About 20 of us clustered around a bonfire in the inky darkness in a tiny cemetery at 3:30 a.m. that Easter morning. We were in the New Mexico desert 13 miles from a paved road.
I stood silent and shivering, wrapped in a blanket. I heard the Rio Chama gurgling past. I heard soft lowing of cattle near the river. I saw only writhing flames and the firelight-lit faces of the few people who stood with me. The stunning mesas and canyons surrounding us had disappeared in the darkness, but I knew they were there, like God.
It was Easter Vigil at the Monastery of Christ in the Desert. The liturgy had begun with the abbot lighting a bonfire at this Benedictine nirvana squeezed between canyon and river amidst empty miles of government-protected wilderness 75 miles northwest of Santa Fe, New Mexico.
I’d had just four hours of sleep. I was a volunteer then at Ghost Ranch, the idyllic Presbyterian retreat center near Abiquiu, New Mexico. I’d crawled into bed at 9:30 and stumbled out of my slumber at 1:30 a.m. At 2 a.m., Presbyterian clergy loaded up three vans of guests at Ghost Ranch and headed down the 13-mile dirt road to the monastery.
The journey took an hour. Distant stars provided dim illumination high above. That dirt road was as thin as a worn piece of string. It twisted along the rim of that canyon and corkscrewed around its narrow curves until it plunged down along the river. Nobody talked.
As we rode, I remembered how a Ghost Ranch staff member had driven out to this monastery for Easter vigil after a rain a few years earlier. Her car slid off the road — fortunately, not where it twists like a Slinky high above the river, but down near the riverbanks — and got stuck. It was dark as tar in that desert at 3 a.m., and bears and mountain lions roam in the backcountry, but she had no choice. She began walking the five miles to the monastery.
After a mile or two, a car happened by and gave her a ride. That family was heading for the monastery, too. There’s nowhere else to go, nothing else on this primitive road except yucca and sage and juniper and pinon and a few primitive campgrounds, but nobody was camping this early in the spring. It took the monks three days to free that stuck car from the mud. Fortunately, tonight, the road was dry.
We arrived at the monastery, parked, and silently walked 10 minutes on the winding path to the tiny adobe-and-glass cross-shaped chapel. We sat down in the 17 wooden chairs reserved for visitors. The altar stands in the center of the chapel, and windows rise up above it like a glass chimney. In the daytime, those windows afford breathtaking views of mesa and sky, but tonight, there was only darkness.
At 3:30 a.m., we filed outside. They had lit a bonfire. Its wild tongues of flame leaped and grasped at the darkness. As the abbot prayed, the ancient ritual began.
When he finished, we walked silently back up to that sleepy chapel, heated by three wood-burning stoves. Before the vigil, a monk had piled wood inside and struck a match. Swaddled in warmth, we sat down for three hours of prayers, candle-lighting, Gospel readings and the liturgy that told the story of mankind’s salvation.
Slowly, silently, noiselessly as a cat, light crept into the sky. My eyes were on the altar, but soon they rose to the faint light of Easter dawn. My ears heard the prayers, but my eyes watched that sky gently tussle and toss and open its eyes.
The light sprawled and expanded, spilling like rich wine from that sky down onto the cliffs. Its fingers found their way to us mortal humans who had sat in the chapel waiting for it much of the night. At 7 a.m., when Mass ended, a monk opened the chapel doors and I saw the sun climbing like a monkey up the walls of the mesas across the river.
One of the monks, watching too, said, very quietly, “Easter morning.”
Some else whispered, “Amen.”