Barbara owns a Yoga studio in the North Carolina mountains where I found my way into a body and practice that still takes this recovering Baptist by surprise. A deep listener with quiet instincts, Barbara has a knack for sharing the right book at the right time. When she learned that an upcoming pilgrimage would include a weeklong stay at a monastery, Barbara recommended that I read St. Benedict’s Rule of Order in preparation for my journey. Named after the 6th century Italian monk whose simple guidelines founded the western monastic tradition, Benedict’s Rule continues to govern spiritual communities across the globe that share commitments to a life devoted to prayer, work, and service. Perhaps it’s unusual that I didn’t encounter Benedict’s writing as a graduate student of religious cultures. But it’s just as fitting that Benedict came my way in the Yoga studio where body and breath compete with my usual fare of book learning.
When Barbara passed the dog-eared book along one morning after class, her enthusiasm seemed somewhat excessive for a treatise on monastic life. Extolling the Rule’s practical approach to the living of each day, Barbara mentioned the benedictine vow of hospitality that requires all guests to be welcomed and received as Christ. The Yoga mat can be another place to keep on the lookout for gods and goddesses among us. Among the rituals that bring a practice to its proper close, students and teachers often bow to one another before breaking the silence with a shared offering: “Namaste.” Translated from the Sanskrit as “bowing to you,” this embodied liturgy is often accompanied by a blessing that honors the sanctity of all present. Stretched out on mats, we breathe in words that preach a universal gospel: “May the light in me, recognize the light in all others.” Or, in the words of Saint Benedict quoting both Jesus and the Apostle Paul: “May all guests who present themselves be welcomed as Christ.” Namaste, y’all. Onward!
With St. Benedict’s Rule and a Yoga mat in tow, I set out on a month-long pilgrimage. The British have a colorful term for the art of traveling purposefully toward unknown ends. I coddiwompled with gusto, communing intentionally and somewhat aimlessly with myself, with God, and with all others. I learned quickly that setting my sights on the divine meant that my carefully mapped itinerary would need to accommodate holy shenanigans of all kinds. Along the way, I encountered entire pantheons, saints and sinners, as well as a memorable young circus performer named Celeste with whom I shared a hostel dormitory room before heading into the wilderness. As my trusty Subaru and I navigated 13 miles of rutted dirt road leading into a desert canyon, a palette of blues, tans, reds, and browns painted a landscape warmed by the glare of the winter sun. The shadows were growing long as I pulled up to the guest quarters that would be my home for the next week. The small, L-shaped building wrapped around an open courtyard where a bulletin board posted a list of guests arriving that day. I found my name and room number and, after unloading the car, prepared myself to enter Benedict’s world.
Ensconced in a cozy room that opened onto the shared courtyard, I unpacked my clothes and the extensive travel library I hoped would provide just enough thought-work to keep some of the desert stillness at bay. In addition to curating my reading list, I had done my homework, studying the monastery website and chatting with friends who make regular forays to Christ in the Desert for their own spiritual retreats. I felt reasonably prepared for my monastic moment, but as I settled into the palpable quiet echoing off the canyon walls, I was grateful to discover a detailed guide that covered all aspects of the monastery’s daily schedule. I read about silence and its call to prayer. I read about daily work and its call to purpose. And I read about a Holy Catholic Church and its call to a table challenged by the radical inclusion promised by Benedict’s Rule. Ever the good student, I read the guide from cover to cover before grabbing my headlamp and setting out in the darkness. I was ready for my desert reckoning.
The monastery’s chapel sits underneath a tall limestone cliff where three crosses perched on the canyon’s edge transform the New Mexico desert into a biblical tableau. Two paths lead from the guest house to the chapel. One is a wide gravel road for day visitors; the other, a walking trail dotted by hand-carved stations of the cross. I walked the road that first night, worried about getting lost in an unfamiliar place. I was nervously contemplating unanswered questions as I approached the chapel’s wooden doors that stretched from the base of the simple adobe structure to its roofline. What would I find inside? Would I meet God face-to-face? Would she speak Latin? Would I be able to hear anything beyond the beating of my own heart?
After making more noise than anticipated heaving open the doors, I found myself in a different kind of quiet, gathered in from the desert stillness by the tangible intentions of those preparing for worship. Standing in the doorway, a prominent crucifix drew my eyes upward to large windows that opened to the surrounding landscape. With the desert fathers and mothers standing watch, I wandered into a worship practice dating to the writing of the Psalms themselves. In foreign lands and at home, we sing new songs and old. Raising up songs of praise and lament, we become a living chorus, a mighty stream.
As I settled into my seat, the brothers began trickling in for Vespers. Ranging from their mid-20s to late 80s, each brother entered the chapel differently, honoring the altarpiece celebrated as host of living word and body. Some knelt on one knee, others on two, while others still prostrated flat out on the floor in an act of full-body reverence that took my breath away. Before sitting down, each brother turned to the visitor’s section and nodded or bowed in greeting. And just like that, the simple gesture turned stranger into sister. I had been welcomed as Christ. When the chanted service began, I faked my way through an unfamiliar liturgy until I figured out when to sing and when to listen, when to sit and when to stand. I can still remember my awkward fumbling as I, too, bowed down. Allowing my body to try on a posture of reverence, my mind took me back to the Yoga mat and to the altars within.
At the conclusion of the service, the brothers once again acknowledged all guests before kneeling at the altar and filing back into the monastery. Two monks broke rank and turned to invite overnight guests to the dining hall for the evening meal. As the monks approached, the younger of the two introduced himself as Brother Benedict. “You must be Meredith,” he said. “Welcome. Did you find your room? Do you have everything you need? We’ve been expecting you.” It wasn’t an effusive greeting, but being called by name reverberated in surprising ways. Bible verses long ago committed to and subsequently lost from memory came flooding back: “He calleth his own sheep by name and leadeth them out.” He “hath known my name” and redeemed me. When Brother Benedict uttered my name after an afternoon of solitude, I felt deep kinship with the biblical legends who encountered the grace of inclusion in their own gospel stories. On the way to dinner, I wondered what this naming and claiming of one another in the image and vision and love of Christ might yield. I also wondered about how a radical and holy welcome might transform our capacity to love ourselves and one another.
Brother Benedict accompanied me to the guest entrance of the dining area where he pointed out the napkin I would use for the week. Ushering me along, he encouraged me to step up and help myself. “Don’t be shy,” he said. “Eat.” The evening meal was served buffet style, with the guests helping themselves from one side of the table while the brothers lined up on the other. I carried my simple meal of soup and bread to a long table where other guests were seated in silent companionship. As I sat down to eat, I found myself facing the entire monastic community. My afternoon reading had mentioned the layout of the dining hall where brothers and visitors would face one another as a sign of welcome and respect. I had been curious about how it might feel to eat somewhat face-to-face, navigating fork and knife in full view of God and everybody. I can share that it’s not for the faint of heart, this staring down the presumption of your innate holiness and the blessing of your inborn glory. But what a mantle to assume, this birthright in Christ. From their respective tables, the brothers smiled encouragingly and ate their meal, sitting comfortably with those who had come to visit. Finishing together, we cleared our plates and headed into the Great Silence until morning. As I went to bed that first night, I took stock of my first few hours at the monastery: I had been welcomed. I had been called by name. I had been fed. And so I rested in and as Christ.
Over the course of the week, I adapted to a monastic routine prescribed centuries ago. My early mornings were marked by long walks in the desert. Most afternoons, I journaled at the Chama River where unfamiliar bird calls interrupted the quiet that seemed to stake a claim for presence itself. Could I be present to the flock of geese flying low over the water; to the free-roaming cattle grazing nearby; to the steep pitch of the canyon walls; to the fullness of each breath? Some days, I joined in the work of the monastery. Stuffing envelopes for an annual appeal, repetition lulled me into an introspection that heightened my senses. Kneeling, chanting, praying, working, walking, breathing – the day was stripped to its ancient elements, punctuated by bells that clamored for my attention, calling me back to center. Come, they announced, in the name of the Father, the Son, and Her many mysteries.
I would be remiss to paint the monastery in sepia-toned hues and sacred anachronisms. The uniform robes could not mask the brothers’ individuality or their shared humanity. They laughed. They frowned. They bantered. The brothers also honored theological truth claims that contradicted my interpretation of the benedictine call to welcome. I stumbled across the fine print of the monastery’s hospitality during lunch. The reading materials had noted that the main meal would feature something called “table reading,” but offered no further explanation. When dining solo, I often bring along a book for company and assumed that lunchtime Lectio Divina would have us all reading silently. As we began eating, however, a brother stepped up to a lectern I had missed the night before, turned on the microphone and began reading out loud.
As luck would have it, or perhaps it was divine play, the brothers were enjoying Bishop Robert Barron’s latest book, To Light a Fire on The Earth: Proclaiming the Gospel in a Secular Age. Robert Barron is a visible and prolific spokesperson for the Catholic faith. His Word on Fire media organization has been wildly successful at sharing modern catholic conservatism with a global audience. I am neither Catholic theologian nor Barron scholar, but I quickly discerned the maneuverings of a text deeply invested in delineating between secular word and gospel truth, between morality and modernity, and between those whose lifestyles affirm a particular interpretation of values and those who love and live anyway. As the table reading began, I found myself staring down the manmade fault-line between heaven and earth, wondering about those we sacrifice in our earnest, and often well-intentioned, attempts to separate the wheat from its chaff. For a full week, I listened to a tired argument about human sexuality and the moral failure of our time to protect the sanctity of marriage. It was a jarring juxtaposition, this holy posturing that drew a stark line in the sand of an otherwise expansive desert with more than enough room for all.
It challenged me, this collective table reading, because I had a hard time reconciling the generosities extended my body with a politic of exclusion that preached a separate and far from equal gospel. I didn’t ask how Barron’s theology informed the monastery’s actual practice of hospitality, but I read the room where church fathers and brothers nodded in studied agreement with the table reader’s well-worn argument. I had a hard time imagining all brothers or sisters feeling welcome or Christ-like at that table. Listening to an unyielding theology while staring down my own divine birthright, I questioned our individual and institutional capacities to embrace difference itself as the brilliance of a God whose boundless, all-inclusive love defies our sincerest efforts to contain Him.
After a week of looking and listening for the divine, I left the monastery behind and continued to the California coast to watch the gray whales migrate before heading back home. My journey was certainly far-flung and gifted lessons that continue to play out in my grappling to be a welcoming presence in this world. My particular path from Yoga mat to church pew – and back – travels on Ujjayi breath, a ritual practice that quiets my mind and reminds me to bring my body along for the ride. Ujjayi is “victorious breath” and I claim victory each time I clear my mind and remember that we are all called to honor the holiness within and within all others. When I am at rest, my mind’s eye sometimes sees brothers lying prostrate before an altar. When I feel the vibrations of shared, intentional breath, my body remembers the sound waves of chanted Psalms shaping the contours of worship. And when I go to the mat to claim my Alleluia, I honor the radical welcome we extend one another.
Namaste, and Amen.
November 7, 2019