The Tale of St. Francis-on-the-Hill (ch. 1)
St. Francis on his hill, last year. He's wearing the rosary I gave him four years before.
Each year for a number of years now, I have spent about a week at the Monastery of Christ in the Desert. It is a remote Abbey high in the New Mexico desert, in the valley of the Chama river. Spending time in this place has become a part of the pattern of my life.
The first time I went, some eight years ago now, I bought one of their three dollar color booklets. In that booklet, there was a picture of the "guesthouse," the building that most of us visitors call home while in the desert. The photograph seemed to be taken from above the guesthouse, looking down from some height, but not too far away. I assumed it was taken from one of the cliffs that rise not far from its gates. The unusual thing about the picture was that it seemed to have been taken over someone's shoulder. A dark and robed "someone."
The next year, I brought my booklet with me. On my first night on the monastery grounds, I mentioned this picture to a fellow guest. He said "oh, that's St. Francis."
St. Francis is a two and a half foot tall, relatively heavy, black statue. In any other context, he would be a kind of pricey garden ornament. He looks down on the guesthouse from high up on a steep rise of rocks and red, powdery sand. His "gaze" meets that of the huge carved-wood St. Francis statue that dominates the guesthouse courtyard.
I call him "St. Francis-on-the-Hill," or just "Frank" for short. I like knowing that he is up there. He represents, for me, God in hiding. He is there, watching, but he is incredibly hard to see. In fact, if you didn't know he was there I doubt very much you would ever notice him.
Every year I go up and visit Frank. Seeing him is part of my liturgy. I enjoy the view from his place, certainly. Looking down on the rest of the monastery buildings, I feel like God is watching over us. It is a peaceful feeling.
Several years back, I left an offering for St. Francis. Many people who visit this monastery leave little talismans in certain places. You will find a piece of carved wood on a shelf, or a piece of jewelry at the foot of a statue. I have found rosaries wrapped around tree branches, and often you will see small stacks of stones marking walking paths.
So, once I gave St. Francis my rosary. It had black beads and a "silver" chain. I liked it especially because the piece at the intersection of the three strings was a Sacred Heart of Jesus medallion, rather than Mary. I was up there, sitting next to this statue, praying. And I felt moved to offer my prayers to God by way of wrapping my rosary around the base of St. Francis. There it joined two other rosaries that had been left (presumably) by fellow guests.
Since then, each year when I have gone up to visit St. Francis I have checked on that rosary. And it has been there this whole time. One year, I found it had broken, but I just tied it off and put it back on him. One of the other rosaries has since vanished, and the other has deteriorated quite a bit.
This year, the first morning I was there, on my way to breakfast, I looked up from the guesthouse in order to spot the tiny black dot that is St. Francis. But he was not there. I looked up and down the ridge, but I saw nothing.
I was upset. I couldn't understand why he wasn't there. I felt that something was terribly wrong.
A that moment, I made a decision. I decided that, after breakfast, I would do some exploration. Either Frank had fallen, or someone had taken him. Either way, I would get to the bottom of this atrocity, and I would make things right.
(to be continued in chapter 2)