Fall Colors, a Lake and Christ in the Desert

The belltower of the Christ in the Desert Monastery stands like a sentinel above the Rio Chama valley.

The extreme heat of summer is a memory. The State Fair has come and gone. Migrating water fowl fill the ponds along the river at Tingley Beach. Now it is autumn and, in many ways, it is the best time of the entire year!

New Mexico is even more spectacular than usual. The golden leaves of cottonwoods line our rivers and streams. In the high country, yellow hillsides of quaking aspens shimmer in the sun amid the spruce and pine. And the deep blue sky transfixes it all in our memories.

Last month a group of us camped at Abiquiu Lake, right in the center of Georgia O’Keeffe country. You don’t need changing leaves to make that place colorful — between the rainbow landscapes and cloudy monsoon sunsets, it was just spectacular.

One of the things we did when we camped at Abiquiu Lake was take the 13-mile drive up County Road 191 to the Benedictine Christ in the Desert Monastery. The road was very rough in spots and extreme caution is advised, but the monastery is worth it. The chapel is a gorgeous building that fits perfectly into the surrounding bluffs. The altar is back-lit from huge clerestory windows catching the sky and trees.

The Christ in the Desert Monastery was founded in 1964 by Aelred Wall, O.S.B., with monks from the Benedictine Mount Saviour Monastery in Pine City, New York. He asked architect George Nakashima to design a chapel for them. Nakashima agreed, but refused to charge them a fee. It was constructed by monks and volunteers making their own adobes and using local ponderosa pine, rock and other nearby materials. One famous visitor described the chapel this way.

“The monastic church fits perfectly into its setting. Stark, lonely, stately in its simplicity, it gazes out over the sparse, irrigated fields into the widening valley. The belltower is like a watchman looking for something or someone of whom it does not speak.” — Thomas Merton

The chapel and a gift shop are open to visitors Monday through Saturday 9am-5pm. The monastery also maintains a guest house and runs a small brewery. Monk’s Ale is available statewide and locally at Bode’s General Store in Abiquiu.

Jon Knudsen is a freelance writer and retired educator. Email him at  johnny_mango@yahoo.com.

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