Thomas McKenzie
by grace alone
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Monastery Retreat, Post Six: Red Rock Chapel

There are two chapels at the Monastery of Christ in the Desert. The first is the amazing adobe one they monk call “the Church.” Designed by a Japanese architect, Thomas Merton himself attended its grand opening and wrote eloquently about it.

The second is what I call the “red rock chapel.” If you leave the monastery grounds and walk for about a third of a mile or so, you might find a trail on your left. This trail leads up and up towards the surrounding mesas. If you took it, you would walk past blackened pine trees, dead of a pestilence that settled here a few years ago. You would also notice that the air is thin, and that you can’t move as quickly as you normally would.

Eventually, you would come to a stream. If you are fortunate, little or no water is running in it. This stream has cut a wide incision in the mesa, and it will be your trail now. Walking above the stream, or in it, the incision grows ever deeper and more narrow. Soon you are pressed in by tall, sheer rocks on either side. The walls are rust red and smooth. You do not want to be here if it begins to rain. Four times, you come upon huge boulders that block your path. They are stacked up, and are taller than you. These boulders must be climbed over, they can’t be gone around. You will either go over them, or you will turn back.

After these, you will be stepping from large rock to larger rock, picking your way up the stream. And then, there ahead and a bit to the right, you will see two shadows in the white rocky sides of the mesa. These are entrances. You can climb past them, but not up through them. If go around them, and you will find yourself near the mesa’s summit.

Of these entrances, the one on the right leads to a narrow passage that is fairly open to the sky, with three pools terraced one over the other. These are filled either with water or mud. You might prefer this place to the other. The other entrance, the one on the left, is my red rock chapel.

Its floor is narrow and sandy. It is perhaps 70 feet deep and ends in a cleft of boulders. If it were raining, you would be at the bottom of a violent waterfall. The walls of the chapel are sheer red rock, 40 feet high or so. Of course, it isn’t a “real” chapel. There are no crosses, no pews, no glass (stained or otherwise). But, for me, it is a place of worship.

So today I sat there, in the chapel. I lay down in the sand. I prayed. I sang to God, the Rock of my Salvation. I spent time quietly there, looking up past the crimson and orange walls to the slit of blue sky. I was deeply grateful.