Idol Chatter

The Learning Channel’s 10-part series “The Monastery” has a couple of advantages over your run-of-the-mill reality show. One is that it is shot at Christ in the Desert, a Roman Catholic monastery in northern New Mexico. TLC’s cameras capture the astounding beauty of the canyon setting’s piercing blue skies, hawks dawdling overhead and the lacework of the bare desert trees against red earth. Christ in the Desert itself is beautiful to look at, a combination of local adobe construction and medieval inspired frescoes.

It’s here that five men from all walks of life have come to sort out their spirituality. Some, like the television writer Tom, have had a loose faith in God tested by addiction or tough experiences. Others, like a former gang member-turned-counselor and a Satanist-turned-Episcopalian, are looking to develop a strong devotion. Still others have no faith at all. They learn how to pray eight hours a day, work and eat in silence, and each is mentored by one of the monks to seek God. Not all of them make it, and those that do don’t do so in predictable ways.

The other advantage of “The Monastery” is the Rule of St. Benedict, the code that guides much of Western monastic life, including the monks we meet here—and the personal development the men go through. Part of my impatience with reality TV is watching folks like you and me make choices driven by the same dull sentiments and blind ethical assumptions that got them in whatever hole they’re in to begin with (including having their lives splashed on TV). “The Monastery” instead has a moral and spiritual “plot” furnished in large part by how the men react the to rule and the monks.

Strong faith is no guarantee of success. One character warming again to his youthful Catholic faith bridles at his mentor’s suggestion that he abide by the Church’s sacramental regime. At one point the Episcopalian disgustedly calls the monastery “a fortress guarding nothing.” You don’t have to suscribe to the monks’ faith or their rule to find these bends in the spiritual path suspenseful and absorbing. The show debuts Sunday at 10.

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