Anyone driving along the northwest New Mexico highway between Dulce and Blanco will eventually come upon a sign labeled “Monastery” with an arrow pointing down a dusty, unassuming road. This is the path that leads to the Monastery of Our Lady of the Desert, a community of Benedictine nuns who have established a home in the Diocese of Gallup.
The Benedictine Order is one of the oldest monastic orders in Roman Catholicism, founded by St. Benedict around 529 BC. Benedict’s sister, St. Scholastica, also followed the monastic way of life, and any of the Benedictine monasteries or abbeys around the world may be filled with either monks or nuns.
Each monastery follows The Rule of St. Benedict, a set of instructions for daily life, and yet each community is autonomous, though it may join with others to form a congregation. The purpose of the Benedictine way of life is simple: stability, conversion, and obedience. Each monk or nun takes a vow of obedience to their Abbot or Abbess and maintains the monastic way of life. Benedictines are also known for their hospitality and reception of guests, generally for those who seek to go on retreat.
At the Monastery of Our Lady of the Desert, the way of life is much the same as it is in other monasteries throughout the world. The nuns rise early, pray the Divine Office (a series of prayers consisting of offices said at various times throughout the day), go about daily chores, celebrate Mass with a chaplain, and look after the needs of any guests who may be visiting. On top of their three Benedictine vows, the nuns also “seek God through a life of prayer, silence and solitude.” According to their website, “Our way of life frees us to give glory and praise to God, intercede through prayer for the needs of the world and also offer hospitality.”
The monastery as it is now is still growing. It was founded in 1990 but did not move to its present location in the Gallup Diocese until 2009, when the nuns were deeded with land near Gobernador, NM and started with three modest buildings. Currently it consists of a chapel, guesthouse, conference center, and living quarters, all of which sit at the base of a small mesa. The nuns hope to begin construction on a future monastery and church which would sit at the top of the mesa, turning the collection of buildings at the bottom into a retreat center.
Mother Benedicta Serna, OSB, is the current prioress. She almost immediately breaks into a kind, warm smile as she reflects on life at the monastery, including the growth she has seen in the area of vocations.
“We have three sisters in formation,” she says. “We have a junior – she’ll be making her solemn vows on December 12, on the feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe, so we’re beginning to prepare for that. We also have a novice. The novitiate is a two-year program, and she’ll be completing her first year in November. [The Novitiate] involves studying the vows, monastic life, monastic history, and our constitutions. And then we have a postulant also, and that’s a year long. They come for that time, and just live with us, basically. They have to come to all the offices, Masses, prayers…it’s the same every day.” She breaks into a laugh. “You think it would be boring, but it isn’t. It’s a routine, and it flows throughout the day, the week, the year, the seasons…you grow in it. You grow deeper, in your own prayer life, in your own presence with God and with each other.”
Although the basic structure of the days remains the same, sometimes isolated desert life can provide unexpected surprises. Upon arrival at the monastery, we were greeted by Sister Mary, who reached into her pocket for the guesthouse keys, and brought out a canister of bear spray instead.
“Oh, that’s just in case the bear shows up again,” she says nonchalantly, as if discussing a stray pet. “We’ve had a couple visits from him before but he doesn’t really bother us.” A bear had apparently paid a visit to the monastery one night, searching for the food that the nuns set aside for their three cats, but since Benedictine hospitality does not extend to members of the ursine family, he went away hungry, leaving two large pawprints on the window of the kitchen.
This is a rare occasion, however. Mostly what the nuns appreciate about the desert landscape of the Gallup Diocese is the time it provides for reflection and quiet. There is a deep silence here, usually broken only by soft birdsong, the sound of a shovel moving earth in the garden, or the monastery bell calling everyone to prayer. The prayers start early in the morning with Lauds (dawn prayer) at 4:30 and continue throughout the day until compline (evening prayer) at night.
“For us, the desert – it’s either something you’re attracted to or you’re called to,” said Mother Benedicta. “You know, it is isolated, and that’s what we like, it’s what we wanted, like Jesus going out to spend time in the desert. The women that come here, the guests, they want that experience. [We’re] here to pray for the needs of the people, the Bishop, the priests, the religious – there’s such a great need here. We want to be a presence of prayer for them.”
Mother Julianne Allen, who was Prioress for the community until 2004, spent some time describing the importance of the monastery’s quiet way of life.
“There’s a line in the Psalms which says, ‘Be still, and know that I am God,’” she said. “So the important thing in our lives is to have time for when we are simply putting ourselves in God’s presence.”
She describes this dedication to prayer as something that the nuns deliberately apply to their existence in the Gallup Diocese, and echoed Mother Benedicta’s desire to serve the people of the Diocese.
“Our purpose is to have a place of prayer: to pray for the Church, to pray for the Diocese, and Bishop Wall said something very nice when he first became Bishop. He said if there hadn’t been a community like ours, he would have had to look around for one for the Diocese.”
Those who live at the Monastery have only the highest hopes for the future. While there are around ten nuns at any given time, Mother Benedicta expressed her hope that the monastic life could foster vocations for young women.
“We would like to invite young women in the Diocese to come and spend time with us, to discern their vocation,” she said. “We’re hoping in the future to have vocation weekends, to see if God might be calling them to religious life as a Benedictine nun, just to come and see! I think that’s the wonderful thing about religious life, because you can come and try it – it doesn’t mean you have to stay. We just tell the women, ‘Come and see! Come and spend some time with us.’”
The buildings, too, are growing, as the most recent project, a cozy guesthouse, was recently completed, and the energy for the complex is now mostly run from solar power. The nuns continue to fundraise for their biggest current dream – the new monastery building and church.
During her interview, Mother Julianne happens by chance to quote Psalm 121.
“In the Old Testament, the people at that time thought that the higher you got on the mountaintop, the closer you were to God,” she said. “There’s a Psalm that says ‘I raise my eyes to the mountains, from where shall my help come? My help shall come from the Lord, who made Heaven and Earth.”
These ancient words echo the deepest desire of this monastic community: to raise themselves to the nearby mountaintop, and to continue to live and proclaim the word of God to the people of the Diocese.