The Gathering Place

A Guide to the church of Santa Maria de la Vid
By Francis Dorff, O.Praem. Norbertine Community Of New Mexico

Saint John the Baptizer

As we enter into the worship space we are facing East. The statue of John the Baptizer appears to our left. This statue captures the moment when John fulfills his own vocation and the whole prophetic tradition by recognizing the Messiah and saying, “Behold.” He is portrayed here as a man of the desert-“a voice crying in the wilderness”-who continues to witness to the presence of Christ in the viewer, the community, and the celebration of the sacraments. This statue was created by Troy Williams of Jemez Springs, New Mexico. John the Baptizer has a very special importance in the Norbertine tradition not only as a traditional patron saint of the monastic way of life but also as a primary symbol of the Christ-centered life and mission of the Norbertines. In 1120, Saint Norbert founded the Norbertine community in the Chapel of John the Baptist in Premontre, France. The community took its original name, the Order of Premontre, from this place. Continuing this tradition, the Norbertine community of Santa Maria de la Vid has centered its outlying hermitage retreat area on a small adobe chapel dedicated to John the Baptizer.

Saint Mary Magdalene

If we continue to face East, the statue of Saint Mary Magdalene appears on our right. She is pictured as the first witness to the Risen Christ at the very moment when he calls her name in the garden and she is about to reply in utter amazement, Rabbi! This is the exquisite moment when her grief, confusion and tears at the death of Jesus are about to be turned into joy as she recognizes that the one she so dearly loves is alive. As we meditate on this statue we may realize that this moment of recognition is continuing as Mary Magdalene recognizes the Risen Christ in us, in the worshiping assembly and in the sacraments that are celebrated in this church. This statue was created by Alison Aragon of Albuquerque, New Mexico.

Our Guiding Vision

For years before this church was built we Norbertines were living with a vision of it in our hearts. We envisioned our church as a place where spiritual seekers of every kind would gather. We saw it as a place where persons could meet with God, their true selves, and other pilgrims in meditation, worship and spiritual conversation. We saw it as a prayer-evoking place that would embody, in a uniquely contemporary way, the spiritual richness of the traditions of the Catholic Church, the Order of Premontre, and the American Southwest. Over the years, God’s grace, the generosity of our friends and the creativity of dedicated architects, artists and craftspeople allowed us to make this vision visible in the Church of Santa Maria de la Vid.

The Name of the Church

Our church and our Norbertine community here in New Mexico are named Santa Maria de la Vid after the first Norbertine Abbey founded in the town of La Vid (Burgos), Spain, in 1140. In English this name can be translated either Holy Mary of the Vine, or, as we prefer, Our Lady of the Vine. Through this name we join the long line of Norbertine communities who, over the centuries, have dedicated themselves to the Mother of God.

Hallowing this Ground

As a full moon rose in the crisp night air on the eve of the ground breaking on November 16, 1997, we Norbertines gathered around a bonfire that burned on the spot on which we would build our church. Five major planets were beautifully aligned in the Western sky. Centuries ago, this ground was the site of an ancient Native American pueblo. For forty years it was a center of retreat and prayer led by a dedicated community of Dominican sisters. We praised and thanked God in prayer, song, and silent vigil for the beauty of this place and for those who had lived and prayed here before us. The vision we had been carrying in our hearts for so long was finally about to become visible on this holy ground.

Seen from different angles, the arches tell a short story of Christian architecture. They form Romanesque arches when seen from one angle, Gothic arches when seen from another, and simple columns when we look through them at one of the four corner shrine areas. To some, these arches may also suggest the Native American “rainbow path” for walking in a sacred way. Together with the movement of the light through the space and through the water-like glass block, the wooden arches lend a feminine element to the space in which masculine and feminine elements harmoniously unite.

The randomly placed colored glass blocks in each wall suggest the colors that the Pueblo People traditionally associate with the respective compass directions. Through the glass block, the windows above the shrines, and the cross-carrying skylight, the sun rises and sets on the worshiping community and on the Word of God which is enthroned on the inside of the stucco wall. On a wooden shelf above the stucco wall, pots from local Pueblos and a Navajo Chief’s blanket dating from the beginning of the last century honor the spirit of the Native American Peoples who have been here long before us.

The altar table, processional cross, lectern, and all the furniture in the church were designed by Robert Habiger and created by Artisans of the Desert.

The Statues in the Worship Space

The four bronze statues in the shrine areas are an essential part of the architecture and spirituality of the worship space. They portray the saints not only as channels of private devotion but primarily as members of the worshiping assembly and reminders of its communion in Christ. Each of these statues portrays a witness to the Mystery of the Risen Christ in a unique way, but all are united in the same apostolic witness. Since the church floor plan is laid out exactly as a compass, the placement of these statues symbolizes the saints coming from the “four corners” of the earth to join the assembly in worship and spirit. These statues are also placed in such a way that they balance the feminine and the masculine in each direction. Together with the worshiping community.

The Centers of Hospitality

A portal covered with grapevines invites us to move from the parking area into this central area where the circles of the hermitage retreat and the cloister overlap. As we walk toward the church doors, we may notice that

there are actually three hospitality centers here. There is the reception area and library to the right, a roofed, open area in front of the church doors which contains the welcoming bells, and the gathering space in the church building itself. This fact emphasizes the importance of hospitality in this place of spiritual gathering. This is a place where God welcomes us, so that, in many different ways, we can welcome one another in God’s name.

A statue of the Risen Christ stands in the nicho to the right of the bells. It was created by Troy Williams of Jemez Springs, New Mexico. It pictures the Risen Christ greeting his first friends with Shalom, “Peace,” and showing them the sacred wounds in his hands. As we Norbertines come from the cloister area toward the Church we see the Risen Christ greeting us in the very same way and sending us as modern apostles from prayer to loving service.

The Welcoming Bells and the Statues of the Risen Chirst

The simple hand-rung bells whose meditative tones call the community and retreatants to prayer hang in a specially constructed arch to the right of the church doors. Tom Torrens of Gig Harbor, Washington, created the

bells. The Greek and Hebrew names engraved on them reflect the faith in the Risen Christ that they are used to proclaim. The larger and deeper-toned bell is named Kyrie, Lord. The smaller and higher-toned bell is named, Alleluia, Praise God. On weekdays, we ring only the Kyrie bell. On Sundays and major feast days, we ring both bells together

The Gathering Space

On entering the gathering space, the first thing we will notice is the massive rock in the center and the sight and sound of lifegiving water that comes from it. The water rock invites us to touch it and perhaps to be refreshed by thoughts of our own baptism and memories of scriptural passages that reflect the exodus journey through the desert to the Promised Land. The large candle by the rock reinforces these thoughts with overtones of the desert “pillar of fire” and of the sacred candle from the Easter vigil.

Almost at the same moment we realize that we are not the only one meditating on the mystery of the water rock. The Pregnant Virgin is with us. This life-sized bronze statue was created by Susanne Vertel of Santa Fe, New Mexico. It is the statue of Our Lady of the Vine and the patronal statue of this church. The Blessed Virgin is portrayed here as she greets her pregnant cousin Elizabeth with Magnificat,”My soul glorifies the Lord.” She is joyously recognizing and welcoming the presence of Christ unfolding within her and inviting us to carry Christ in a similar way.

The Worship Space

A single line of dark brown brick on the floor leads from the water rock toward the worship space. As we open the large wooden door we are greeted by an icon of the Day of Pentecost. It was painted by Peter Pearson of Jeanette, Pennsylvania. It depicts Mary, the apostles and the holy women at prayer as the Spirit descends on them. In the background the facades of two churches suggest the strong fraternal bond between this Norbertine community and that of Our Lady of Daylesford Abbey in Pennsylvania who donated the icon. The empty space at the bottom of the icon invites us to complete the apostolic circle by pausing in prayer for a moment before entering the worship space.

We enter the worship space by moving around the white stucco wall that establishes a transition area from the gathering space and suggests the kiva-like character of the space we are about to enter. The worship space is the inner sanctuary of the church. It speaks eloquently both in silence and in the presence of the praying community. It is here that the Norbertine Community celebrates the Eucharist with retreatants and guests. It is also here that the Norbertine Community sings the Liturgy of the Hours in Morning Praise and Evening Song each day.

The space is focused on the altar table and on the worshipping community. It is built as a church within a church: an inner circle within a larger cross. This design is strongly reinforced by the pattern of the brick floor. The circle is a church for forty persons; the cross enlarges the church to seat one hundred and fifty. The cross is designed as a compass that embraces all of creation by pointing exactly in the four cardinal directions.

The wooden arches emerge from the earthen brick floor, reach toward the heavens, and return to the earth again. They further define the circular church while adding the Native American directions of “up” and “down” to the compass of the cross. The arches

also serve as a kind of second roof that filters and focuses the heavenly light coming from above. The curved fabric baffles are situated inside each of the arches to filter and reflect the light from the windows above, to highlight the shrine areas, and to further define the inner circle of the church.

First Impressions

The first thing you may notice on arrival is that the church building looks like a whole pueblo that is very much at home here in the desert. That impression expresses an important part of our original vision. As The Gathering Place our church is not just one building. It is a cluster of spaces designed to reflect the whole spiritual life of the people. It includes a center for hospitality and spiritual conversation, a support building with sacristy and restrooms, an outdoor and indoor gathering space, a worship space; a small indoor and outdoor cloister walk, a meditation garden, a separate Sacrament Chapel for personal meditation, and a curved stucco wall that rises up from the earth to embrace them all. The stucco walls of the different buildings and spaces let them harmonize with the beauty of the desert. So do their subtle desert colors which were inspired by those of Pueblo Bonito in Chaco Canyon. Visually, our church does suggest a pueblo-a gathering place for the people. It was designed by our architect, Robert Habiger, and built by Klinger Constructors in creative dialogue with the whole Norbertine community.

What visitors cannot see, but may well feel, is that our church is placed in the intersection of two invisible circles. One circle embraces the Hermitage Retreat area to the North where we welcome our guests and retreatants. It includes the guest house, five hermitages and the Chapel of the Baptist. The other circle defines the cloister area where the Norbertines privately live their common life. The two circles overlap in the church area, The Gathering Place, where guests, retreatants, and Norbertines come together. As these two circles overlap, they form an icthus, or fish, which is one of the most ancient symbols for the early Christians’ belief that Jesus Christ is the Son of God and Savior of the world. This unseen icthus embodies our community’s belief that whenever we gather prayerfully, Jesus is there. The statues are focused on the altar table. By their interaction they create an energy field of faithful witnessing to the presence of Christ that the community is invited join.

The Madonna and Child

If we enter the worship space by going to the left, we are greeted by the statue of the Madonna and Child. The same Mary who stood pregnant in the gathering space to greet us here offers us the Word-made-flesh in Christ. Mary clearly adores this Child and invites us to do the same. Emmanuel-“God with us” is the scriptural word this statue embodies. This word is the name that the prophet Isaiah gives the Messiah and expresses a basic experience of biblical faith. This statue was created by Susanne Vertel of Santa Fe, New Mexico.

Saints Augustine and Norbert

If we enter the worship space by going to the right, we are greeted by the statue of Saints Augustine and Norbert, the spiritual fathers of the Norbertine community. The two saints offer us the Word of God opened to the Acts of the Apostles and to the text where the early Christian community is described as being “of one mind and one heart.” The founders of the Norbertine way of life are portrayed here as embodying this text by being “soul friends” and by inviting us to do the same. In doing so they incarnate the Augustinian Rule of Life that the Norbertines follow. The two men are simply dressed to reflect the monastic poverty in which both of them lived. This statue was created by Troy Williams of Jemez Springs, New Mexico.

We now know that there is no scriptural basis for identifying Mary Magdalene with the prostitute described in the Gospel of Luke. She is celebrated in this statue as a faithful female disciple and as the first person to experience and witness to the Risen Christ.

The Meditation Chapel

An open doorway on the side of the worship space leads into a small cloister walk that opens to the outdoor meditation garden and leads to the Meditation Chapel. This chapel is an intimate space for personal prayer and adoration in the presence of the sacraments of the Eucharist, the Word of God, and all creation.

The Blessed Sacrament is reserved in the tabernacle. While the worship space is focused inward on the altar table, the Meditation Chapel is focused outward on the world. The Northeast wall is almost entirely glass, offering us a meditative view of the desert, the city, the Sandia Mountains, the changing desert sky, and the beauty of God’s creation at every time and season. The ceiling of the chapel arches gracefully toward a skylight oculus Dei, or “eye of God.” The banco, prayer benches, and a wellpadded carpeted floor invite us to sit or kneel here in silent prayer.

The baked enamel copper emblem on the door of the tabernacle was created by Stephen Rossey, O. Praem. It symbolizes the Emmaus experience and the Risen Christ healing our broken world in the Breaking of Bread. Above the tabernacle hangs a terra cotta crucifix that was carved in 1962 by the celebrated Parisian sculptor Lambert-Rucki as an ordination gift to one of our priests from his parents. The larger terra cotta statue is also by LambertRucki. It portrays Saint Norbert as a man of peace and a maker of peace