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My week in a monastery

By Clint McBroom

A week ago I took a four day silent retreat at the Abbey of Gethsemani in rural Kentucky. In years past I would take this retreat annually, but I had not gone in several years. Being that the environment inside of a monastery is likely foreign to many folks, I'd like to share about my experience of last week.

Most people are familiar with the experience of going on a retreat. In my own Methodist tradition, the Emmaus movement is a common retreat for many people. A silent retreat is a significantly different experience to what many of us are used to. During a retreat at the Abbey of Gethsemani, the only time that you would speak is during one of the seven worship services during the day. And then your speaking and singing would be directed to God alone. Outside of those times, retreatants do not speak.

What are the advantages to silence? I can only speak to what I have discovered: that in the silence, we become more able to hear the "still, small voice" of God (1 Kings 19:12). I have found that we as human beings can easily use the constant noise of life as a way to shield ourselves from hearing God's voice. We can use distraction to keep from truly meeting God face to face. But the practice of silence helps to foster prayer and helps us to hear what God is saying to us.

So what follows are my reflections from each day of my retreat and from my own reading during the week. I hope that you may find some of those reflections meaningful.

Retreat at the Abbey of Gethsemani – Monday

I arrived at the Abbey just before 4 p.m. eastern time. The Abbey is located a few miles to the east of a small Kentucky town named New Haven. When you approach the monastery from the parking lot, the first thing that you notice is the cemetery. It is a small cemetery where some laity are buried (the monks are buried in simple graves inside the monastery grounds).

I noted that most of the graves are marked from the mid 19th to the early 20th century. There were maybe only one or two that were dated past 1950.

The monastery is a part of the Order of Cistercians. They are more commonly called “Trappists”. It is a Roman Catholic Religious order that originated out of France, and is known for being one of the more austere religious orders.

The most prominent and visible building as you walk onto the grounds is the guesthouse. The Abbey of Gethsemani follows the ancient Rule of Saint Benedict, which calls the religious order to be hospitable to outsiders at all times. This follows the Biblical teaching that when we welcome the stranger, we welcome Jesus himself (Matthew 25:35 and Hebrews 13:2).

After I checked in at the guesthouse, I unloaded my luggage in my room, which is not actually in the guest house but is in one of the wings of the monastery itself. This wing used to house monks, but is now reserved as a kind of overflow when there are more retreatants than can be housed in the guest house alone. My room is simple: a bed, a sink and a small desk. There is a communal bathroom with showers down the hall. While there is air conditioning in the guest house, there is none in the monastery, so I was prepared for muggy, humid night, but fortunately the evenings in central Kentucky are still cooler in early June than the evenings in Tallassee, Alabama.

The retreat itself is silent. There is no speaking anywhere on the monastery grounds unless you are in worship, and then the speaking is focused on praying the psalms. The retreat is not monitored or scheduled in any way. This is the biggest difference from many of the other retreats that I have been on. Most retreats are scheduled with activity after activity, some with the stated goal of wearing out the participants so that they will be more open to God’s moving in their life. The atmosphere at the Abbey of Gethsemani is quite different. Retreatants are invited to join the monks in following the Daily Office, which is a schedule of seven set times of prayer during the day:

3:15 a.m. – Vigils
5:45 a.m. – Lauds
7:30 a.m. – Terce
12:15 p.m. – Sext
2:15 p.m. – None
5:30 p.m. – Vespers
7:30 p.m. – Compline

This is laid out the Rule of Saint Benedict. Most of these prayer times are taken up by chanting the Psalms. In fact, the monks will pray through the entire Psalter every two weeks!

They pray through them using Gregorian Chant, which uses simple note patterns that enable you to pray the words without getting distracted by overly complex musical patterns. The spirit of this kind of worship is unique to anything I’ve seen elsewhere.

By the way, you read that right…the first hour of prayer is at 3:15 in the morning. The first time I went on one of these retreats several years ago, I wrestled with whether or not I wanted to get up that early. After all, I wondered, aren’t six hours of prayer plenty for me? But in the end, I decided that if was going to do the retreat right, then I needed to follow as much as possible the pattern of life that the monks followed. And so I got up at 3:15 in the morning to pray the vigils, and I’ve done so ever since. It’s one of the best retreat decisions I’ve made. It makes Scripture like Psalm 119:147, “I rise before dawn and cry for help; I hope in your words” much more clear and meaningful.

Typically on these retreats I choose two books to read: one a devotional or theological book, and the other more devoted to church leadership. For this retreat I’m reading “The Crucifixion” by Fleming Rutledge and “Canoeing the Mountains: Christian Leadership in Uncharted Territory” by Tod Bolsinger. I’m looking to getting started on those. 

Retreat at the Abbey of Gethsemani – Tuesday

My schedule on Tuesday follows the basic pattern of my retreat days. If you notice the hours of prayer from yesterday’s post, there are larger blocks of time in between worship: The first between the 7:30 a.m. Terce and the 12:15 Sext, and the second between the 2:15 p.m. None and the 5:30 p.m.Vespers. During the morning block is when I usually do the bulk of my reading. This is also when the monks do most of their work for the day.

During the afternoon session, I usually go for a walk. There are nearly 1,500 acres of knobs, lakes and forest that belong to the monastery. On Tuesday afternoon, I walked what is by far the most traveled trail, which is a trail “to the statues.”

You cross the main road just to the west and immediately see a sign leading you into the woods. Not far from the trail head, you see the first of what will be several small statues placed along the length of the trail.

After a few hundred feet, the trail opens up and crosses across an earthen dyke adjacent to a small house pond. You then enter into a larger wooded area with more statues.

Finally, you come to another clearing where the trail passes through a row of trees into a rather dense copse. It is here that you begin the see the sculptor group entitled “The Garden of Gethsemani”. This refers to Jesus’ time of anguished prayer in the garden just before his arrest, trial, and crucifixion.

The first statue is that of the disciples, who have fallen asleep, promoting Jesus to say to them, “Watch and pray that you may not enter into temptation. The spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.” (Matthew 26:41)

 Then, a little further up the wooded hill, you find the statue of Jesus, praying in anguish.

The trail continues on past the Gethsemani statues into a dense area of pine and fir that I find to be really peaceful. So peaceful, in fact, that I almost stepped on this guy. Needless to say, I walked with a great deal more attentiveness from that point on.

I mentioned yesterday that the Gethsemani statues have a story. They were created for and given to the Abbey by a sculptor named Walker Hancock in 1966 in dedication to a young man named Jonathan Daniels. Daniels was born in Keene, New Hapshire in 1939. While a teenager, he wrestled with the meaning of life, death, and his vocation. While he found himself close to a loss of faith, he finally had a profound conversion experience on Easter Day in 1962 at the Church of the Advent in Boston, after which he entered the Episcopal Theological School in Cambridge, Massachusetts. But in March of 1965, he saw the televised appeal of Martin Luther King, Jr. to come to Selma to help secure for all citizens the right to vote. Drawn by that appeal, Jonathan asked leave of his seminary to work in Selma. His conviction of his calling was deepened at evening prayer during the singing of the Magnificat. He wrote: “‘He hath put down the mighty from their seat and hath exalted the humble and meed; He hath filled the hungry with good things.’ I knew that I must go to Selma. The Virgin’s song was to grow more and more dear to me in the weeks ahead.”

Jonathan was jailed on August 14 for joining a picket line. He and his companions were unexpectedly released, and unaware that they were in danger, four of them walked to a small store. As sixteen year-old Ruby Sales reach the top step of the entrance, a man with a gun appeared, cursing her. Jonathan pulled her to one side to shield her from the unexpected threats. As a result, he was killed by a blast from the 12-gauge shotgun.

Jonathan Daniels left behind several letters and papers that reveal the impactthat Selma had on him. He writes, “The doctrine of the creeds, the enacted faith of the sacraments, were the essential preconditions of the experience itself. The faith with which I went to Selma has not changed: it has grown…I began to know in my bones and sinews that I had been truly baptized into the Lord’s death and resurrection…with them the black men and the white men, with all life, in him whose Name is above all the names that the races and nations shout…We are indelibly and unspeakably one.”

Retreat at the Abbey of Gethsemani – Wednesday

Yesterday I mentioned about how the long morning period in between the 7:30 a.m. Terce and 12:15 p.m. Sext times of prayer were devoted primarily to the monks’ daily work. You may have wondered, “What kind of work do they do?” You may also have wondered, “How in the world do monks, who have given up all worldly possessions, support the monastery?”

The answer is that they work to support the monastery. How they have worked changes over the years. Several decades ago, the monastery was primarily supported through agriculture. The monks were all farmers. The most well-known resident of Gethsemani, Thomas Merton, in his autobiography “The Seven Storey Mountain” (which I warmly recommend), talked about the experience of working in the fields all day while being weak from fasting. However, the same economic factors that made it increasingly difficult for small farms to be profitable also affected the monastery, and they shifted to making homemade fudge, fruitcake, and cheese. The fudge and fruitcake are made with Kentucky Bourbon because, as one of the monks once joked, “We have to keep the bourbon industry happy by buying their bourbon and all the Southern Baptists happy by not selling bourbon. So we put it in fudge.” Both the fudge and the fruitcake are outstanding, by the way.

For the Trappist monks, their work is not just a way to support the monastery. It is a part of their life devoted to God. The motto of the Rule of Saint Benedict (that I mentioned a couple of posts ago) is “Ora et Labora” or “Work and Pray.” Benedict saw daily work and daily prayer not as two separate things, but as one. So when you are at prayer, you are doing God’s work, and when you are working, you are offering up that work to God as a part of your prayer life.

There is something for us to learn in that. We often struggle with how to fit prayer into our busy lives and schedules. While scheduled times of focused prayer are still vital and important, what if we had a new vision of life where all that we did was offered to God in prayer? Could this be part of what Paul was referring to when he called us to “pray without ceasing”? (1 Thessalonians 5:17)

I mentioned in the Monday post that I’m reading two books, and I thought I would give a quick update on both. “The Crucifixion” by Fleming Rutledge has been a pleasant surprise. It’s not a book I would have read naturally, not having been exposed to Rutledge before, but a number of people I respect had recommended it, and it won the Christianity Today Book of the Year award, so I decided, “Why not?” The book is long, so alas I have no chance of finishing it here as I originally intended. Rutledge’s main point is that there is a constant pull away from the crucifixion of Jesus because, frankly, it’s offensive and off-putting. So in church-world, we tend to find all kinds of religious ways of de-emphasizing it. Sometimes those ways are explicitly heretical and dangerous, such as the Prosperity Gospel that is so prevalent in America. Some of those ways are more subtle and non-threatening, such as a growing emphasis on Jesus’ incarnation and its hallowing of creation (you can find this in Anglican and Eastern Orthodox traditions), without a full recognition that Jesus took on humanity for the primary purpose of going to the cross. So Rutledge’s book is an attempt to call the church back to the primacy of Jesus Christ and him crucified. The book is powerful and beautiful and challenging, and I’m glad I decided to read it.

“Canoeing The Mountains” tells the story of Lewis and Clark, and how they had to completely re-tool their expedition when they reached the Rocky Mountains because no one expected those mountains to be there…the conventional wisdom was that the Missouri River would just lead straight to the Pacific. Being that they couldn’t “canoe the mountains” they had to change their way of working. The parallel for church world is that we now live in an increasingly secular age where there is no cultural expectation that people will come to church. Most of our church ministry and training is for a world where we don’t have to reach people, they just come to us. But now, like Lewis and Clark, we are in a new situation and have to change how we think and what we do.

I’ll probably spend most of today reading. My afternoon hike yesterday ended up being several miles (I can’t read maps, apparently) and my legs are pretty sore, so I’m going to devote the day to reading.

Retreat at the Abbey of Gethsemani – Thursday

Over the years upon learning about my retreats at the monastery and about the vocation of the monks people have asked me, “What is the value of withdrawing from the world like that? Should we not stay engaged with the world?” It is a good question, and one that I will address here as I share about my last retreat day.

To start, I would respond that I believe that the vocation of the monks is not one of simply withdrawing from the world, but rather of engaging with the world in a much different way. If the monks were to withdraw from the world, they would not be so deeply committed to the practice of hospitality. It would be more accurate to view their vocation as one of engaging deeply with the world through prayer and bearing witness to the grace and purposes of God through their way of living. 

For instance, to give up your worldly possession to live in a community of other monks bears witness to the truth that Jesus taught that our only real and lasting treasure is in Heaven (Matthew 6:19-21). Their way of living speaks the truth to the lie so prevalent in our world that we find meaning and joy through the consumption of goods and experiences. You can speak that truth verbally, but living it out through a monastic life is much more powerful. I have found that watching the monks live out their days in this way communicates the truth to me that God is truly all I need.

In a similar way, the practice of silence (contrary to popular belief, the monks do not take a vow of silence, but practice it as a rule) reveals to us how much we use noise and speaking to distract ourselves from the voice of God. The practice of silence helps us to hear the voice of God and to contemplate God’s goodness, truth, and beauty in ways that might be impossible otherwise. In addition, I can’t help but think of all the Proverbs that warn us against speaking too much or too quickly, for instance 10:19 – “When words are many, transgression is not lacking, but whoever restrains his lips is prudent.”

The purpose of monastic life as I see it is not to withdraw from the world, but to engage with the world in such a way that the truth and beauty of God is revealed to the world in ways that words could never communicate. And it may well be that as Western civilization becomes more and more secular and disconnected from it’s Christian roots that this witness may become more and more valuable. In fact, author Rod Dreher, in his notable 2017 book, “The Benedict Option”, wrote about how Christians in the West are going to need to draw from the wisdom of Saint Benedict, who when he saw the moral collapse in Rome following its sack, realized that some new practices and new ways of living for Christians were needed for faith to survive the coming dark age. It may well be that communities like Gethsemani will help Christians in the coming years to see how we must find new ways of preserving our faith from the corrupting influences of a degrading culture and to find new ways of engaging with that culture so as to influence it and not the other way around.

As I mentioned in Wednesday’s post, I spent the good deal of Thursday reading, and most of that reading was from “The Crucifixion” by Fleming Rutledge. I’ll share one insight that I gained yesterday regarding the shame of the cross. Rutledge writes about Paul’s repeated emphasis on the scandal of the cross, and of why he felt the need to say in Romans 1:16, “I am not ashamed of the gospel.” Why would Paul be ashamed? Rutledge claims, rightly, that the shame is not because Jesus died (there were countless stories in antiquity of dying and rising gods), but because of the way that he died. It is nearly impossible in 21st century America, where we have crosses everywhere, to recapture the absolute shame involved in Jesus, the God-man, dying on a Roman cross.

That shame, writes Rutledge, is central to understanding what was going on at the crucifixion. It forces the question, “Why did Jesus have to die in that way?” Something more had to be going on than just a way for Jesus to show us his love, which he was certainly doing.

I couldn’t help but think about the shame of sin, and how Jesus dying in that shameful fashion was his taking upon himself not only the consequences of our sin, but all the shame of our sin. And if he took upon himself all of the shame of our sin, what does that mean for us? What does that mean for those of us who have such shame in our past that there are things we would never share with anyone? What if Jesus, indeed, took all of that?

That is part of the power of the gospel. One of things Rutledge accomplishes with her book is to communicate how the crucifixion is something you can ponder over and over again, from every angle, and be amazed and awe-struck and never plumb the full depths of. And I thank her for that.