Monday, November 18, 2013

Notes From a Trappist Monastery

My Visit to Gethsemani.

Because this is long, I have highlighted my favorite points.

Our Lady of Gethsemani

I have always been curious about monastic life. I had read Augustine, Merton and some of the lives of the saints. The political stance of the Catholic church in recent years, along with the horrendous child abuse scandals and the church's (lack of) response to it has kept me and many others distant. My interest in ritual and prayer survives any loss of confidence in dogma of the church militant.

Growing up I was about an hour and a half away from St. Joseph Abbey in Spencer, Ma. I visited once as a child, and remember hearing the monks chant the hours. I remembered the beauty and peace of the surroundings. But that was a very long time ago. Now, I live closer to the "source",  the super bowl of Trappists monasteries in the U.S., The Abbey of Our Lady of Gethsemani in Trappist, KY. They bought the town no less. Nearest large burg is Bardstown. This is the Abbey where Thomas Merton lived from 1948 until his death twenty years later. From here, his prolific theological writings traveled the world. It was good to realize that Merton, a devoted Trappist liked booze and he liked women and he abandoned neither.You struggle. Some days are better than others.

Last week I drove the four and a half hours to Gethsemani.  I stayed three days.

Monday, November 12

 First thing they asked on the phone is Will you be here for lunch? I didn't know when I made the request in August-and I'm not sure now. The drive from Columbus is uneventful. Pleasant enough. I don't like to listen to music while driving. I like news or talk radio. My 89-7 colleagues kept me good company until just before I hit Cincinnati. After that, it was catch-as-catch-can, but a lot of rocky-country music (I love real country music, but all this multi tracked digital shit drives me nuts) Still, there was a fair amount of Jesus and damnation in words and music over various stations. Good sports radio (Mike and Mike!)  Good boys singing about broke ol' heart since she went off but left me with Jesus. Okay.

The signs to the Bluegrass parkway begin twenty miles-it seems-before the entrance. Eventually, I hit New Haven Rd., and take the left onto Monk's Rd. The surroundings are hay fields-mowed, barren, trees, flat and and a few gentle rises. All of a sudden the monastery is on your left, like a Great White Whale. I imagine the physical plants are very different from what Merton knew. Everything is white washed, sleek, functional. It's a no fuss style of architecture The monastery owns the surrounding 250 aces. They haven't farmed in years. Nowadays the bills are paid via a sophisticated fudge-fruit cake and cheese making concern.

Once you hit the walkway from the parking lot you encounter SILENCE. There are signs everywhere. Shut Up.

WE SPEAK SILENCE HERE. In the dining room  SILENCE. In the church and corridors, SILENCE. In the can-SILENCE. And in case you miss the point, SILENCE!

Not twenty minutes after my arrival a group of bikers showed up. Roaring in on their hogs, leather jackets, doo-rags, biker chicks. Kentucky Guns on the back of their jackets. They headed for the gift shop and came out laden with books, tchotkes and fudge, And roared off.

There's no place to indicate where retreatants head. When in doubt go to the gift shop. The lady there directed me to "the little door on the left" and there I am. The brother on duty doesn't seem to know what to do with me. I report in, state my business. "You're staying in the monastery wing". Where is that? "Sext starts in ten minutes."

The attached church is easy enough to find. It's a long shoe box. 1950s era stained class. The long nave is white washed. There's no crucifix to be seen. A long narrow space with six steel beams holding up the dome over the main altar. But that's far away. There are a long rows  of benches on each side of the central aisle. Here the monks live. Really. They are in this church eight times a day, beginning at 3 a.m. Past this are black conference room style chairs, about four rows in front of the modern altar. I came to love the church. Nothing gets between you and prayer.

The monks file in for Sext (12.15) at the bells. I count 30-surprisingly quite a few were under forty and several in their twenties. They each have an assigned space. They chant the psalms antiphonally, in English. We guests listen and way from back of the church-those conference room chairs here, too. There's a waist high glass partition between us and the monks in the church.

Dinner, the main meal,  follows Sext. I skipped dinner to unpack and take a walk. To get to my room Brother had to give me pre-printed instructions. Take the elevator to three, walk down to two, walk another seven steps, cross over the church balcony, go through another door and "room 2050 should be easy to find." You know what? It was!

There's no direction and no orientation past what you read in your rooms. My room is nice. My first apartment in New York wasn't as nice as this. Spotless. Simple bed. Plenty of linens and blankets. Good light. Overlooking the monk's cemetery. Sink provided. Shower and loo down the hall. Were I in the retreat house proper I would have had a modern room with private bath. I had asked to stay in the monastery wing because I wanted to meet and talk with the monks. Guess what? No access. Plenty of doors say MONKS QUARTERS and SILENCE.

There are twenty other retreatants, all men but two. The entire retreat is in silence. Thus to this day I know nothing about them. I read the guest book and saw Indiana-Ohio-Kentucky-NY-Wisconsin and priest-pastor-priest-criminal attorney-priest-deacon-retired high school teacher-student.  In three days we never spoke to one another.. Click on this link:

By 2:15, after a walk around the grounds it was time for None. Now I could listen to the chant. I expected it to be gentle, authoritative and Latin. What I heard was a bit scattered, slow and in English. Then it hit me, the truth of this place. The monks are not performing. They are working. Their entire purpose is to pray for the world by chanting the canonical hours. Everything else they do contributes to the seven daily offices and the Mass.  The Holy Rule of St. Benedict requires monasteries to be self-supporting. Work pays the bills. Monks work from 8 a.m. to noon. The rest of the day they pray, read, do some chores, pray some more and go to bed at 8 p.m. Trust me, this is no easy life.
Any one of these monks, at 25 or 80, could easily throw me over the wall..

Nothing distracts the Brothers from prayer. Not fancy buildings, not gorgeous grounds or gourmet food. The buildings are attractive and functional. The church is austere. The grounds are nice-spacious but we are not in the Swiss Alps. The  food is the penance.

More signs everywhere: INTRODUCTORY FILM AT 6.40!. Would they come and drag us in? I didn't need to find out. It's a nice well made film, everything we need you to know in twenty minutes, from chant to cheese.

The film made me miss the 7 pm rosary. I wanted to be there. Tomorrow. Compline at 7.30 was lovely. The chant and readings were beautiful, a perfect quiet end of the day.

Tuesday, November 12.

At 3 a.m.  a deep, slow bell began to toll. Fifteen minutes later we were all in church for Vigils. The church is completely dark. Slowly you make out the monks beginning to file in. Lights come up slowly and they are all in place.

The monks chanted and prayed. I was comforted to see more than one monk yawn.  There's lighting over the guest areas and balcony usually kept on, so we can read and follow along. I wish they'd kill these lights. I would have much preferred to sit in the darkness, and listen. The church balcony gives a great view of the monks in their stalls. Its only a few steps from my room, and I came in in sweatpants and socks. The monks begin their day at 3 a.m. I went back to bed. Just down the hall.

Lauds at 5:45.  For the daily Mass at 6:15 we are admitted to the main altar and the church proper. The mass is simple and beautiful.  The church acoustics make it very difficult to understand what is said. Remember the Monks are doing this for God, not themselves. Acoustical comfort is not a priority..
At communion I kept the host in my hand. I am used to tincture, dipping the host in the wine. I froze when offered the cup, host in hand. The Monk said to me, "Arntcha gonna eat the host?

Abbot Elias (L)
The Abbot is a very tall lean man who looks not older than forty. There is something austere about him. I found out later he's in his early fifties and has been Abbot  for six years. Abbots are elected for six year terms so I guess he faces re election. Does he campaign? I don't know. I found out much later his name is Raymond Dietz, now Dom Elias Dietz. The Abbot is the head guy in charge, helped by a council. But the buck stops with him.

I had found the wonderful guest library and walked the grounds and the surrounding woods. Yesterday was a perfect day, in the 50s. I was able to sit outside and read 'Zealot' by Reza Aslam. This is a new biography of Jesus, putting him in a historical context. Aslan's view would be at odds with the dogma in which I was raised, which these brothers espouse. His Jesus is a Jewish peasant from the boondocks. It was  interesting to read about James, the brother of Jesus. James had a very active role after the crucifixion, but he is played down, since early prophets didn't want to deal with the virgin birth. We never hear of siblings for Jesus but Aslan insists he came from a large family.

I took a ninety minute walk outside, through the woods on the side of the building. There was a separate path, monks only. They are serious about their own silence and mine. The Brothers live and work in the world. Interior silence is a big part of their lives. They are silent so their brothers can be silent. They are silent while stirring vats of fudge, or pounding cheese or decorating fruitcake. It is made clear that as a visitor you need to partake of the silence for your own benefit and that of everyone else.

Father Louis (Thomas)
died December 10, 1968
 I  visit the Monks cemetery. White crosses only. Only in recent years have the decedents name been included. Its interesting to me that someone who died in 1976 can be next to someone who died in 2008. Merton's grave is a pilgrimage site. There were stones left for him. I also visited the grave of Father Matthew Kilty. He died in 2011, well into his 90s. His talks and sermons are on line, given in a terrific South Boston accent. He sounds like my late Uncle Jack.

This morning we had our first conference with the guest maser, Brother Christian. He's been in the community for forty years. He began as infirmarian, caring for the old and sick. Then he scrubbed toilets, then he went into the Abbey's fruitcake/cheese business, as head salesman. He supervised the catalog and the mail order business. He told us that every November they process 50,000 holiday orders from around the world. Local people are hired to work the phones and process orders. "We work from 8 a.m. to 12 noon. We could easily process a million orders if we worked round the clock. But we are Monks. We earn just enough to pay the bills. Our primary purpose is prayer. "Remember, the walls around the monastery aren't meant to keepp you out, but to keep the silence IN."

We live for

Of these, spiritual reading is the most important. It gives us a basis for our prayers. There's no radio or TV here. We get newspapers. We do keep up with the world. After all, we gotta know what we're paying for!" There is limited Internet access. Used in business  of course. The web is highly filtered. The Abbott can tell who is going on what sights and access is shut off after a half hour. Prayer is the reason. Not the web.

Breakfast was porridge each day. You call it oatmeal. Plenty of raisins and brown sugar. Coffee  is pretty good. Dinner-at twelve thirty was oh my God-a sort of tuna casserole with shells. Penance,. We ate slivers of the Monk's fruitcake and bourbon fudge-the latter about 100 proof and irresistible. Goodbye, AA!

I enjoy the library. I'm going through some Merton, his book on silence. Also Henri Nouwen's book on his care of Adam, a man with daunting physical handicaps. A biography of Jean Vanier, who founded the L'Arche communities for the disabled. No New York Times here. Catholic magazines I'd best avoid.

The Abbey chaplain, Father Joseph makes himself available in the afternoons. I went to see him because I wanted to talk to a monk! Father has been at Gethsemani for 67 years! He is elderly but clear. Soft spoken. He must have seen and heard it all. I asked him if Thomas Merton's (Father Louis) fame was bad for the Abbey's privacy. No-but it was very troubling to Merton. He lived his last two years as a hermit.

I saw Father Joseph throughout my stay, at his age in choir at 3 a.m. and at every other time. When you ask him a question you get very perfunctory answers. He is by no means impolite. But conversation is not part of the deal here.

I walked over to the gift shop. Bought a rosary "made by the monks of Gethsemani." Looks a bit like cocoa puffs strung together with walnuts. It cost 18.95. This gift shop is large and VERY pricey. More than one of these monks  has an M.B.A., you mark my words.

The afternoon offices of Terce and None get a little tedious. By this time you've been up since 3 a.m. You have not spoken. You have walked and prayed and read. You are surrounded by people, but lonely.  Silence is not easy. I find Vespers at 5.30 difficult. Compline is absolutely beautiful. The going to bed. May you watch over us this night. We all become five years old again, for ten seconds. Comforting.

Supper was scrambled eggs, bacon, salad, peaches, fruit cake. You can have coffee or iced tea, hot water, cocoa, fruit any time, 24/7 help yourself. Boxes of fudge were put out this afternoon for snacking. I got giddy, again.

 Rosary at 7 pm is for laymen. Thee were six of us in the Skakel Guest Chapel. Ethel Kennedy is a Skakel. So's her nephew Michael, currently doing time for beating a young girl to death many years ago. Evey family has its ups and downs. Everyone took turns but I sat it out, said it on my own. Not ready to share this yet. Still, I finally heard some speaking voices!

Wednesday, November 13

This morning I clicked into my surroundings and began to feel the peace. It's clear very very few places like this exist in the world. It's only purpose is to pray. Everything supports prayer. The silence outside is magnificent. You seldom hear a car. Even the bikers didn't make a lot of noise. In the woods there's silence. The leaves have already dropped. The birds have flown south and the bears are hibernating. Ask yourself, whens the last time you experienced total silence. The beauty of the sky, the tree, the fields and the buildings come into much sharper focus. It gets difficult when you turn into yourself.

Brother Christian gave very interesting talks at 8.30 a.m. The definition of Holiness is having a heart willing to give and open to receive love.  He told us about the bungler. Everybody has a neighbor who wants to help out. You mow the lawn, there he is. Wash the car he shows up. Walk the dog, he comes along-and scares the dog. He wants to help. He is inexhaustible and does everything wrong. You want to run when you see him coming. But he is trying. Every day he is trying. That is his ministry. He never gives up. Yours is patience and love and nobody says its easy..

I went to the gift shop today. More fudge samplers available for the tasting. I wrote down several book titles to find in the library back home.  Chief among them  the true story of the nuns of Compiegne who were guillotined during the French revolution. Their story is the basis for Poulenc's opera, Dialogues of the Carmelites. There are several books about L'Arche and its founder, Jean Vanier.  I'd like to know more about the L'Arche (Ark) communities. These are places where handicapped people are cared for one on one-living in the world. There are several in the U.S., one in Bradford, MA! Henri Nouven was chaplain for L'Arche Daybreak in Toronto. He's a very prolific spiritual writer. Nouven can get whiny. I suspect he was very needy in person. I don't think he ever felt loved, so he gave and gave and gave and life sometime overwhelmed him. Just an impression. I don't know.

There are two small hills on the property for climbing. Even better there's trail through the woods marked To the Statues. They do love their signs here. Signs To the Statues every twenty feet, over a stream, up a hill, through the woods, through hay fields. To the Statues. Finally, two large bronze pieces. One a kind of pieta, standing figure in grief. They were sculpted by Walter Hancock. They are in memory of Jonathan Daniels, one of the Freedom Fighters killed in Alabama in 1965. Worth the walk to say a prayer for him.

I have to say again its frustrating to be amongst people and know nothing about them. As far as I can tell, everyone respects the silence. I do, but its hard. This is not an easy life.
I think of this when I watch the young Monks. Today a young man in jeans sat amongst the brothers. Clearly he's more than a visitor, he's trying out for postulancy. What brings a young guy into this life in 2013? Unceasing work and prayer. Bad food. No women. Long hours. Silence. I want to understand better the nature of being called. It must be you come here because you can't NOT come here.

Lunch today was small chicken cutlets,  skinless and none too well done. More fruitcake. And smoked cheddar, both from the monastery kitchens.

My sense of peace and gratitude lasted the entire day, right through Compline.. The Monks chant  in unison, without harmony. When they're really cookin' the sound of men singing is powerful and beautiful.

Thursday November 14

Brother Christian spoke this morning of the accepted church truths. He concentrated on Mary and the virgin birth. Non negotiable.  "We are lucky to have Mary as our mother. We have had everything given to us.". I haven't heard comments like this in fifty years.  I was touched but don't think I can buy into it.  To do so requires more faith than I have at the moment. Long ago I adopted St Joseph. Brother Christian went on to remark that Joseph disappears shortly after Christ's birth. As a Jewish man Joseph would have been head of his family. Very little if any public role for his wife."His mission was fulfilled-and he was taken into heaven." Hearing this while reading Aslan's book is fascinating and troubling. Aslan maintains that the
virgin birth was invented. Joseph probably died in Jesus's childhood. Jesus almost definitely had siblings. Joseph disappears because he could not have "weathered he Crucifixion" Instead, Christ was mourned by his mother and the women at the foot of the cross. Then why does the church continue to refuse to ordain women? And yeah, the Crucifixion may have broken Joseph's heart, but to say he 'could not have weathered it'?....

I really like Brother Christian. He's from Lynn, Massachusetts. He's been at Gethesemani for forty years. Later I did speak to him briefly one on one. He was friendly, but came across like a very busy executive, which he is. I asked about the statues in the forest. "Dunno. I only know what 's written up there.". I asked about the young man in mufti: "Oh yeah, he must be a new postulant. You'd hafta ask the vocation director." A smile and a warm handshake but no nonsense. He did say, and he meant "I am glad you're here."

I'm leaving later this afternoon, one day early. I'd love to stay longer, but want to be back for a broadcast tomorrow and a weekend of pre concert talks for which I have yet to prepare! I've been feeling content and very peaceful silence yesterday. Last night after Vespers I sat in the church by myself. The organist was practising a Bach chorale. I couldn't see him. I loved the music and the peace of the empty church. The energy of the Monks's prayers was still palpable..

Back to the gift shop. I bought fudge, blueberry jam and cheese. Some Christmas tree ornaments for the two kids of a friend of mine. Bought some cards. The books I'll get from the library. Sheesh. I did notice a house painter, all in white, with a plastic cap, and shoe coverings. He was a middle aged man flirting with the ladies in the shop.  He was a very jolly guy. After I left with my purchases  I stopped in to see a little film about the monastery. I was interrupted by my jolly house painter friend. He thrust a box of fudge at me. Here! Take this with you! With God's blessings!" It turns out  he is Brother Albert, the head candy maker. "You gotta get in the candy business!" he told me.

Sixty seconds with Brother Albert made my visit. I took my fudge and my cheese and my ornaments and went back to the church. My car was already packed. I sat in the church and found I couldn't leave. I actually couldn't get up and walk to my car. The church was empty. I have never felt such peace as in those final moments. Eventually I got up, took my fudge, and went home.

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