Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Gethsemani Silent Retreat

Monking Around at Gethsemani August 1 – 4, 2008

Retreating With Cistercian Monks for the Weekend

I don't exactly remember how the idea to visit Gethsemani, the Trappist monastery where Thomas Merton was a priest for the second half of his life. I think I was wondering about Thomas one day and upon googling his name ended up at the Belarmine University website where the third floor is an archive of Merton's writings. After briefly perusing that website, I clicked on Gethsemani and was led to the Monk's webpage. Who would have thought that Monks would have a webpage, but they do. There I found out that hospitality maintains a prominent place in the monastic tradition and also that the Abbey at Gethsemani has received guests from the first days of conception in 1848.

So I called the abbey exactly three months in advance as required as they don't take reservations over the internet. Unfortunately the retreat house built in the 1900's had no room, but I could stay in the monastery. Since I hopped to find Christ in the solace of being "monk-like", I decided to reserve a room, or cell as it is called. I planned to tack on the retreat to the end of the CSI Leadership Convention in St. Louis where I was giving a workshop entitled, Curiosity and Wonder . . . Lost in School, From Factories to Gardens of Delight. Little did I realize I would be visiting the garden at Gethsemani so soon after the talk.

After Coffee Friday morning, Starbucks of course, I decided to skip the last speaker and start down the freeway. I'm glad I did. The road to Louisville loomed straight and monotonous. The engine in my subcompact Toyota hummed as I hustled along. My partly bent right leg ached from keeping just the right pressure on the gas pedal. I saved money by renting a subcompact car without cruise control. After a few hours I was cursing my stinginess. I grew tired of the tedious road through southern Illinois corn fields. I was tired from lack of sleep the past three nights. I did not adjust well to the time difference and was somewhat anxious about the conference presentation. After nearly five hours I reached Louisville and turned southward.

South of Louisville the road narrowed and wound around the swales nestled in the green Kentucky hills. My journey continued through Bardstown, home to Stephen Foster memorabilia. I remember the only other time I had been to the small home of the Kentucky bard. On our second great trek across country to Key West, Florida, we had visited the Dimartinos on the way home. They took us to the evening musical in Bardstown. On my way back to St. Louis, I stopped by the state park in Bardstown to check out my hunch and found the theatre we had visited many years before.

The closer I got to Gethsemani, the more a sense of mystery surrounded me. Then I saw the great bell tower over the next hill. The chalky white monastery stood in front of the green Kentucky hills. It is tucked in amongst maple trees, leaves whispering in the breeze. The peaceful surroundings are punctuated by the rhythmic clicking of Saccades.

The grounds spoke silence. I discovered that the Trappist monks had not taken a vow of silence, yet no one talked much and only in whispers as necessary. I checked in just after Vespers at six pm. Supper was at six, but I had decided not to partake. I squashed a few items from my suit case into my backpack since I wanted to live simply for the time I was in the monastery. I tried to find my room from the verbal instructions the receptionist had given. However, his words carried me through a balcony in the back of the abbey to doors that said monastic area, do not enter. I searched for different doors to no avail. Finally after going back outside, I found someone to help me. I indeed did need to go through the forbidden doors to get to my room.

The room, probably no larger than eight hundred square feet, breathed simplicity. The cool linoleum floor felt good on my overheated feet. The double layered, brick walls also helped regulate the heat from hot summer days. The walls of the sparsely decorated room held only a small crucifix above the desk and an icon of Mary and Jesus above the bed. The bed was a mattress on a wood platform. A small white sink stood in the corner and a small closet stood in the opposite corner. A small wooden bench held my back pack. Two padded chairs occupied the wall with the door and one pushed under a small desk. A ceiling fan continuously moved the thick summer air. A small oscillating fan sat on the desk as an accompaniment to its larger brother. The bathroom was a short walk down the hall.

After dropping my pack, I hurried back to listen to the Guestmaster explain the nature of our retreat. I welcomed instruction since I have never done anything like this before in my life. Their informative brochure says, "The monastic milieu offers a place apart to entertain silence in the heart and listen for the voice of God – to pray for your own discovery." Our abbey brother went on to share where we could go and where we could not. Our only company with the monks would be during the eight different hours of prayer each day so we were not given free run of the monastery. He encouraged our participation in the prayer recitatives as long as "we kept a lower volume but kept the pace" when chanting. After speaking to us for a few minutes, my fellow retreatants and I watched a twenty-minute video on life at the abbey. Monks not only keep vigilant at the times of prayer but have chores and other work. The Trappists are known for making cheese, fudge, and wooden furniture (including caskets).

I took my time wandering back to the monastery to try to get my bearings. Once back in I explored the confines of my cell and unpacked. Since I was searching for God and wanted the time to do it, I took off my wrist watch. It was not long before the bells called us to Compline, the final hour of prayer for the day. I've heard Compline at Saint Marks in Seattle. The one offered here is simpler and a little shorter. The monks follow a prescribed plan for singing the Psalms that gets through all one hundred fifty in just two weeks. In a typical liturgy several Psalms ar

e interspersed with hymns and readings of scripture or from writings of church fathers. It is all punctuated by alleluias and the doxology. "Praise to the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, both now and forever" is accompanied by a deep bow from the waste like trees in a great wind storm. "The God who is, who was and is to come, at the end of the ages."

Although, patterns of the various hours of prayer vary slightly, they are quite similar. The role of cantor rotates through members of the abbey. I

noticed two different organists take turns playing a small pipe organ. Only once at the end of Eucharist on Sunday did the organ sound without any singing. These monks keep watch for Christ by singing praises to God. This is their primary calling in life. They go to bed after Compline at eight o'clock and rise at three to start Vigils for the new day. Their slow, rich and somber singing of the Psalms fills the abbey. They arrive and depart like clockwork, called to their task by the deeply resonant bell in the tower. To say they take the calling seriously misses the mark. To quote Merton, "These men, hidden in the anonymity of their choir and their white cowls, are doing for their land what no army, no congress, no president could ever do as such: they are winning for it grace and protection and friendship of God." The Trappists at Gethsemani have been vigilant in praying eight times a day for over one hundred fifty years. The Cistercian Order to which they belong has been chanting the Psalms since 1098.

I was not sleepy after Compline ended and neither was the sun down. I decided on a hike up Calvary Hill. It rises across the street from the monastery. It was a fairly quick walk up the hill. The rock hewn cross was nestled in a small grove of large evergreen bushes. Even here I couldn't elude the droning of the Saccades. I know the monks respect the silence and wondered how they felt about the eternal grinding. The ratchet-like sound unnerved me. On several occasions I wanted to shout them to silence but knew that would definitely be breaking the monk's code. Even in my cell I could not escape background noise. The ceiling fan had a hum, and a squeak if on high, but the interruption was minimal compared to the Saccades. I wondered if and when I might meet God. Here at the cross was the first instance.

I was staring at the cross in silence and taking a few pictures. Then for the first of many different occasions during my retreat, the

Holy Spirit greeted me as a small butterfly. It fluttered around and then came to rest on the seed head of a type of grass near where I stood. I was standing on the hill above Gethsemani and God came to me in the beauty of this place. As small puffs of clouds turned pink and orange behind the stone cross, the evening cooled and the Holy Spirit's cool breath refreshed me. Then I saw the small creature. I admit to becoming drowsy, but I did not sleep on the watch. Fire flies illumined my slow stroll back to the monastery. I think of the crucifix above the desk in my cell. Lord have mercy on me; Christ have mercy on me.

Before I go to bed I rinse the sweat off in the shower. No one is around so I don't close the already propped open door to the bathroom. I hope the breeze will blow through like it did on the hill. I walk silently back to my room and find this Psalm 15:7,9 from Compline. I will bless the Lord who gives me counsel (even in the silence), who even at night directs my heart. (Thanks be to God.) And so my heart rejoices, my soul is glad; even my body shall rest in safety. Sleep does not come quickly in the heavy heat left over from the hot sun.

It seems like only minutes pass when the bell tolls to waken me for morning Vigils. Of course it is 3:15 in the morning and pitch black. I grope around in the dark and find shorts and a tee shirt to pull over my still tired body. I brush my teeth hoping it will wake me up a bit more. The balcony to the abbey is just down my hallway. Proximity is the only advantage I might have for living in the monastery instead of the guest facility. The guest wing is air conditioned, as is the abbey church, and each one has a private bathroom. Oh, well, I wanted to live like a monk. As I walk down the hall I notice the iron crucifix at the end of the hallway. An image of Christ was painted on the black steel. I would pass by many times during the weekend.

Others arrived in the balcony before me. Except for mass, I think Vigils is the longest prayer time. I noticed that some monks lean on one arm as they stand during the liturgy. I wondered if they had trouble sleeping like I did. I wonder how God speaks to them through the monotony of this routine. The regular schedule might bring peace but does it also promote mind numbing repetition. I wonder if they ever feel trapped like the bat that flew through the rafters of the Abbey Church that early Saturday morning.

The Guestmaster challenged us to stay up after vigils like the monks. Actually he said, "You may go back to bed after morning vigils, if you get up at all, but the brothers will stay up." I carry my Bible, journal and Nouwan's: Behold the Beauty of the Lord, Praying with Icons to a table in the dining room. I settle on the Icon of the Savior of Zvenigorod. The eyes of Jesus are like flames of fire. Jesus sees me clearly and simply, just as I am. Christ have mercy on me a sinner. See from His head, His hands, His feet. Love and sorrow flow mingled down. John 1: In Him was life and the life was the light of men. And the darkness did not comprehend it.

I found the coffee still hot from the day before. It was weak and bitter. After drinking it I took a walk in the deep darkness. I was able to feel my way along the asphalt path for quite some time. I didn't really know where I was going but later noticed I had walked by one of the signs saying, "monk only area." The blackness surrounded me and I was reminded that the darkness did not comprehend Christ. I went back to the dining room and wrote the adjacent poem

After the prayer service, Terce, I decide to find the statues. I spread sunscreen on limbs, neck, face and head, thick like butter because the sun was brutally hot. A dirt path through the woods was my guide. Thankfully the shade brought the temperature to a more reasonable level, probably the mid-nineties. The Holy Spirit was along with me although I did not know it at first. I should have recognized Him as God's grace in the cooling breeze. I suppose you could think that believing the Spirit of God is a butterfly might seem a little sacrilegious. The ones I saw were surely as beautiful and able to ride the breezes like any angel.

"I will lift up mine eyes to the Hills of Kentucky. From where does my help come? My help comes from the Lord who made heaven and earth. He will not allow your foot to slip; He who keeps you will not slumber. Behold he who keeps the Monks at Gethsemani will neither slumber nor sleep. The Lord is your keeper; the Lord is your shade on your right hand. The sun will not smite you by day, (for which I am extremely thankful) nor the moon by night. (I never saw the moon.) The Lord will protect you from all evil. He will keep your soul. The Lord will guard your going out and your coming in from this time forth and forever. Psalm 121.

I was glad I had changed into my red tank top and had lathered on the sun screen. The sun was still low on the horizon but it quickly dried the few drops of rain that had fallen earlier. I wonder if God had to ring out the air with His bare hands to get some of that moisture to drop out. The atmosphere was thick with moisture the evening before and even now it was hard to draw a full breath of air.

Sweat formed quickly as I strolled down the wooded path. The monotonous ratcheting of the Saccades continuously whirred about my head. One of them tried to knock me off the path and then proceeded to clatter its wings from a nearby tree to taunt me. This was certainly not a totally silent retreat as advertised. There was a constant chatter of these ugly insects or the annoying hum of fans and air conditioners. Either way, only in my cloister with the fan on low did I find minor relief from the noise. On the high setting it squeaked and moaned from the heat, I think. (Or also in the abbey as the chanting drowned out the white noise of the air conditioner)

I noticed God's Holy Spirit as I entered the meadow. There around a tree marvelously adorned with lacy pink blossoms, dozens of black butterflies drank nectar. They danced a colored jig as two large winged yellow friends joined in. Everywhere I went, through the meadow and then in and around the statues, they were with me bringing their delicate beauty, peace and comfort. I walked from the meadow into the thicket. There I saw the statue of the three disciples asleep. They did not stir from their sculptured stupor as I walked by. Further on was Christ in the Garden at Gethsemani.

Sitting at the statue of Christ in agony reminded me of his lonely night in Gethsemane. The friends he asked to join in His agony were fast asleep. Although I was fully awake, I noticed my mind wandering to my own discomfort as sweat drizzled its way down my neck and chest. A fly was annoying me during my watch. It distracted me from my duty to sit with Christ. If only I could concentrate more fully on Him:

Christ called to me and I answered.

Three friends watched not but slept.

Christ, in agony, prayed to His father.

Let this cup pass by me, yet not my will but thine be done this day.

I am hear Lord, watching, listening,

Praying with thee.

Birds chatter, caw, chirp and sing your praise. I keep watch with you waiting to hear your voice.

Even if the path before me is not yet clear, I will keep my eyes on Christ and watch, and wait and listen.

Like monks in the abbey,

I will faithfully sing your praise.

In the peace of the early morning,

I sit nearby, waiting.

I wait to hear your voice while

The birds sing to you and praise your name.

Lord Jesus forgive my sin and help my faith grow. As a tree of righteousness I will stand in your strength.

A buzzing bee distracts me to take my eyes from you; Satan tempts me, but I will keep watch. I will not cast mine eyes down to sheol.

You, oh God, are my shield and my strength

In time of trouble and despair.

Lord, I will watch with you forever.

For whom the bell tolls, it tolls for me. Twenty booming gongs call me to the abbey church for Sext, prayer before dinner at twelve-thirty, but I am too far away in the garden. I planned to miss lunch anyway. The black butterflies meet me again in the heat of the day. I am again gratefully reminded of God's Holy Spirit as they whisk by to find and drink from the flower's sweet nectar. I kill the fly that's been bothering me, swatting it from my wrist and finishing the job with my foot. I wish I could do the same to the wretchedly annoying cadence of the rhythmic bugs in the trees.

I look back at the kneeling Christ one last time. Then I close my eyes and face the sun. A sheet of fire penetrates my eyelids as the sun bakes my skin. Just as it becomes unbearably hot, I look away and open my eyes. The Spirit floats through the trees some distance below. It glides on the breeze that keeps sweat from forming droplets on my exposed skin. I rise and walk back to the great meadow. I sit in a chair that is half in the shadow and half in the sun. The Holy Spirit breaks the monotonous drone of those fat, ugly insects. The gentle wind passes by lifting the sweat from my slippery skin. Its coolness is punctuated by the soft rustling of the thick leaves overhead. Their sound is like falling rain, and I notice I am resting by a small orange butterfly resting on the ground next to me. The breeze is quickly gone leaving me to roast again in the hot sun so I move along back to the monastery.

The monastic vocation, practiced here at Gethsemani for 160 years, follows the 910 year tradition of the Cistercian Order. Simple chanting is sung antiphonally from side to side in the choir loft or between a cantor and the choir. The doxology is sung at the end of each Psalm. The monks are dismissed when a cantor chants, "Let us bless the Lord" and the chorus responds, "Thanks be to God." The bell tolls as the Monks file out much like when they walked silently into their perch in the choir loft.

After None, the seventh hour of prayer, I was reading Merton and found this quote from Seven Story Mountain. "The Cistercian life imitates the poverty of Jesus' life at Nazareth. He [the monk] withdraws from the empty noise of cities to humble his heart, his mind and his imagination before the inscrutable mystery of God."

Hunger grasps my belly and squeezes. I have not eaten for nearly twenty-four hours, and when I read, a thick tiredness rolls over me. I rise to walk it off, but quickly drowsiness over shadows me. I am the tired watchman. I am like Peter or James or John who could not keep from sleeping during their watch with Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane. Forgive me God for I am week. Without you I am nothing. I slump to my bed for an "After None" nap.

This time I wake before the bell sounds, but barely. The retreatants and monks gather into the air conditioned abbey for Vespers. I started to chant along, quietly as instructed. As I sing I enter into the mystery surrounding the liturgy. It seems so scheduled and repetitive that I wonder how the monks can keep their minds engaged. Then I'm reminded again of the watch. The monks are faithfully keeping watch with Christ by praying the Psalms to him.

I skip the supper that follows right after prayer. I stroll through the lower garden on my up the other hill adjacent to the one supporting the cross. I reach the large statue of a man holding a child. There is no inscription so I am not sure who the man is but believe the child to be Christ. I sit facing west for a while and watch the sun move toward the horizon. I see a woman with a camera pacing on the road below. She appears to want a picture, probably without a guy in a red shirt next to the statue. I rise and walk down the hill. I've no clue how much time has passed. Last evening in my cloister, the first thing I did was to remove my watch. I wanted to be free from the worry of schedules. Little did I know that there was no worry about time at the monastery. The bell keeps everyone on a strict routine. After Compline I moved directly to my room. I read for a time under the small desk light. As dusk turned to darkness, I moved down the hallway to take a shower. It was pitch black when I returned so I went to bed and listened to the squeaky whir of the overhead fan. Hunger settled upon me making it difficult to fall asleep.

Sunday morning begins at 3:00 am just like the day before. It's been like that for over one hundred sixty years. I don't stay up after morning Vigils. Exhausted and hungry, I fall quickly to sleep and wake to the bells tolling Lauds. I planned to "break fast" this morning but when I went outside, the Lord was calling me through the mist. I took my camera and strolled to the other side of the road. The mist reminded me evermore of the mystery behind this place and the men who live here. I sense Christ's voice within me calling me back to the garden to keep watch.

So in obedience I go back to the meadow. There is a mist rising from the pond as I pass by. Dew is heavy upon the weeds and grass soaking my feet. The mist is already off the great meadow, and I enter the small woods surrounding the Christ statue. I look more carefully at the three sleepy disciples. I walk around the statue many times, focusing on their closed eyes and heads lying lazily on their hands. Their feet and arms are relaxed. I wonder why they could not stay awake and then I remember how hard is had been for me to stay awake for prayer yesterday. Then I move up the small path to the Christ.

Watch with me.

In deep agony,

I cry father

Don't abandon me.

Others sleep

And cannot keep

Watch with me.

But you can.

My father's will

And mine are one.

As also yours can be.

Just watch with me.

The birds confirm

And sing your praise.

My heart's embrace

To keep watch with you.

On my stroll back to the abbey, I took a different route along a dirt road tracked through the grass. Each time I have entered a different part of the garden during this retreat, I have been blessed with many reminders of God in creation. I plan to create a video of my pictures along with some of this writing and the sounds of Gethsemani to accompany this document. If you receive this account of the events of my retreat but don't have the video, please email krell.tim@gmail.com.

I learned from the butterflies (God's Holy Spirit) and from the Christ statue and from the Monk's faithful prayer (God's faithful character) to keep watching. The Trinity reminds me first two watch and learn from the creation. For in the garden, I found many blessings and captured them with my camera. Secondly, the butterflies want me to watch the mystery of life unfold. Each time they met me in a different place within the garden, I knew I should look carefully to find that which is difficult to see. Each time there was something to learn in the garden. Finally, Christ asked me to watch with Him. In the agony of life, I may not hide in a sluggish mind nor "sleep it off". I must watch with Christ, and we will discover together the will of the Father.

Praise the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit both now and forever. The God who is, who was, and is to come, at the end of the ages. Amen.

I attended the last hour of prayer and mass on Monday morning. I was shaken awake again at 3 am by the booming bell striking in the bell tower only a few hundred feet from my bed. I got up each morning for the monk's Vigil, to start the day with them. I'll confess again that yesterday morning I did go back to bed. Today however, I stayed up to pack up for the trek back to St. Louis. After returning my library book and depositing my pay envelop in the small slot in Room 102, I stopped by the kitchen for coffee and a bowl of cereal. I'm trying to eat "smart" after two days without food so had only a small bowl of granola and milk. I managed a look toward the sky; the heavens were filled with stars. I ate in silence slowly savoring each spoonful. I made it back to my room for the last time. It was four-thirty so I had a little over an hour to write more of this journal in an effort to capture my weekend retreat. The bell tolled again announcing my last prayer time with the Monks. I stayed through most of mass and then escaped down the back stairs with my back pack and small bag of books. The cottony cooing of a dove bid me goodbye as I stepped slowly down the steps of the great abbey. I wondered if I'd ever be back and hoped I would.

I drove my little Toyota slowly out the driveway and down the winding Kentucky road. I want to remember this place for as long as possible. That's why I've taken time to record my impressions in this document. I understand the mystery surrounding these men of faith more now that I have lived among them if only for a short time. I would like to come back in a different season, maybe fall or winter. There was no mist this morning calling for me to walk in the garden. Good thing or I might have stayed. Last Friday (after None, the sixth hour or prayer) I must have been in a hurry to get to Gethesami because I hardly recognized the road. I stopped in Bardstown to check my memory. I was correct in discovering that we had been in this small town established in 1780. I found the state park where we had gone to the Stephen Foster musicale. Near the parking lot were a doe and two midsized fawns. There white spots seemed like they were already fading. Once verifying the theatre and stage, now I remembered for sure, I drove off in search for coffee and Wi-Fi to reconnect to my "real" world.

Here ends my story. I hope to get back to Gethsemani. I know I will miss the garden and hope this will writing will remind me of my incredible weekend until I return. The accompanying video will help me hold the visual picture of what transpired. The mystery of the garden is not easily learned. Several retreats will be required to grasp in some small way the beauty and mercy of God.

Grace and peace to all who share in my experience through this writing and the accompanying video,