Abbey church (The Monastery of Christ in the Desert)

Taming the Demon

How Desert Monks Put Work in Its Place

In a remote canyon in northern New Mexico in the mid-1990s, Benedictine monks of the Monastery of Christ in the Desert spent their mornings at a dozen Gateway computers in a room with a dirt floor, creating the internet. A crucifix hung on the wall right above a whiteboard where they sketched out webpages. The monks were doing a digital-age version of work that Benedictines have done for more than a thousand years. They were scribes.

The monks gave their web-design service the hokey dotcom-era name scriptorium@christdesert and targeted the vast Catholic market of parishes and dioceses; they even hoped to land a contract with the Vatican. The scriptorium produced pages that approximated the look of medieval illuminated manuscripts (and must have taken forever to upload on the single, primitive cellphone that served as their modem). Because their product was electronic, the monks’ remote location was no obstacle to the work, though their phone bill ran to over a thousand dollars a month. The project aimed to profit both the bottom line and the HTML scribes’ spiritual lives. Abbot Philip Lawrence, who led Christ in the Desert from 1976 until his retirement this past December, told the Associated Press at the time, “What we’re doing now is more creative, and that’s good for the monks. If you’re doing something that’s creative, it brings out a whole different aspect of the soul.”

The scriptorium was a hit. It got a boost from national news stories and soon had an abundance of orders—including one from the Holy See. In 1996, Brother Mary-Aquinas Woodworth, a systems analyst in his secular life who started up the scriptorium after he became a monk, predicted it would quadruple the monastery’s revenue. He pitched a Catholic internet service to the U.S. bishops, naming AOL, then a ubiquitous provider of dial-up service, as “the model, the competitor” to his vision. (The bishops passed on his proposal.) As the scriptorium’s reputation grew, Brother Mary-Aquinas began hatching plans to open an office in Santa Fe but was willing to look to bigger cities—including New York and Los Angeles—if he couldn’t get the space he needed in New Mexico. He dreamed of hiring up to two hundred people. At one point, traffic to the monks’ website was so great, it caused the whole state’s internet service to crash.

But then, in 1998, the scriptorium closed up shop. Monks adhering to Benedict’s rule can’t pull eighteen-hour shifts to fill orders. They can’t respond to clients’ emails while they’re praying the Liturgy of the Hours, studying, or eating—the activities that make up most of their day. Abbot Philip told me in an email that the project ended because he couldn’t justify the labor the scriptorium demanded. It took a long time to train monks for the work, but he couldn’t fully capitalize on their skills, as he would soon need to send them off for theological study. In her history of the monastery, Brothers of the Desert, Mari Graña writes, “There were so many orders for design services that what at first seemed the perfect answer for work that would not interfere with the contemplative life, soon began to take over that life.”

It goes without saying that no company in the world beyond the canyon would call an end to an enterprise with as much promise as scriptorium@christdesert. If its staff couldn’t keep up with orders, it would hire more workers. Possessed by the spirit of capitalism, it would encourage people to work overtime. But the monks can’t do that, not without thwarting the reason they went to the desert in the first place. So they quit.

 

What demons would visit me over several days in the silent, starlit canyon?

I wondered, an exhausted ex-academic at midlife, what it was like to live in a community that works only a few hours a day, one that would give up a project with such potential. So I went to the desert. I suspected the monks knew something about the proper role of work in life; I wanted to know what it was. I rented a car in Santa Fe one autumn and rumbled down the thirteen miles of dirt road that lead from the highway to the monastery, which sits at the base of an ochre mesa dotted with piñon trees. Across the broad canyon, bright yellow cottonwood leaves shimmered in the wind. I had never been in such a beautiful place.

Still, I had misgivings, a lurking uncertainty about what I’d have to confront at the monastery. To prepare for the trip, I read some of the sayings of the Desert Fathers—the earliest Christian monks, who left the maddening bustle of third-century cities to live as hermits in the Egyptian wilderness. They spoke often of demons. St. Antony, the greatest Christian ascetic of them all, said that if you go to the desert but don’t renounce all the things of this world, the demons will tear at your soul in the same way wild dogs would tear at a man who walked through town wearing meat on his otherwise naked body. What demons would visit me over several days in the silent, starlit canyon? Abaddon, from the Book of Revelation? Juiblex, the Faceless Lord? Or some fear my ego had buried under heaps of deflection and self-deceit over the decades?

On the second day of my visit, a Sunday, I met a brother who was in early middle age and wore glasses and a black knitted skullcap over his tight haircut. I told him the Desert Fathers had me worried. I hoped he would reassure me, tell me they were just exaggerating. No such luck. “There are many demons,” he replied, without a hint of irony. “That’s why we’re here.”

Over several days of working and praying and eating with the monks, I realized that the ceaseless, obsessive American work ethic was one of those demons, certainly the one that haunted me, and most of the people I knew. We are a society almost totally under its power. We assess people’s value by their jobs and demean anyone who can’t work. We forego vacation time, anxious to prove that we’re indispensable. We drive ourselves to burnout. And we do all this even while artificial intelligence promises to take our jobs. The demon is chasing us over a cliff.

These monks battle that demon, too. Abbot Philip observes in his weekly newsletter that “spiritual life is spiritual combat.” Every so often, he writes, the temptations of mundane existence arise—including “too much time on the internet, making my work in the community more important than taking the time to pray, and so on.” At times, he admits, “it would be much easier just to abandon the whole effort” of contemplative life. Like the bread and power the gospels say Satan tempted Jesus with in the desert, the goods that our work ethic offers are real goods, from increased pay and productivity to the esteem of others. But they come at a cost. For monks, these goods compete with their spiritual ideals and relationship to God. In secular life, they can entail subjection to bosses, physical and emotional erosion, and the eternal sense that there’s more work to do.

Abbot Philip and his brother monks manage to tame the demon of this work ethic, though, by limiting their labor while they pursue higher goods. We who live in what monks simply call “the world” need to learn their strategies for spiritual combat. I don’t think we all have to join monasteries to live the good life. But the monastic principles of constraining work and subordinating it to moral and spiritual well-being might help us keep our demons at bay and recover the dignity in our labor and in ourselves.

 

At one point, a brother stands at a lectern and reads the usual Monday-morning passage from Paul’s second letter to the Thessalonians: “Anyone unwilling to work shall not eat.”

It’s 3:30 on a cold Monday morning, the third day of my visit, and the monastery’s steady-clanging bell has me up. I pull on my boots and coat, grab a flashlight, and trudge a quarter-mile up the canyon from the low-slung adobe guesthouse to the chapel. I enter and take a seat in the corner that’s reserved for guests. The bell rings again a few minutes before four, this time more urgently, and thirty-some Benedictine monks, all yawning and sniffling and wearing either trim black cassocks or broader-cut habits, file into their choir stalls.

We open our spiral-bound breviaries and begin the first office of the Liturgy of Hours, the seven periods of communal prayer that punctuate the monastic day. The monks and guests recite the psalms in Gregorian chant for about seventy-five minutes. We break for about fifteen minutes, then come back for another hour. Guests mumble along while they puzzle out the medieval musical notation. No one, not even the monks, projects their voice, creating a soft conformity of sound.

At one point, a brother stands at a lectern and reads the usual Monday-morning passage from Paul’s second letter to the Thessalonians: “Anyone unwilling to work shall not eat.”

It’s a stark admonition to begin the week. The brother finishes reading and returns to his stall. We continue to chant, then have Mass. When Mass ends, at around seven in the morning, the monks file out two by two. They bow deeply to the altar in the center of the chapel, then genuflect before the tabernacle, bow to each other, and exit, hoods up.

The bell clangs again at 8:45, and the monks are back in the chapel dressed in short, hooded tunics over jeans—their workwear. The youngest, in their early twenties, wear track pants and sneakers. At this session, called an office, they pray that they’ll remember the sacrifice of Christ, who hung on the cross for three hours—hours they’ll spend cooking and cleaning, minding the gift shop, sorting through the immigration paperwork of the many brothers who have joined the community from abroad, and making products whose sale will help keep the monastery afloat: beer, soap, wooden rosaries, leather belts, greeting cards.

Work ceases for the day with a 12:40 bell. That’s it; they’ve upheld their end of Paul’s bargain. The monks clean up, pray another brief office, and then eat their main meal in silence. They spend the afternoon at rest or in silent prayer, eat a light meal, and enjoy a brief recreation period in the evening. The final office of the day, entirely in Latin, concludes by 8:00 in the evening with a ritual of sprinkling the community with holy water. Thus begins the Great Silence, when the monks return to their cells and may not speak. They won’t go back to work until the next morning.

I asked Fr. Simeon, a monk who spoke with a confidence cultivated through the years he spent as a defense attorney, what you do when the 12:40 bell rings but you feel that your work is undone.

“You get over it,” he replied.

 

Monastic choir singing antiphonally (The Monastery of Christ in the Desert)

Getting over it is a spiritual discipline that is in short supply in secular life. It’s what makes the paradoxical but deeply humane approach to work at the monastery possible. The Benedictines who live in the canyon keep strict watch over their time and attention. Doing so keeps their desires in order. But it also keeps labor within limits. They get over work so they can get on with something much more important to them.

Un travail de bénédictin—literally, a Benedictine labor—is a French expression for the sort of project someone can only accomplish over a long time through patient, modest, steady effort. It’s the kind of thing that can’t be rushed: illuminating an entire Bible, writing a thousand-year history, recording the position of stars at each hour of the night and each day of the year. It’s work that doesn’t look good in a quarterly earnings report. It doesn’t maximize billable hours. It doesn’t get overtime pay.

But it’s a way to work without the anxiety that drives us to put in long, intense hours and uproot our lives every few years in pursuit of “better” jobs. One elderly, stooped monk with bright eyes behind his glasses told me over homemade cookies and instant coffee after Sunday Mass that he had been assigned to catalog all the books in the monastery’s library. That was in 2003, fourteen years before my visit. He started the task and kept going, day after day, book after book. He wasn’t even close to finishing.

Benedictines often say they aim to unite prayer and work—their rule is ora et labora. And in some ways, their prayer itself looks like a kind of work, with early hours and a rigid schedule. St. Benedict, author of the rule that governs life in the monastery, called the Liturgy of Hours “opus Dei,” the work of God.

But monastic prayer is much more unlike work—at least secular work—than like it. There are no salaries, no promotions, and no productivity quotas. It never hangs over the monks’ heads. They can’t put off the day’s offices and vow to pray twice as hard tomorrow. They can’t use prayer to prove their worth in others’ eyes. They don’t get anxious that robots will replace them. The process for opus Dei hasn’t changed in 1,500 years. In the Middle Ages, monks were early adopters of water mills, to improve their agricultural labor. The monks at Christ in the Desert are debating whether to connect to the grid or stick with solar power and satellite communication. Benedictines care about efficiency. Just not when it comes to their prayers. In fifteen centuries, they’ve made no effort to streamline them.

In fact, the monks go out of their way to resist efficiency in the work of God, reciting prayers at a pace much slower than what I’m used to at Catholic parishes. Even within religious communities I’ve visited at Catholic universities, Vespers—evening prayer—takes about fifteen minutes. At Christ in the Desert, it’s half an hour. Both groups follow the same text. It’s just that the monks in the desert sing it, drawing out every syllable.

During the first few offices I attended, I grew impatient with the pace. The monks sing the Psalms—all 150 in the course of a week—antiphonally, with choirs in opposite corners of the chapel alternating verses. The pause between verses extended too long for me. We were wasting precious milliseconds. The monks could pray faster, but they don’t want to. They don’t have something better to do.

 

That first Monday morning, after prayers, I reported to the guestmaster for work, but there was nothing for any of the guests to do. So, led by the demon of our work ethic—who demands constant productivity—we found things to do. Someone noticed the windows in the monastery’s reception area were dirty and wondered if there was Windex to clean them. Others dusted the windowsills and picked up stray bits of trash in a courtyard. A tall guy, fiftyish, said he wanted to clear a gravel path that was becoming overgrown with weeds. I wanted to be useful, too, so I went with him. After an hour of uprooting tumbleweeds and marking the edges of the path with rocks, we admired our work.

I headed back to the guesthouse and encountered two middle-aged women who were straightening up the kitchen in the guests’ common room. I got some water and left them to it. Meanwhile, young brothers wearing blue nitrile gloves were ducking into and out of bathrooms and empty guest rooms, preparing for new arrivals. One wore a discreet pair of earbuds. When they finished their work, they leaned back in chairs outside the guest rooms and chatted in Vietnamese. They were taking a load off, like any manual workers. They headed back toward the cloister even before the bell rang.

Father Simeon told me that, in mentoring novice monks from all over the world, he gets to see the whole range of work ethics. Americans are the most obsessive about work, he said. But he finds that, regardless of nationality, it takes time for younger monks to adapt to the monastic schedule and the priority of prayer. Young brothers are often anxious about their labor, he said. They struggle to get over the fact that they can leave it at the end of the work period and pick it up again the next day. They want to prove themselves, because they haven’t yet learned what it means to live a life of prayer for the world, a world they’ve renounced.

“You’re giving your life away and not seeing any results,” Father Simeon said. “So of course you want to work.”

 

Hops harvest and sorting (The Monastery of Christ in the Desert)

Monks may not be driven by a desire for measurable results, but they do need to support themselves. They have to engage with the world; that’s where the money is, after all. The guesthouse is a major source of the monastery’s income. The monks rely on donations, too. They’ve tried many ventures to find the right balance between profitability and maintaining the integrity of their calling. In the 1990s the monks opened a thrift shop in Santa Fe that lasted a few years. They also attempted beekeeping, but never produced enough honey to sell at a profit. In the next decade they signed a record deal with Sony Masterworks to produce CDs of their chants and hosted a reality TV show for the Learning Channel, on which five men—including one obligatory loose cannon—lived like monks for forty days.

The scriptorium was the most ambitious project; its potential seemed revolutionary. At the head of it was Brother Mary-Aquinas, a monk with rare technical ability and an expansive vision. He told the National Catholic Reporter in 1998 that there needed to be “a new kind of spirituality” for monks doing work in information technology. “It’s extremely demanding, it takes a lot of concentration. It often takes you eight to ten hours to get your mind around a problem,” he said. “It doesn’t fit easily into the monastic schedule.” He drew a contrast between the agrarian roots of Benedictine labor and information-age models. “The modern sense of work is, in a way, a much more perfect vision,” Mary-Aquinas said.

St. Benedict himself acknowledged that the monastic community would include members with marketable skills. If it’s going to survive, it ought to. But he had a stern warning for his monks: an artisan who “becomes puffed up by his skillfulness in his craft, and feels he is conferring something on the monastery” should be ordered to cease his work until he’s able to do it with humility. This rule makes no sense to secular eyes. Out in the world, talent is considered a rare commodity. Firms compete for workers with expertise—whether they’re coders or surgeons or quarterbacks—and then try to get them to work as many hours as possible. That’s how corporations believe they’ll make the most money. In the monastery, though, expertise can get in the way of the community’s health and impede the expert’s spiritual development. If a skilled artisan invests himself in his craft, he’ll develop his talent and become more productive. But this investment carries the risk of pride, the fundamental human sin. If the monk isn’t vigilant, or if his brothers aren’t vigilant on his behalf, the pleasure he takes in the craft might overtake the purpose for which the craft is done.

Abbot Philip told me in an email that “one of the challenges, even now, is to develop artisans and artists whose first identity is to be a monk.” A talented weaver and a furniture maker each left the monastery to pursue their crafts in the world. “The challenge for us is the formation of a monk,” Abbot Philip continued. “And sometimes the other activities have become more important and we lose the monk while producing a great artist.”

Brother Mary-Aquinas left the monastery, too, in 1998, the same year the scriptorium closed. According to the current website for NextScribe, a scriptorium spinoff he directs, he returned to secular life after “his Archbishop judged that his new vocation in the field of Computer Supported Spiritual Development…was no longer that of a hermit monk.”

 

We stuffed eleven thousand newsletters into envelopes and stacked them into trays for the post office in under two hours. It didn’t matter. Our speed didn’t earn us or the monastery anything.

On Tuesday morning, I again reported for work with the other guests, and there was something for us to do: stuff envelopes. Several boxes of newsletters sat in a corner of the monastery’s public-reception area, waiting for someone to prepare them for mailing. Father Simeon gave us this task. He encouraged us to take our time, get some coffee, stop when we get bored, and not worry about finishing today. “Make sure you talk to each other,” he added.

The eight or so guests sat around tables and got to work. I sat with a physician, an attorney, and a retired administrator in a cabinet-level government agency: all of them Catholics in their fifties and sixties. Some were regulars at the monastery. One woman studied at the same universities I did, and we traded alumni gossip. We all drank coffee, and we talked, but we also worked diligently. The prospect of finishing the task in one morning became an irresistible temptation. “I think we can do this!” someone said. We invited familiar demons to the table. I arranged the stack of machine-folded newsletters in such a way that I could pick one up with my right hand and slide it into an envelope in my left in a single motion. Almost through instinct, I found the most efficient way.

We stuffed eleven thousand newsletters into envelopes and stacked them into trays for the post office in under two hours. It didn’t matter. Our speed didn’t earn us or the monastery anything. When we finished, I could only think, “Now what?” A copy of the newsletter arrived in my mailbox six weeks later.

Abbey church (The Monastery of Christ in the Desert)

Six months later I return to the desert, though I don’t go to the monastery. Instead, I drive to a brewery in the old Route 66 town of Moriarty, where Abbey Brewing Company makes its staple beers. Christ in the Desert holds a financial interest in the company: another venture that renews an old monastic trade. But monks aren’t doing most of the work; the company couldn’t function solely on monastic labor. Neither could the scriptorium, for that matter. Abbey Brewing has a general manager, Berkeley Merchant, who is also an oblate of Christ in the Desert. I meet him on the brewery’s loading dock, where he’s stacking cases. He wears a blue, untucked work shirt over jeans and hiking shoes. White hair and a beard frame his lean face. “Take your time,” he tells a forklift operator loading kegs onto a truck for delivery to bars in Albuquerque and Las Cruces.

We go inside, where two workers are bottling Monks’ Dark, a toasty porter. Bottles clatter along a belt to be filled, capped, and labeled. Merchant stops to inspect the glue on the labels and give an instruction to the men. Each beer’s label depicts one of the monks. An image of the brother who’s been cataloging books for fourteen years graces the bottles for a Belgian dubbel.

We go sit at a picnic table in the brewery’s taproom, and Merchant describes his work. If the digital scriptorium threatened to bring too much of the secular work ethic into the monastery, then Merchant is aiming to bring monastic practices into the business. One way he does this is to make experimental or seasonal brews at the monastery every few weeks. There’s a small brewhouse and a field for growing hops on the grounds, near the bank of the Rio Chama. When Merchant is there, he’s “juggling two schedules,” the Liturgy of the Hours, governed by the chapel bell, and the brewing cycle, governed by the laws of chemistry. Both schedules demand careful attention. His day begins when the monks’ does, at 3:30 a.m., and he starts brewing when they start chanting. One or two monks he has trained usually join him for their work period beginning around 9 o’clock. For years, his assistant was Brother Bede, whose wide-splaying red beard would draw approving nods at any taphouse in Portland or Brooklyn. In the early stages of the brewing cycle, Merchant says, “There are a lot of things happening: watching time, taking constant measurements. You’re really hustling.” But the work isn’t all hustle. If Merchant is cleaning kegs when he hears the bell, he stops and picks up a breviary to pray the office. “Everything we’re doing is clearly not a matter of life and death,” he says of his work. “You realize that unless it’s absolutely critical, you can leave it and pick it up later.”

Abbey Brewing has had mixed success. It distributes beer throughout New Mexico and exports to Taiwan and Chile. The company operated a bar in downtown Albuquerque, Monk’s Corner Taproom, for two years, until it closed last summer. Merchant told me they’re looking for another location that might do better business.

As Merchant and I sit at the picnic table, surrounded by six-packs and T-shirts for sale, he talks about the dignity of work, how it stems from the inherent human dignity of the one who’s working. This concept echoes something Pope John Paul II wrote in his 1981 encyclical on work, Laborem exercens: “human work has an ethical value of its own, which clearly and directly remains linked to the fact that the one who carries it out is a person, a conscious and free subject.” We need to acknowledge this value, in others and ourselves, if we’re going to keep the desire for productivity from turning demonic. A quarterly profit goal isn’t worth as much as the person who labors, at the cost of her health, to meet it. No reputation for customer satisfaction is worth as much as the person who fills orders and endures complaints. Your pride in a job well done, or your anxiety, or your ego: none of those is worth as much as your dignity as a person.

Merchant asks me to recall the way the monks leave their choir stalls at the end of every prayer office. Each one bows to the altar, then to his brother opposite him. They repeat this action seven times a day. As Merchant sees it, it’s a way of saying, each monk to the other, “I am respecting your dignity and the presence of the Spirit in you.” Compared with an economic culture that demands you labor constantly to prove your value, it might be the most radical thing the monks do.

Published in the February 8, 2019 issue: 

Jonathan Malesic is a writer living in Dallas. He is writing a book about the meaning of work in the age of automation. This essay was published with the support of the John Garvey Fund.

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