This past Thursday, the last full day of my retreat at the Abbey of Gethsemani in Kentucky, was extravagant and challenging. As usual, I wrote in the morning at the Java Joint in Bardstown, then returned to the abbey for lunch. I had it in mind to ask the guest master if I could enter the cloistered area of the monastery to look at the graves of those who died long ago, some of whom I feel like I knew: Dom Frederic Dunne, Merton’s first abbot, and his predecessor Edmond Obrecht, and the abbots before them. I’ve read so much about them it’s as if they’re friends.
At 1:00 I caught the guest master outside his office. “Do you have a minute?” I said. “I have a question?”
His body language said, “Oh, bother,” but he said, “Sure, come in.”
I said, “It’s a simple question, and I’ll understand if the answer is no.”
“That’s quite a forecast,” he said. “Okay, no.” He laughed. Before I could get my question out, he followed up: “Okay, maybe.” Big smile.
A little awkward. “Maybe’s a start,” I said. “I was wondering if I could look at the monks’ graves in the enclosure after Compline tonight?” The Great Silence begins after Compline, when the brothers go to bed. I figured there’d be no chance of disturbing anybody.
Before my words were out he was shaking his head: “No.”
“Okay,” I said, nodding and keeping my word that no was all right.
“Yeah, that was all,” I said.
“Oh,” he said. “That was easy.”
“Yeah. Thanks.” I walked down the hall and climbed the stairs to my room. Of course, I was crushed—temporarily at least.
When I reached my room, it was my normal prayer time, so I began to do what I always do, which was try to make myself peaceful before I’m finished being hurt and pissed. So I let myself have some time to be put out. Eventually, as so often happens with shamatha—calm abiding—in the Sacred Presence, truth arrived. My reaction wasn’t about the kind, but honest, guest master, but about me.
No doesn’t work for me on any level. I’m terrible about saying no to myself (this is partially why I’m a diabetic), and I agonize about saying no to others. When somebody says no to me, suddenly I’m an adolescent with a quivering lip. Why? Long story, birth family, blah, blah, blah.
Anyway, during those forty-five minutes I sat in silent prayer after what felt like a rebuke, I understood that the guest master had actually given me a gift.
Often in this life, the answer is no. No, no, no! There’s no dressing it up, no making it palatable or painless. It doesn’t matter that the question is reasonable. And this isn’t about the old saying that “God answers all prayer, but sometimes the answer is no.” None of that business of cleaning no up and making it a buddy.
Central to being mature and healthy for me is the ability to say and hear the fullness of no. I’m not there yet, not even close. No kidding, I’m glad now that I heard no unvarnished. Later at Vespers I saw the guest master and thought to myself, “I wish I were more like him.” Thank you, brother!
After forty-five minutes of prayer, my gut relaxed, and I felt in my body what I knew in my head: I’d received a severe blessing. That’s how growth happens.
The extravagance I mentioned came in the presence of Brother John, who shared pizza and Chimay Trappist Ale with me in the Norton Speaking Room. Thursday was the Ascension of Our Lord, an observance for Christians and an occasion for monastic partying. On festival days, the brothers crack excellent beer and eat something unusually delicious for dinner. For Brother John, the celebration consisted of two beers and two pieces of pizza. I consumed the same, but under normal circumstances, I’d consider such a meal dainty. John has his hungry ghosts (stay tuned for a future post on these ravenous spirits) under control; me, not so much.
My Gethsemani retreat was crowded with blessings. I enjoyed free-range siestas, long hours of prayer, plenty of reading and writing at the desk by the window, and especially those talking dinners with Brother John. I even appreciated remembering my father’s death and hearing the guest master’s no.
I wish my most important lessons didn’t feel like a punch to the sternum at first, but that’s how learning seems to happen for me. Some foolishness needs to get expelled so there’s room for health and insight.
It’s Sunday afternoon now, back home in Erie, Pennsylvania. For Mother’s Day the Coleman family will go out for all-you-can-eat shrimp, but first I feel a nap coming on. Being away is great, but getting back home is better still.