My four sons take a momentary break from their animated debate over which Lego Bionicle® has the most awesome power. They look at me with quizzical and somewhat worried expressions. I know what they’re thinking: Mom hasn’t been quite the same since she’s returned from her retreat to the Trappist monastery.
Quest for Quiet
I’ll admit, it has been taking me some time to adjust. Going from busy, bustling, boisterousness to silence, solitude, and sanity — and then back again — has not left me unaffected. It was the promise of four peaceful days of prayer and contemplation that lured me to the Abbey of Gethsemani in the first place.
Intrigued, I packed my journal, Bible, and prayer book, kissed my family, and drove south to Kentucky to join several other women retreatants. I suppose they were there for the very same reason.
Of course, I’ll never know for certain what brought these women to Gethsemani that week because I never actually spoke to any of them. There’s no talking on this type of retreat, except in a few designated areas for those who simply can’t resist a little conversation.
That wasn’t a temptation for me, however. I was on a quest for quiet. I once told my pastor that if I weren’t married and raising four boys, I might seriously consider the monastic life. He just smiled and told me I needed to find a little more alone time.
At Gethsemani, I found that time. Situated in the sprawling hills of the Kentucky countryside near Bardstown, Gethsemani is a place removed from the world, though not untouched by it. For over 150 years, the doors of this restful sanctuary have been open to visitors from the outside.
The Trappists are a reform within the Cistercian Order, nicknamed for the area of France they originally inhabited called La Trappe. Visitors at Gethsemani are a sign of Christ and, therefore, always welcome. This rare and gracious hospitality allows thousands of pilgrims each year from different faiths and backgrounds to experience a taste of the monastic life and the benefit of time alone with God.
Out of Control
I arrived at the monastery three hours later than planned due to car trouble and a wrong turn, my first indication that I would not be in control of this retreat. I was relieved, therefore, to see the church spire rising above the tree line, signaling I had finally arrived.
As I surveyed the grounds and parked my car, I looked around with some nervousness and excitement to see if I could catch a glimpse of one of the hooded monks that I had seen on the web site. To my surprise and delight, two of them were stationed at the front desk to greet me. For an awkward moment, I wasn’t sure if I needed to act out who I was and why I was there so that I wouldn’t betray the silence. But their hushed voices and shy smiles let me know it was permissible to speak in this part of the building.
The room they provided me in the retreat house was ample, with a bed, desk, and private bath. When I settled in and looked over the daily schedule of prayer, meals, and retreat talks, I saw that I had some free time. After reading a little background about the monastery, I decided to take advantage of the sunny spring afternoon and walk the grounds.
The landscape enveloping Gethsemani is beautiful, despite the fact that most of nature was still in hibernation during my visit. The monks own 2,000 acres of land in Kentucky, rolling hills that once played host to herds of sheep and cattle. The animals are no longer there. Gone also are the acres of vegetable gardens that once fed the monks their modest meals.
Today, the cloistered men work indoors, due to their smaller number and aging membership. A mail-order business is now the primary source of income for this religious community, which has become world renowned for its homemade cheese, fudge, and fruitcake. This productive little business enables the monks to continue to live by the labor of their hands as the apostles and early Christians once did.
Prayer is Central
While work in the manufacturing facility or retreat house is an important and necessary part of community life, the central aspect of Trappist existence is prayer. In addition to Mass, Trappists pray, as it declares in the Psalms, seven times a day.
They pray the Liturgy of the Hours, the ancient prayer of the Church, in which all 150 psalms are chanted over a four-week period. As our retreat master would explain, “The psalms are God’s words given to us so that we can give them back to God. They contain every possible human emotion and fulfill the four purposes of prayer: to adore God, to thank him, to seek forgiveness, and to ask for his help and guidance.”
Therefore, each day, in a tradition that dates back 1,600 years, the Hours are prayed at 3:15 a.m. (Vigils), 5:45 a.m. (Lauds and Mass), 7:30 a.m. (Terce), 12:15 p.m. (Sext), 2:15 p.m. (None), 5:30 p.m. (vespers) and 7:30 p.m. (Compline).
My first opportunity to join the monks in prayer was at vespers. At the sound of the church bells, several other visitors and I silently took seats at the rear of the church in a glass-enclosed foyer.
Since I was on a women’s retreat, I was rather surprised to find myself among women, men, and even a few children. It was explained to me later that some of the men attending the Hours were considering the monastic life. Other individuals were family members of the monks or simply the general public.
Together, we watched as Trappists entered the sanctuary one by one and took their designated places in opposing choir stalls. Following along in a book provided, I did my best to join the monks as they chanted the psalms antiphonally (one side chanting the first line and the opposite side chanting the next.) At first it was a bit awkward to find the right page, learn the tune, and remember when to bow, but this came more naturally as the retreat progressed.
After prayer it was time for dinner. The Trappists are strict vegetarians. Our meals were simple but satisfying.
In the dining hall, some thought-provoking tapes by Father Richard Rohr were played for our meditation. I found his thoughts about retreats particularly challenging. He stated that many people go on retreats regularly, almost like a vacation, yet they remain unchanged interiorly — they don’t do anything with their retreat experience. Retreats, he admonished, should cause us to grow and empower us to effect change around us. These were certainly words to consider.
After dinner that first night, Father Anton, the retreat master, welcomed us with a talk and a video about the monastic life. We learned that the spiritual journey of a monk begins when a man responds to the call of Jesus and signs on as a postulant. For a six-month trial period, he lives the full monastic life while still wearing street clothes. His clothing changes with his level of commitment: a white habit as a novice; a black scapular and leather belt after making simple vows; and the cowl or hooded, long-sleeved robe once he makes his solemn profession.
The process of making a permanent commitment to the Trappist life can take five to nine years, with the community supporting him at each stage of the discernment process.
Trappist monks make vows of obedience, poverty, and chastity. But, contrary to popular belief, they do not make a vow of silence. Talking is sometimes required in work, in receiving visitors or in spiritual counsel.
Generally, however, an atmosphere of silence is maintained to foster a state of continual prayer. When not praying or working, the Trappist monk spends time in study of the Scriptures or other spiritual reading. The purpose of the structure and communal living at Gethsemani is to provide an atmosphere in which a man can discover Christ in himself and in others, with an ultimate goal of transformation into and union with Christ. It is a life of simplicity, service, and love.
Mesmerized by Merton
Stormy weather kept me inside more than I had anticipated during my retreat, so I tried to follow the monk’s example by doing some spiritual reading. Shortly after I arrived, I felt compelled to read the autobiography of perhaps the most famous Trappist of all, Thomas Merton. I had not intended to do much reading during these precious few days, but the inspiration would not cease. So I picked up a copy of The Seven Storey Mountain in the gift shop, and it became my devotional reading for the weekend.
Much of this spiritual classic focuses on Merton’s life growing up without faith or purpose, and his disillusionment with things of the world. It follows his gradual discovery of God and the Catholic Church and climaxes with his entry into the Abbey of Gethsemani, which he called “the four walls of my new freedom.”
Not knowing a great deal about Merton before reading his autobiography, I found many of his earlier experiences strangely familiar. I, too, was raised in a family without strong religious conviction and had similar anti-Catholic sentiments passed on to me by well-meaning but misinformed parents.
I also lived in New York and was lured by the things of the world instead of things of the spirit. In addition, I shared Merton’s intense passion for reading and writing. Most of all, I could relate well to the experience of being plucked by God from a most unlikely situation in life and redirected to do his good work.
Silence Echoes in Soul
Between afternoon storms, I took a slow walk on a path that meandered through the woods, periodically stopping at various statues along the way. Each provided a quiet place for reflection, but most impressive to me was the statue portraying Jesus during the agony in the garden.
The Savior is portrayed on his knees, with his hands covering his upturned face. His despair is overwhelming, and I was quite moved to stumble upon it unexpectedly. The sculpture was a poignant reminder to me of what I have done in my own life to contribute to Our Lord’s agony. I stayed there for a long while in prayer.
As the second day passed, I found myself more in the rhythm of the retreat. I learned to take a quick cat nap here or there to keep me refreshed and prepared for rising in the middle of the night to pray. Except for perhaps one or two times when I slept through my alarm, I was able to be present for all of the Hours as well as the 4:00 a.m. Mass that was celebrated by Father Matthew Kelty. This 90-year-old monk began his life at Gethsemani as a novice under Thomas Merton. His evening reflections provided tremendous food for thought.
I decided that of all the Hours, my personal favorite was vigils, as difficult as it was to rise for the 3:15 a.m. prayer. At vigils, the entire church is completely dark except for a small light at the pulpit where a monk solemnly proclaims the Scriptures. The silence between the readings allowed the words to echo deeply in my soul.
By the third day, as I was finally acclimating to the routine of monastic life, I also found myself beginning to miss my family and my schedule. As blissful as this place of prayer was, I was still an outsider here, among strangers, and it made me feel somewhat lonely. I realized I hadn’t really escaped routine – I had merely adopted another. Gazing at the picture of my boys that I had stuck between the pages of my journal, I found I missed their little voices. I missed their noise.
That afternoon I made the Stations of the Cross, using a meditation of female saints that I had found in the library in the retreat house. The quotes were inspiring and challenging. I felt close to these great women of Christian history and proud to be a woman. In particular, I felt honored to be a wife and a mother.
For the rest of that day, in between prayers and meals, I finished Merton’s book. As I was reading the final pages, I could almost hear the tapping of the author’s typewriter escaping from one of the rooms overlooking the monastic garden.
I tried to visualize what the Trappist community was like in the glory days after World War II, when a surge of vocations filled the building to capacity with 270 men. There were so many, in fact, that the overflow was sent to establish new abbeys throughout the country.
I closed my eyes and imagined what the worship must have been like — the church resounding with young male voices, singing the ancient verses in Latin.
With Vatican II came changes to religious life, even in the remote hills of Kentucky. For the Trappists, there were renovations in customs, lifestyle, and physical surroundings.
Today, the psalms are sung in English from modern-looking choir stalls that are filled to only one-third of their capacity. The average age of a Trappist monk is considerably older than in Merton’s time. In some ways, the empty seats and graying heads made me a feel bit discouraged.
Despite this, I could not deny that there was still something special here at the Abbey of Gethsemani: something timeless, something peaceful, something holy.
It was impossible not to be profoundly touched by these special disciples who committed so earnestly to maintaining this tradition of prayer. We owe much gratitude to communities like these around the world where men and women are called to a state of perpetual focus on God because their prayers and sacrifices are made on our behalf.
The apparent limitations and monotony in the life of a monastic can seem harsh and undesirable. Some people may accuse the monk of running away from reality or wasting his life in such an obscure existence. But the kind of person who comes to a monastery and stays is a person not running from something, but to something.
In terms of exterior things, he has finished his search; he is ready to begin a new interior search. This does not mean that he is exempt from the challenges of sin, disillusionment or distraction that all of us face in our own lives. He has simply found his home and his vocation.
When I pondered this thought, I realized that the monk is not all that different from me. As I live out God’s plan as a married person with children, I too am faced with limitations, structure, and responsibilities. In the end, though, I have discovered that these confinements are actually liberating and necessary for my spiritual growth and they are what will ultimately lead me to true joy and fulfillment.
Bringing Peacefulness Home
That evening, I climbed a nearby hill and watched the sun set over the Kentucky countryside. I felt a mixture of sadness and gladness that my retreat was coming to an end.
I had found a peaceful refuge in Gethsemani. It was not my home, but a quiet place that spoke loudly to me of the importance of bringing some of this peacefulness back to my true home and vocation as wife and mother.
On the last day of my retreat, I reflected on all that I had experienced at the monastery. I spent a few minutes alone in the empty church, gazing down at the choir stalls from a loft in the back of the building.
I took one last look at the white-washed brick walls, the high ceilings with the original beams of wood, and the simple altar. I longed for the world to know about this place, about the men who lived here and prayed for us daily.
A thought occurred to me as I sat in melancholy silence. Perhaps I could use the image of empty choir seats and aging monks as a reminder of my own limited spirituality. Yes, I have God in my life and I strive to know him, love him, and serve him. Still, am I only a shadow of my potential, of what God has planned for me?
What do I need to do to make my “house of prayer” more vibrant and alive? I packed my bags, pondering that reflection.
I have returned to the world to which God has called me: a world of soccer cleats, bug jars, laundry, dishes, and unfinished manuscripts — and all the subsequent noise that comes with it. I think often about the monks at the Abbey of Gethsemani. They have taught me a great deal about the value of finding quiet time in my own busy day to praise God.
Whenever I look at the clock, I remember when they are in prayer, at work or asleep. I pray for these special men and their gift to the world. And I petition for those choir stalls to be filled once again to capacity, echoing with the sound of young voices singing the eternal verses: “Praise the Father, the Son, and Holy Spirit. Both now and forever. The God who is, who was, and is to come at the end of the ages…”
Published in St. Anthony Messenger, October 2005
Copyright 2009 Elizabeth Ficocelli