SILVER CITY, N.M. (AP) — A monotone prayer permeates the walls of a monastery lodged at the rim of the Gila National Forest. A feather of smoke rises from the church chimney into a starry night still hours from dawn.
It is an average day in the life of one of the country’s youngest Benedictine communities, Our Lady of Guadalupe: About three dozen monks rise and say their first prayers, in Latin, in unison, just after 3 a.m. Others might begin their early chores soon after, milking a cow, or making bread or yogurt for breakfast. Afterward follows a strict schedule of more prayer, study and work until after dark.
“Ora et labora” – “prayer and work” – is the governing principle of the 23-year-old monastery founded by a priest, Father Cyprian Rodriguez, whose stern face matches his soldier-like approach to spiritual discipline. The community exists, in his vision, to pursue an ideal of spiritual perfection that escapes many of the rest of us living in “the real world,” as the monks frequently describe modern life.
Living the monastic way of life, “the material aspect of our lives is quieted down and the primacy of the spiritual is refocused,” he said.
In the days leading up to Christmas, the monks lived above and beyond the reach of commercials, credit cards, sales and shopping. Their preparation for this day holy to Catholics and other Christians everywhere is continuous, carried out between the silence of their cloister, the Gregorian chant each morning in their church, their daily labor and prayers before bed.
Brother Bernard Marino has not lost his New York accent, nor his garrulous charm, in 20 years as a monk in New Mexico. The 50-year-old is one of the senior brothers and was the third to join when Father Cyprian launched the monastery from a trailer in 1991. Brother Bernard left behind a career in architecture designing multimillion-dollar homes for the rich to don the dark, hooded habit of the Benedictine monk and live virtually without personal possessions.
The monastery has grown enormously since its first days and today includes a traditional cloister, a church, a house for visitors who are considering joining the order, a library, workshops and barns – and is expanding further to be able to one day accommodate some of the 100 young men who have joined a waiting list.
“They are all coming for the same reason: to seek God,” said Brother Bernard. “It sounds poetic, but that’s the reality.”
Brother Bernard recalls his own call to monastic life, a first inkling he felt as a boy and then how, in his late 20s, he began to see the materialism of the modern world as increasingly repugnant. He shared his spiritual yearning with a priest, who told him about a young monastic community out West.
Father Cyprian says the young men who come here – most are in their 20s – are searching for a spiritual ideal.
“The spiritual aspect, the mystical, contemplative aspect of monastic life draws young men who are willing to give everything up,” he said.
It’s an ideal with which the Vatican does not wholly agree: Father Cyprian was ordained by French Roman Catholic Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, whose disagreement with the outcome of the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s led to a falling-out with the Vatican. Tracing its lineage to Lefebvre’s conservative Society of Saint Pius X – which in the 1980s saw its bishops excommunicated until Pope Benedict XVI pardoned them in 2009 – the Our Lady of Guadalupe monastery is not recognized by the Vatican or the local Catholic diocese. The monks hail to an earlier practice of Catholicism when Mass was said exclusively in Latin, and they largely reject the modernization of the liturgy that came with the second Vatican Council.
(Two other Benedictine monasteries in New Mexico, Our Lady of Guadalupe in Pecos and Christ of the Desert in Abiquiu, are officially recognized by the church. The Silver City monastery answers to the Society of Saint Pius X and is seeking official recognition by the Vatican through that society. )
“We would like to be regular but not at the price of giving up our theology, our faith and our observance of the Benedictine life,” said Brother Bernard. “We believe there are certain errors that occurred in the Vatican Council . that are causing the crisis of faith in the church today.”
The Benedictine order of the Catholic Church dates to the sixth century and St. Benedict, whose 73-chapter “Rule” serves as a spiritual and moral guide for the monks who follow it. According to the Our Lady of Guadalupe website, it is a “compact practical code of living” rooted in “equilibrium and balance of moderation.”
While some monasteries run schools or parishes, others commit to a life of simplicity and contemplation, and Our Lady of Guadalupe adheres to the latter.
As old-fashioned as they might be – Brother Bernard likes to say, “We’re very sixth century” – they don’t reject all the trappings of modernity: They use electricity and washing machines; they maintain a website; they have a telephone in a little gift shop that sells medallions of St. Benedict, books and handmade paper; and they carry a communal cellphone when they travel. They roast coffee to raise funds to keep their monastery self-sustaining.
“Things we can do by hand, we do,” Brother Bernard said. “We’re not against technology when it is used for the right reasons.”
“We found this secluded place, an environment from which the young monks could learn,” Father Cyprian said. “The forest, mountains, creation, the beauty of the music and the language: These are elements that teach the monks to connect with the monastic fathers of antiquity. What we do here is exactly what has always been done, with no change. The monastic life was revolutionary in its ideal because the monastic fathers who grouped themselves together launched this very unique way of life where all the means to serve God and serve the church are first and everything else is secondary.”
On the eve of Christmas, the monks begin the prayers usually said before dawn at 9 p.m., leading up to a midnight Mass.
They see their ascetic life – including their vows of poverty, chastity and obedience – as an emulation of Jesus’ early life before he began preaching, said Brother Bernard, and they consider Jesus’ birth in a manger as a symbol of how God reveals himself to the humble.
Like many families on this day, they will celebrate with a feast. And, as always, they will mark the day with many hours of prayer.
The monks, despite their seclusion, say their prayers are not for themselves alone but are for the world.
One recent weekday morning, Maria Juarez brought her two sons to the monastery’s Latin Mass, sung in Gregorian chant – a Mass that “brings you to tears,” she said.
“I’m grateful for the monastery,” she said afterward. “I think for me to have come to know the faith, someone had to have prayed for me. I feel they are praying for us, for the world.”