The Monk and the Traveler- A guest blog by Kevin Nelson
The cross was lit up like a star in the night, glowing atop a rocky ridge in the Lucerne Valley near Barstow in the remote desert country of southeastern California.
It was truly a light shining in the darkness. There were no other electric lights anywhere in any direction for as far as the eye could see.
My campsite was tucked behind a hill well away from the nearest paved road. There were no trees and only water-starved shrubs growing across a lonely sweep of desolate land. My bed was the back of my truck and the howling of coyotes sang me to sleep.
The next morning I knew what I had to do: Investigate that cross.
As I approached, on foot, I saw that it stood on a high point above a church and a group of smaller buildings—the grounds of Saint Joseph Monastery. The night before, in my haste to find a place to camp before darkness set in, I had barely noticed it.
“Hello,” said a friendly-looking man in his early forties with glasses and thinning black hair. He was wearing a broad smile and a white monk’s habit and sandals. Sensing my uncertainty, he added, “I’m Brother Minh. You’re welcome here,” and he extended a hand.
We were in the courtyard in front of the chapel. He explained that he and the other monks here were Cistercians, a contemplative Catholic ministry.St. Joseph Monastery Church, Lucerne, CA
“You may not believe this,” I said. “But I have a copy of Thomas Merton’s ‘The Seven Storey Mountain’ back in my truck where I’m camping. I’m on the first leg of a trip across the Southwest and I’m planning to read it along the way.”
This news was met by another wide grin. “Merton was a contemplative monk, like us. He was a Trappist. The Trappists are a branch of the Cistercians.”
Brother Minh, pronounced “Ming,” was Vietnamese by birth, same as the other priests and brothers at Saint Joseph which is supported largely by the Vietnamese Catholic community of southern California. In fact at that very moment a service was being held, in Vietnamese, in the church.
“You won’t understand a word of it,” he said. “But you can listen.”
Brother Minh was right: I understood nary a syllable. But I took a seat in the pews with the other monks in white robes who were in silent worship. I closed my eyes and let the words of the priest who was conducting the service stream over me like the waters of a baptism.
Afterwards Brother Minh invited me into a guest cottage with a kitchen where he fixed us each a cup of green tea. He sat across from me at the kitchen table and we talked, in a friendly and relaxed way. On the wall next to us was a cloth rendering of The Last Supper.
In the secular world it is sometimes hard to talk with others about God and faith and Christ. But there was no such awkwardness with Brother Minh, who smiles and laughs easily. He explained that they received many visitors—people who saw the monastery and the monumental statue of Christ as they entered the valley and decided to stop to find out more.
Yes they do. And here I was too, quite unexpectedly. Listening, learning, speaking with an open heart.
After tea we went on a walking tour of the grounds—they’re building a new Lady of Lavang Retreat House for those seeking respite from that secular world—and our conversation continued until, needing to hit the road, I headed off back the way I came.
As it turns out I did not read the Merton until I returned home, weeks later, after my swing through the Southwest was over. The power of that book hardly needs stating by me. Always, though, it will be connected in my mind to the sight of a luminous cross, charged by solar energy, and a joyful, smiling monk in a white robe offering an open hand to a wandering traveler.

Kevin Nelson is an author and writer.