I ask God for the grace of poignant silence this Lent.
The Spirit drove Jesus out into the desert, and he remained in the desert for forty days, tempted by Satan. He was among wild beasts, and the angels ministered to him.
After John had been arrested, Jesus came to Galilee proclaiming the gospel of God: “This is the time of fulfillment. The kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the gospel.”
By Chris Pramuk
I was 32 when I made my first pilgrimage into the high desert plains of northern New Mexico. About an hour’s drive from Taos and 20 minutes more up the state highway from Georgia O’Keeffe’s home in Abiquiú, near Ghost Ranch, there is a small Benedictine monastery called Christ in the Desert, set against cliffs of red rock in the Chama River Canyon. Having read about the monastery in Thomas Merton’s writings, I recruited a fellow teacher to join me during spring break one year. We drove all night from Denver, parked the car just off the main highway, and, at dawn’s first light, shouldered our backpacks and set off on foot down the winding, single-lane dirt road that would lead us through the Chama Canyon and, some 12 miles later, to Christ in the Desert.
What I remember most about that long hike with my friend is the palpable, pregnant silence of the place. For me, then a high school theology teacher immersed in the daily challenges of communicating the faith, the silence was liberating. Bathed in the blue-bright exposure of the New Mexico sun, I felt able to breathe again, just to be, without explanation. I felt embraced by the stark beauty of things, things heard and seen with sudden clarity under the broad desert sky. The nakedness of the landscape — my own nakedness, suddenly, precariously within it — seemed to strip bare all lesser concerns. I was alive; the dry breeze kissed my face, and that was gift enough for the moment.
“One has to be alone, under the sky,” Thomas Merton once observed, “before everything falls into place and one finds one’s own place in the midst of it all.” I was learning, or perhaps relearning, from some forgotten primordial past, seeded in the rock canyon itself, a wisdom that the Indians of Taos Pueblo have never forgotten: that God speaks not only through the word, framed by human flesh; God, Creator, the Great Spirit, sings, too, in the hushed splendor of nature, the looming symphony of silence. Incarnate life in the Spirit calls for the remembrance, the re-harmonization, of these two languages.
In Luke 19, as exuberant crowds welcome Jesus into Jerusalem, he tells the complaining religious authorities — one can imagine with a mischievous laugh — that even if the people were to fall silent, the rocks themselves would cry out with joy. I like to think that he learned this lesson in the silence of the desert, in a place of testing, the stripping bare of all illusory promises, a place probably not that different from the Chama River Canyon. Perhaps the monks of Christ in the Desert are there precisely to remind us of this primordial truth, a wisdom that even Jesus had to discover by direct experience.
May your Lenten journey and mine be touched by nature’s symphony of silence, a music stark and beautiful, which rises up from the roots of the Earth itself when we dare to be still, and listen.
Questions for Contemplation
- In the busyness of everyday living, silence may feel like a luxury. During these Lenten days, where is God inviting you into even a momentary silence?
- Having listened to “the looming symphony of silence,” what part of the chorus are you being invited to sing? For or with whom?
God of the noise and chaos, I come to you seeking silence. Help me to savor the stillness between each beating thrum of my heart. The peace before the demands of the next call. The momentary quiet in a house full of sounds. Though my Lenten desert may be but a handful of scattered moments each day, I desire to hear your voice. Amen.
Meet the Writer
Dr. Christopher Pramuk is Regis University Chair of Ignatian Thought and Imagination and a professor of theology. He is the author of seven books, including two award-winning studies of Thomas Merton, as well as “Hope Sings, So Beautiful: Graced Encounters Across the Color Line,” a meditation on race relations in society and church. Chris’s forthcoming book, “All My Eyes See: The Artistic Vocation of Fr. William Hart McNichols,” a collaboration with artist and iconographer Fr. Bill McNichols, will be published in April 2024 by Orbis Books. Chris lectures widely around the country and has led retreats on topics such as racial justice, Ignatian spirituality, spirituality and the arts, and the witness of Thomas Merton.