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The Ultimate Retreat: A (Very) Remote Monastery

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Like everyone else reeling from the daily body blows of life, I need a serious time-out. The last straw is the news that my beloved dachshund has a disease that's only going to get worse.

Mind you, this Type-A New York native has tried all kinds of yoga, meditation and exercise-induced endorphins to become more Zen. I know all about Jon Kabat-Zinn , and can Namaste with the best of 'em.

Like the Seinfeld gang, I so desperately want to achieve "Serenity Now."

Since my peace process is stalled, I decide to hole up in a place I'd briefly seen years ago while visiting New Mexico: The Monastery of Christ in the Desert. This Catholic Benedictine abbey is tucked away in the state's northern wilderness. When I discover this no-frills, way-up-high desert retreat welcomes guests, I'm there.

Never mind that I'm Jewish. I'm ready to learn serenity from the masters, not from some organized seminar. But I confess: My only cultural references to Men in Black Robes come from The Thorn Birds and Sex and the City.

The monastery is about three hours north of Albuquerque. The last 13 miles are on a skinny dirt road that cuts through national forest. That road can turn treacherous, depending upon the season.

But no worries on this autumn day, with its uninterrupted horizon of towering sandstone cliffs and brilliant blue sky. The rocky river canyon is the perfect backdrop for the former cattle ranch-turned monastery.

The guest house is Southwest adobe-style, with no outside door locks. The room is modest but modern. A comfy wool blanket graces the twin bed. There's a toasty gas heater; but no electricity in my building. (It's offered elsewhere). And no cell phone or Internet service. Solar energy and propane provide all the power. And the water in the private bathroom is from a well.
But there are battery-powered lamps for nighttime. And the church bell tolls for all important events, namely, prayers and meals.

The activity takes place down the road at the main complex, which includes the church and gift shop showcasing the monks' wares. (Where else would you find frankincense-scented lotion?)

Getting there is a bit of a schlep because there's no transportation. But the scenery and probable encounter with (hopefully tame) wildlife like deer, owls and stray cows make every walk an adventure.

Formal prayer is optional. Sporting my Star of David necklace, I find a monk-led service to be comforting. According to the guest handbook, the Benedictine way of life stresses "love of one another, prayer, manual labor" -- like helping in the organic herb and vegetable garden -- and above all else, silence. As in, keeping your voice down to a whisper. Everywhere. Guests who really want to be left alone wear a leather necklace with a special pendant. It comes with the room.

The monks eat with the guests in a pretty hall decked out with a mural full of angels. That, and the classical music or recorded chanting in the background, make chewing in silence a pleasure. And although they sit apart from the rest, the monks are good guys and gracious hosts, blessed with a healthy sense of humor. Yes, they eat bread and water and no red meat. And plenty of other everyday things: tasty tortillas, Trader Joe's salad dressing. And, is that store-bought cake? Yep, on special occasions. They also sell their own brew to local Whole Foods markets, with the slogan "Made with care and prayer." And yes, a grinning monk informs me, they also indulge on occasion. All in moderation. And unlike pricey spas or health clubs, no one sweats calories or carbs here. They just enjoy. That philosophy abounds. Though there's a daily schedule, nothing is mandatory.

For an ex-FBI agent from Wyoming who's spending her anniversary becoming reacquainted with Catholicism, the prayers are central. For the radiologist at Minnesota's Mayo Clinic, who's sporting headphones and staring at the imposing vista from the monastery, it's simply a great spot to chill.

And a renowned composer who's also a university professor and filmmaker has been visiting for almost two decades. Oregonian Robert Kyr, recently featured on NPR, comes to tune out the noise so he can make his music. While offering an impromptu tour during yet another visit, he explains the attraction: the lack of structure, and the stunning natural beauty. After years of hiking the national forest, he's still in awe. He can rattle off the names of every tree and bush; knows where skeletons of free-roaming cows are -- a stark reminder of survival of the fittest -- and can "read" the river by its color.

"This is a very special place that combines a monastic community with nature and with solitude," he says. Given that he's always on the go, "I thirst for that solitude ... it provides the spiritual focus I need for my work."

I'm starting to see the light. How many retreats are as remote and pristine? With people so decent and inspiring in their quest for simplicity, they make you want to be a better person?

After getting over the shock of no electricity, it just seems natural to rely on my battery-powered lamp while making my way back to the guest house after dinner one night. My guiding light and the stars are enough.

Who got tossed from DWTS this week? Who was ahead in the election polls? Who cares? I'm in no hurry to find out. And after I do, I'll just listen to my Gregorian chants. (The CD's from the gift shop.)

Christ in the Desert guest rooms range from $60-$145 a night. Meals are included. Guests are on their own for transportation. Click here for more information.

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