You may recall from the posts back in May that three of our monasteries in this country had elected new superiors, all of them former Novice Directors. One of those houses, Santa Rita Abbey in Sonoita, Arizona, is celebrating the fortieth anniversary of its foundation. The community’s new Prioress, Mother Vicki Murray, was one of the foundresses.
Santa Rita is about an hour away from Tucson in a National Forest and on a clear evening (and when isn’t it a clear evening in the desert?) you can see from the back porch of the Guest House the Mexican Border, about one hundred miles away. The term National Forest does not correspond to what East Coasters imagine a forest to be. You won’t find trees–they do grow in Arizona! There are aspens in North Canyon; of course, there’s also the Petrified Forest, near Holbrook. The Abbeyt is set on rolling grassland and you will find a forest of teddy bear cactus, sage brush, wild flowers in the early spring and jack rabbits as big as collies (OK, I exaggerate about the rabbits but they looked bigger to me than our Virginian rabbits). The desert is full of life. Yes, there are scorpions and rattle snakes, but there are also owls and cactus wrens. And clear air. Water is precious; the sun is relentless except during the monsoons. Yes, the rainy season (in the winter) is called the monsoons and the rios fill up and, hopefully, the wells are replenished. But the sun is there even in winter; when the nuns switched to solar panels, they were pleasantly surprised how much their energy expenses were reduced even in the first winter.
When I visited Santa Rita in 2002, they were in the ninth year of a drought; since then dendronologists (tree scientists) have studied the cross sections of old trees and were speculating that perhaps the rain-falls recorded for the first time in the Nineteenth Century were abnormally high rather than typical and this wasn’t a drought after all. However you slice it, water is scarce. I was surprised, even shocked, to view the number of swimming pools marking suburban Tuscon as my plane descended (of course, if I was riding in a plane, I couldn’t very well cast any environmental stones, now could I?). I would learn from the sisters about irresponsible real estate development, building neighborhoods on retirees’ savings, savings that would be lost because the water supply couldn’t support the increased population.
Santa Rita is a small community–nothing unfamiliar there–where I tasted a sense of solitude and a closeness to nature, a dependence on the whims of nature, that I’d encountered in none of our other monasteries. The stories of the desert fathers take on new life, deeper dimensions and subtle nuance in that stark setting . There was certainly a little romanticism in my response to the place–and the monastery itself is a beautiful interplay of nature and architecture of white-washed adobe brick inviting a nostalgic perspective–but I was a guest and several steps removed from the day-to-day headaches. I and everyone at that meeting were recipients of wonderful, spontaneous hospitality and could afford to enjoy the incredible panorama with daily cares set aside.
Like all of us, the Santa Rita community is working hard and living hard to perdure into the future and to deepen their monastic commitment as their original members age with grace, ready to pass on their vocation to newer members. The sisters support themselves by making altar breads. Here at Holy Cross, we buy them from the Visitation Sisters near Richmond. Our nuns at Santa Rita reminded us all that the large religious goods companies were driving enclosed sisters out of the business by moving in on the altar bread market and that we should support them by giving them as much business as possible. Keep that in mind if you purchase for a parish or a religious community. The sisters at Santa Rita are also graced by talents for weaving and sculpture in clay. The simplicity of the desert enhances the simple beauty of their monastic enclosure.
Remember the sisters in your prayers as they celebrate the fortieth anniversary of Cistercian life in the Arizona desert.