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by Katie Butler Johnson

If you’re looking for a change of pace from modern life, the Chama River Canyon Wilderness in Northwestern New Mexico is a great place to start.

I felt an overwhelming sense of peace, permanence and awe as I stood amidst the canyon’s red sandstone cliffs. Those cliffs have reigned over New Mexico’s high desert for eons. They’d been there before we humans arrived and will be here after we’re gone. I think those same feelings I

led the Benedictine Monks to build their monastic community there, in the high desert wilderness, 25 miles away from the nearest town - Abiquiu.

The monks chose that remote location precisely because it was remote, and, with the raw beauty of the high desert as inspiration, it’s where they could quietly live out their lives in prayer, reflection and work. “Brothers of the Desert” by Mari Grana details the monks’ amazing tenacity when they encountered daunting obstacles in building the monastic community which is there today.

Georgia O’Keefe, the renowned artist, lived and worked in Abiquiu from 1929 till 1984. The beauty of New Mexico’s high desert inspired many of her Southwestern paintings. Today her Ghost Ranch is a 21,000acre retreat where you can book overnight stays. (Google it for details.) The ranch has quite a history. It’s been the location for many a Hollywood film.

O’Keefe was a close friend of Benedictine Brother Dennis, one of the founding monks of that monastery. She also was an artistic consultant on plans for the monastery’s early buildings and a very frequent visitor to the site.

15 miles from O’Keefe’s Ghost Ranch, nestled against those red clay cliffs of Chama River Canyon, surrounded by both the Carson and the Santa Fe National Forests, you’ll find the Monastery of Christ in the Desert with its community of monks. It’s the most remote monastery in the Western Hemisphere. If you’ve ever wanted to really experience the “sound of silence,” this is the place. The monks don’t give retreats, but they’ve built a guest house at the monastery for people of all faiths and of no faith who want to experience the peace, solitude and natural beauty of the canyon.

My daughter Beth and I drove to the monastery several weeks ago. A 13mile road, “Forest Service Road #151,” leads to and ends at the monastery. You earn your trip by braving that gravel, rock and clay surface which is winding, steep and scarily narrow at several points. It’s not for the faint of heart. At times you have to creep along and closely monitor the side of the road where a drop off the cliff would send you to oblivion. No guard rails. But, if you take it slow, it’s worth the effort. It’s a magnificent drive through the colorful cliffs. Just hope you don’t meet someone coming the other way. That might require one of you backing up to a pullout place.

We encountered a monk driving a VAN on a narrow span of the road on our way back from the monastery. He was driving on the cliff side; We were driving beside the abyss. We still had about a foot or so of road before the front tire would slide off. E X C E E D I N G L Y G I N G E R L Y, we advanced forward, inch by inch; Beth’s white knuckles locked on steering wheel; Hearts racing. We made it! Phew!!! The whole monastery experience was worth those moments of anxiety. (I’m really glad it was Beth and not me in the driver’s seat.)

I’ve heard it said we humans are spiritual beings having a human experience. Perhaps that explains my need at times to suspend my daily routines and focus on feeding my spirit. My time in the high desert fed my soul.

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