I’m looking out at spring from the third floor of the Retreat House at the Abbey of Gethsemani. Compline finished half an hour ago with the monks chanting in the dark sanctuary their love song to Mary, and now the birds outside my window are singing their own love song as the light grows thin; farther off, a mourning dove says something truthful. The only discordant sounds belong to a few of my fellow retreatants, who aren’t sure what all the “keep silence” signs are about. No matter. It’s Monday evening, and from now until Friday morning, I’m in a place founded on a Christian version shamatha—calm abiding. Shh. Keep quiet, inside and out. Listen.
A retreat in the rolling hills of Kentucky–or anywhere, for that matter–isn’t for everybody. Slowing down, closing your mouth, and hearing what you’ve been trying for years to shut out can make you squirmy, claustrophobic. Your spirit can feel like your feet do after wearing roller skates for a few hours: numb, unreliable. What sane person would actually take vacation time for shamatha and the emotional reckoning it invites? And who would choose calm abiding as a career?!
If you’ve never visited a monastery and only read a description of the monastic routine, you might think cloistered monks are squandering their lives. Wouldn’t it be better for the three- or four-dozen men who live at Gethsemani to leave the enclosure and get their butts into the trenches and help the poor? Isn’t praying and remaining silent and making cheese, fudge, and fruitcake a waste of a human being’s seventy or eighty years on this planet? Some say so.
What many find hardest to understand about a monk’s vocation is this: monks believe that they stay in one spot and pray not only for themselves, but more importantly for my sorry carcass, your probably much more healthy and well-adjusted carcass, and our crazy world that keeps busy shooting and blowing up innocents. Daffy, but true. I once saw a video in which a brother from the Abbey of the Genesee said that the day he believes he lives as a monk only for himself will be the day he leaves the monastery.
This belief that monks live for others is made concrete by their hospitality. I don’t know the exact number, but I’m guessing there are thirty to forty pilgrims with me in this Retreat House, which is attached to the monastery proper. We each have our own bedrooms and bathrooms, and there are also rooms available for men in the floors above where the monks themselves live. How much will this stay cost me? Depends on what I can afford. Money’s tight right now, so I’ll leave a check for $100 when I leave. The meals alone, simple but tasty and hearty, are worth more than $100. If I left nothing, I’d never hear a word about it. The next time I come here, I hope to give much more.
Of course, I didn’t take vacation time for a retreat at Gethsemani because of the bargain. I’ve come here to rest, to get centered, to tend my sanity.
Around 2:15 this afternoon I spotted the spire of the abbey church. I got out of the car, grabbed my bags, and walked toward the Retreat House. Within twenty seconds I’d entered the silence. When the lay receptionist saw that I was the Rev. John Coleman and handed me my key, he told me about how I could concelebrate the Eucharist—something a Roman Catholic priest might want to do. Sweet old guy, really.
“Well,” I said, “I’m a Lutheran pastor.”
He smiled. “Aren’t we silly? All these divisions.”
“Yep,” I said, “we sure are.”
“When you’re elected Pope of the Lutheran church,” he said, “you can change all this.”
We had a good laugh, and I took the elevator to my room.
After leaving my bags, I headed for the sanctuary balcony, where I sat down after the conclusion of the prayer period called None, which ended at 2:30. Five monks were still praying quietly in their seats. I prayed with them for a few minutes and wondered if I could live their silence, day after day, month after month, year after year. No.
And by prayed with them I mean sat long enough to honor what they were doing. I assume they were giving God—or whatever name you want to assign eternal grace and mercy—room to take up residence in their spirits.
After watching over them on the balcony, I went back to my room and lay down on the twin bed. For much of the eight-hour drive from Erie to the-middle-of-nowhere Kentucky, I mentally reviewed all that I planned to sort out and accomplish at Gethsemani. The closer I got to the abbey, the more I was convinced that I needed to let go. For my days here, there should be no plan, no agenda. No shoulds!
The monks who spent so many hours in prayer, together and alone, knew they didn’t possess wisdom themselves. The best they could do was sit still and let wisdom come to them—or rise up within them. Whatever.
On the twin bed in my room, I closed my eyes at 3:00 p.m. And in this place of letting go created by hundreds of monks, I slept for an hour. Then, for another thirty minutes I lay there, breathing deeply, neither asleep nor awake. I got up grateful.
The brothers have prayed in this place for over 150 years. I took my siesta in the embrace of their peace.