; this applies to all Christians, whatever your state in life. We must all convert, everyday renewing our commitment to Jesus Christ and His Church, if we hope to attain union with Him forever in heaven.
REFLECTIONS FROM A NEW SIMPLY PROFESSED MONK (a continuing series)
On Palm Sunday I indulged in my usual long hike in the Chama Canyon after Mass. In addition to water, light snacks, and my travel Bible, I brought along The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry that I borrowed from our monastery library with the kindly help of our octogenarian librarian. The Little Prince has been sitting on my bookshelf in my cell since I was a postulant, tons of late fees should have accumulated, I am sure (Sorry, Fr. Bernard!). As with any good book, the nuggets of wisdom I extract upon each reading are different and apply to my life differently.
For those who may not be familiar with the novella, The Little Prince is philosophical tale, with humanist values. First published in April 1943, it is the most famous work of French aristocrat, writer, poet, and pioneering aviator Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. It seemed appropriate on a hike to read a book written by someone who enjoyed wandering as he did.
After walking southward for about an hour and a half, I stopped at a quiet, solitary place along the Chama River and refreshed myself with water, nuts, and some light reading of The Prince. I lingered on the early exchanges between the fox and the Little Prince. “I cannot play with you,” the fox said. “I am not tamed.” “What does that mean— ‘tame.’?” Inquired the little prince. “It is an act too often neglected,” said the fox. “It means to establish ties.” The fox elaborates,” … if you tame me, then we will need each other. To me, you shall be unique in all the world. To you, I shall be unique in all the world…”
I thought, “Isn’t that what just happened to me only a few short weeks ago as I professed simple vows in front of my fellow monks, family, and friends? I shared in a renewal of established ties. I have been observed and have observed the community for close to two years; I know each monk by name and have established many intimate ties with dear brothers. But now, after all of that, I promise for one year: my stability, conversion of life and obedience, according to the Rule of our Holy Father Benedict, in the Monastery of Christ in the Desert. This is a first step toward solemn vows. I am not just saying I enjoy being here with you my brethren, but that I intend to stay to seek God and be a ‘monk for life’!
Another character from the book, the flower, typifies a being that has roots. The flower is beloved by the little prince. He may travel throughout the galaxy, but she has roots and lives a less complicated life. Again, I am establishing roots as a simply professed monk, intentionally detaching from the world and living more simply. My vows were a radical (relating to or affecting the fundamental nature of something; far-reaching or thorough) renewal of my roots within my monastic community.
As I concluded my walk, I am humbled by the thought that it is not my will, but God’s Will that is done. Walking in nature heightens my awareness of my dependency on God and how fragile and small I am in comparison to His creation. It was a great walk, a cool day with a breeze. So, I finished my reading in the book and I was eager to return to my home and my brothers…and return my egregiously overdue book!
RENEWAL IN DIRECTION
“SHOW ME THE WAY I SHOULD GO”
Paraphrasing a bit from Psalm 143:8, we are happy to tell you and “SHOW YOU” the news signs we have.
A number of people who told us over the years how they would see the little sign that used to be at the intersection of Highway 84 and our 13 mile long driveway down Forest Service Road 151, but they didn’t know what kind of Monastery we were, or whether we were open, or if there was a gift shop, or even how far it was. Now all that has changed as you can see from the picture at the beginning of this piece.
It took a long time to secure permission for the signs, get them fabricated and then have them installed by the New Mexico Highway Dept. They and their engineers have been incredibly helpful throughout the whole process and we are grateful for their assistance.
We are already finding out that a good number of people are coming to our Monastery just because they saw the sign. They are delighted to see the beauty of the Chama Canyon, the simple architectural style of our Abbey Church and surrounding buildings, and get a “taste” of the incredible silence that bespeaks of God’s presence. It is not only a further fulfillment of our mission of hospitality, but it also helps when they visit our Giftshop which features so many beautiful religious products and art objects. Their visits are also occasions to let them know of our guesthouse and that we always cordially invite overnight guests to come and join us in our search for God and our prayers for the needs of the world.
Psalm 143, which we pray each week in our Divine Office of praising the Lord, promises that God’s mercy is plentifully offered to those who cry out to God in their need, in their distress. We think of the Monastery as our own physical presence, witness, and “sign” of such hoped for mercy for the human race. For that, we are grateful to now have a sign at the entrance to our driveway that shows the way to go for finding God’s love and salvation.
RENEWAL THROUGH ESL STUDIES
English Language Studies (ESL) at the monastery has been characterized by an initial assessment of the student’s desire and willingness, his capacity and history, and the recognition of his need.
Assessment takes an overview of the monk’s familiarity with these elements: vocabulary, diction, dictation, grammar, writing, speaking and organizing. Most of the monks identified at least three elements; some identified all.
Once this initial assessment was made, the men were grouped into three categories, beginning, intermediate, advanced. Because the backgrounds were so varied, these categories could only be approximate. The three groups met with the instructor four times each week and were given homework to prepare for the following class. All the homework included vocabulary building and the inclusion of the new words in the student’s own conversation. It also included a review of all the lessons covered and a need to identify the specific areas that need clarification. Dictation was always a part of each class, as was speaking with correct form and pronunciation. Appropriate texts were given for each level of competence.
For those monks assigned to read at the Liturgy, Vigils or Mass, an opportunity was provided to meet with the instructor after None each day to prepare for the following day. Over time the improvement was notable.
Finally, age and prior knowledge are very important, but the elements of desire and willingness not only to learn the language but to commit himself heart and soul to this monastery demands no compromise.
We invite certified ESL teachers to be our guest and teach a class of five to seven monks in three to four weeks of immersion. If you are interested, contact Abbot Christian: firstname.lastname@example.org
RENEWAL IN THE GIFTSHOP
As the Beatles once sang, ”It’s getting better all the time!” Our Giftshop is open from 9am to 5pm. Offering a variety of religious articles, the Giftshop supports other Benedictine monasteries and religious communities by selling some of their products alongside our own. Day visitors to the Monastery are invited to join us during our daily pray schedule. Additionally, there is complimentary coffee, tea, and light snacks as a reward for the 13 mile trek down our canyon road. All merchandise purchased through our Gift Shop can be shipped at USPS flat rates. One of our brothers will happily assist you with finding those special items within our Giftshop; and, he will extend to you unreservedly our signature Benedictine hospitality.
My name is Dom Columba. I’ve been at Christ in the Desert only about six months, having entered the novitiate on October 5. I came from Connecticut, from the Archdiocese of Hartford, where I was a pastor and priest for the past seven years. Before that I was an oblate brother at the Benedictine Abbey of Regina Laudis, O.S.B., in Bethlehem, CT, where I was also working as a potter and ecologist. I have graduate degrees in Theology, Environmental Studies, and Montessori Education.
It’s a challenging time to be a religious, to be a monk. Because it is a challenging time to be human, and to be Christian, to follow Christ Crucified and Risen. There are so many pressures and influences trying to undo us, make us less than what we have been made to be and called to be by God.
Yet, what is religion for but to re-mind us, and renew us, in our common humanity, our bonds with one another, with God, and with His creation? Being a monk for me is about standing in the breach, the break, the gaps between people and between heaven and earth, in order to reconcile them by offering oneself, and indeed, our essential mission, as we rise in the dark, pray seven times daily, work and read and reread the Word of God, is to a spiritual combat, to sustain, to uphold and to bear through time, the bonds, the relationships, that in turn sustain us. This always means accepting the Cross of Christ as the way to engage in and creatively serve the bonds of love and peace. As an ecologist I am acutely aware of the fragility of these bonds in creation; as a priest I am just as acutely aware of the elemental value of sacrifice as an act of love, a life-giving force uniting humanity to our Creator and Redeemer, to saving the world. We all are called to do and to be this in some way. But a monk is this in a special way because he is a man of prayer, and forges with his own body and blood, by grace, a life of prayer all around and within him, so that God’s love may have a home in this world.
Standing in the chapel at 3 am I am brought to my knees by a weight more than my own. Who am I there? A rush of faces flows through me, friends, acquaintances, enemies, passing strangers, but also my mother and father, my brothers and sisters, the living and the dead, my grandparents and ancestors of all times and places I have ever and never been. They are all present in me as I make myself present to my God who is making Himself present to me in a remarkable, palpable way, especially in these dark times, the wee hours when time can otherwise seem so thin as to be close to disappearing…. Open, open, awake, awaken; with a steadfast heart and all of these people you present to God, the dawn comes soon enough, the rising star of your heart breaks forth. Who knows who or what is rescued from the night, who is granted refuge and consolation because your heart is pierced, breaking open to chant the praises of the Lord?