Gethsemani Abbey is home to forty Trappist Monks, the Cistercian Order of the Strict Observance, located on 2500 acres near Bardstown, Kentucky. The Abbey was founded here in 1848. I made my first visit in 2013:
I recently made a three day retreat.
Monday, September 14
Uneventful four and a half hour drive from Columbus on a beautiful day.
Gethsemani Abbey offers clergy and lay people retreats of silence, prayer and reflection. There is no fixed schedule. You could spend the entire time asleep. Retreatants are not required to join the monks for the daily office, which begins at 3 a.m. The Monastery sits on 2500 acres of farmland, featuring small hills (called 'knobs') and several walking trails through the woods. You seldom see monks outside of the Abbey Church. A chaplain and guest master are available.
I was glad to catch sight of the Abbey after a six mile drive down Monk's Road, like a huge white ship coming up on the left. Parts of the Abbey Terrace are being repaired, so I was greeted not by peace but by power washing! Imagine 100 leaf blowers magnified 100 times! I was furious!
Ah, those of us needing silence don't think of others with a job to do, not to mention keeping the terrace from falling down. A good first lesson.
(This before I had parked my car!)
I was assigned room 204 in the guest wing. A simple, well appointed room with private bath. There is no charge to come to Gethsemani. Offerings are accepted.
I climbed the hill just across the street, the one with a statue of St Joseph holding the Christ Child. St.
Joseph is a favorite of mine. I think of him as the patron saint of fathers. It seems to me he gets less than his due in scripture. He disappears when Jesus goes wandering off to the Temple at at age 12.
The view of the Abbey and the surrounding lands was splendid. Nothing but fields, remains of the
None was at 2.15, the Ninth Hour. Cleopatra seduced Marc Antony at the Ninth Hour but this was the liturgical hour. The church slowly filled with about 20 monks, sitting on either side of a central aisle. Visitors do not sit in the church proper, but in the balcony or a partitioned area in the back. The monks take their place in the same choir stall. I think you are assigned the same stall for life. So the seat and the desk become part of a home.
The monks chant the psalms seven times a day, in addition to a daily mass. They cycle through all 150 psalms every 2 weeks. Its a deep, manly sound. Some of these monks look quite brawny. The congregation has many older monks but there are a fair number at age forty and under. Two postulants look very young. There is a young man, has to be 20 at the mos, t in mufti who works with the monks but eats with the guests. He is an "observer." You can come observe for a week at a time, up to threw times. Then if they like you, you can be accepted as a postulant.
We had Vespers at 5:30 concluding with the Magnificat, which I have always loved. Earlier I wondered if we were listening to recorded chant, since it was hard to tell if the monks mouths were moving! No. It was real chant. They keep together perfectly with dark, untrained voices. A masculine sound suited to a no frills chapel and a life of work.
Supper was penitential. Fish, tomatoes, mashed potatoes and fruit cake. About 20 of us retreants eating in silence. Earlier, I was reading over by the cemetery. A man was sitting near me. When leaving I felt compelled to offer a handshake.
Compline at 7.30, then the grand silence (what have we been doing all day?) until the bell rings for Vigils at 3 a.m.
Up at 3:00 a.m. for Vigils at 3:15
The bells tolls deep in the belly of the Abbey, and hits you in the same place. It is a warm sound, comforting but insistent. I counted 37 peals of the bell!
The acoustics of the church make the words difficult to make out. Every few seconds you get Lord--sinner--Jerusalem, like bad phone service.
We have a retreatants conference at 9 a.m. with the guest master, Father Seamus.
Father Seamus is 83 years old. He let us know, "They don't let us drive any more when we're past 80. You have to get someone to take you if you have a doctor's appointment." (Medical appointments seem to be the only reason any monk ever leaves the monastery). Fr. Seamus was delightful. He's a former diocesan priest from Florida who entered Gethsemani at age 70. I didn't know anyone could enter at 70! He mentioned Brother Norbert and a few others who entered right after high school and have been at Gethsemani well over 60 years.
What keeps them here? "It's not the building, or the work or even the prayer life. It's the love for the community."
Father Seamus told us about Brother Martin, now living in the monastery infirmary with dementia. He needs to wear diapers. He wouldn't cooperate with a nurse who was trying to clean him. "You know, " said Fr. Seamus, "Sometimes people with dementia get a little reason, and Brother Martin did not want this woman to wipe his bottom. She tried and tired until he snarled at her, "Go wipe your own ass!"-The Abbot apparently had to walk away to keep from cracking up laughing. "There's a lot of humor here!"
I took a one hour walk through the woods. Gethsemani owns 2500 acres, including some land leased to farmers, "A great source of income" says Fr. Seamus.
I met one of the other retreatants on my walk, a Byzantine Catholic priest. He had worn florid orange robes earlier. I was a little taken aback when he called out to me to say hello (Silence!) but enjoyed a brief exchange with him.
Took a nap and skipped None (2:15) Then an hour outside reading and climbing hills. So far, I find Thomas Merton's letters more interesting than his contemplative writings. He seems more peevish and less "on." It's quite something to be reading Thomas Merton's words sitting fifty feet from his grave.
Fantastic weather continues. You feel forced to be outside "doing". The reason you come here is NOT to feel forced to do anything. I'm tempted to say I have work to do! The silence is not hard but sometimes the lack of action is.
Wednesday, September 16
Thomas Merton (1915-1968) was a monk here who became world famous for his many books on The Seven Storey Mountain is a "must read"-and you should. Merton was finally allowed to travel away from Gethsemani in 1968. He went to Asia to study Bhuddism. Merton died in Thailand on December 10, 1968 in a freak electrical accident. He was brought back to Gethsemani in a plane filled with the remains of soldiers killed in Vietnam, a war he was criticized for deploring. Merton was also very concerned about nuclear weapons and sweated out the Cuban Missile Crisis with the rest of the world. He too was astonished with the suggestion of "limited nuclear war" that was discussed at the time.
Merton permeates the gift shop and the library. No doubt the Abbey benefits from Merton's royalties. All of his books are in print. They are widely read and taught. A few of the older monks remembered him. "He wasn't much of a hermit., with rabbis and the Dalai Lama and Joan Baez and Leonard Bernstein coming to see him."
This is Merton's centennial year, but I heard of no special plans to commermorate what would have been his 100th birthday.
There are several women among the retreatants. Three nuns are staying down the hall.Several priests are here. Another man says he's been coming here every year for fifty years! Another just got out of prison and may be going back for"drugs and alcohol and fights". He calls this place heaven on earth.
The warm, dry days continue. Perfect weather. I've been outside a lot, walking many trails on the Abbey's acreage. Fr. Seamus said, "In spring time we have black snakes two feet long. And ticks! They get in everywhere!" (All clear so far) The woods are deep and utterly silent. You cross several small knobs and lots of perilous looking foot bridges. They are worth the vertigo.
The monks walk with real purpose. The outer life never changes, from 3 a.m. to 8 p.m. Prayer-study-prayer-work-work-prayer-study-sleep. They must have incredible inner lives. The idea is to be in constant conversation with God. I have never seen a monk look bored or unhappy. For the right person this must be an incredible life.
I wonder what is going on in the head of the very young man who is here observing. He carries around the writings of the 12th century Cistercians. If this book nourishes him at his age, more than friends or sex then he is indeed "blessed".
Father Carlos says you kow you have "the call" to this life when "You are willing to give everything up, with joy." The days never change.
Thursday, September 17
Leaving for home after breakfast. Skipped VVigils at 3 a.m., but made it to Lauds at 5.30, Mass at 6.15 then Terce at 7:30. Took a walk until the gift shop opened at 9.. Bought bourbon fudge and a few presents. One for a beloved friend who has had a lousy year, who I hope will come to Gethsemani.
I'll be back.