Journey into Silence – Christ in the Desert

The Sound of Silence Ruth Meredith 2000

My journey into the solitude of the Monastery of Christ in the Desert began in a series of fits and starts several days before the early Friday morning when I was to leave.  During that week, I prepared, pasted together, assembled and distributed the final draft of my Masters thesis to my committee.  Completing this project meant that by Thursday white paper dots drifted like snow over the pies of books occupying every inch of floor space in my study.  My cat played with the scrunched-up misprints that overflowed my largest wastebasket by the printer. My journal and list of things to take were buried somewhere in the mess so I descried that I had to clean my study before leaving Friday.  As I put my books back on the shelves and empties the trash s=baskets, I though about the appropriateness of this activity as preparation for the journey into reflective solitude that I had planned for the weekend. Cleaning my studio helped me focus on my goals for this retreat: I want to spend a lot of time just sitting in the sun (if there is any sun).  I will not read or do anything else that I could just as well do at home (except eat). So, while I packed both my sketchbooks and my journal, I took no books to read.  I had done enough reading in the past months.  I also packed my kaleidoscope and a half dozen candles to use for meditation, two small boxes of matches and a flashlight. Around seven, two friends arrived at my house.  On the way to Santa Fe to pick up another friend, we listen to opera and the music of Thomas Tallis.

The dirt road to the monastery fulfilled at the dire warnings about its condition. But my friend’s 4-wheel drive made it an adventure rather than a tedious preliminary. After we got to the monastery, located our rooms, and decided not to ring the bell and disturb the monks, the four of us went our separate ways until lunch.  After lunch—the food was simple but delicious—I went up on the hillside and talked to myself for about 2 hours before I finally calmed down and really believed that I had left Albuquerque and my studies behind.  I began to be able to hear the silence and enter it.  That evening, I reflected in my journal that the quality of silence is more than the absence of noise or sound but seems to have the capacity to swallow sounds that enter its space.

Except for two hours Saturday afternoon when I helped one of the brothers load wood for the chapel, and three of us painted a monk’s cell, I did nothing remotely organized. The weather the entire weekend was glorious.  I sat in the sun by the river, I sat in the sun on a rock on the side of the hill above the chapel.  I sat in the sun with my back against the chapel wall.  After lunch on Saturday, I had a moment of weakness about my resolution to avoid reading.  But I cured it by spending 20 minutes looking through the monastery library to satisfy my curiosity about what monks had available to read and smelling the aroma of old books.  I noticed literature of dubious merit along with texts on the spiritual life and canon law.  Then I went back to sitting in the sun in silence.

As I sat, I noticed that the silence intensified all my senses. I discovered that I could use the white limestone rocks scatter around some of the arroyos to draw on other rocks. I put fresh sage in my gloves so that every time I took my gloves off, I could smell the sharp, clean sent on my hands.  I pressed pieces of sage between the pages of my journal so that the smell would permeate the pages.  To this day, the smell of sage brings back memories of my time at the monastery. By Sunday afternoon, I did not want to leave.  I was just ready to take off my watch.  I had been using the singing of the monastic office and the space of the chapel as an anchor to orient myself in time and space and I was only beginning to be ready to start letting go to enter the liminal space/time of the silence more deeply.

What I brought back to my mundane life in Albuquerque are body memories of clear air, the smell of sage, the rustle of dead grass underfoot, the gritty white powder covering my hands as I drew patterns on the rock, the sounds of the wind moving through cedar tress while circling crows call and hawks circle lazily overhead, the ringing chapel bell vibrating through the wall at my back, chanting rising like swirling incense int vivid space of silence.

Ruth Meredith, 1993

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