The Gift of an Unvarnished “No”

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Dom Edmond Obrecht (Photo Credit: Abbey of Gethsemani)

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.”

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Dom Frederic Dunne (Photo Credit: Biographia Cisterciensis)

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.”

Silence.

“Okay,” I said, nodding and keeping my word that no was all right.

More silence.

“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.

IMG_0482Okay, this was no big deal, but nobody likes to receive such a flat out denial to a reasonable request. Nobody would have been around? Who would have been hurt by my walking softly on those graves?

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.

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During Worship at Gethsemani, Retreatants Don’t Sit with the Brothers

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.

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Brother John (Photo Credit: Abbey of Gethsemani)

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.

IMG_0466My 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.

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Man and Beloved Cat, Together Again.

Viewing Dad’s Death Loop at Gethsemani

There’s an irony about the word retreat. By abandoning routine cares and responsibilities for a few days or a week, I can take long siestas, write, read, pray a lot, and finally re-enter the world refreshed. Of course, the daily slog serves a mental health purpose, though not necessarily a healthy one. Keeping busy helps me stay distracted, mostly unaware of the emotional sediment swirling around my soul.

So far this Gethsemani retreat has been joyful, restful, and undisciplined: no agenda, other than what I want to do in the present moment—within the confines of a monastery, of course. Fortunately, I’m a tame enough person that what suits me is being quiet and thoughtful. Call me a cheap date.

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By Gethsemani Balcony Before Sunrise

This morning was tough, though. As I prayed out on the balcony, a memory I’d hoped to retreat from stopped for a visit. Surrounded by cool air and bird song, I remembered the last time I saw my father. He died in January of 2012 in a nursing home, oddly enough while I was on retreat in a hermitage at Mount Saint Benedict Monastery in Erie, Pennsylvania. The call from my brother Ed came around 1:00 a.m. when I was in bed, not sleeping.

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View from Hermitage Porch, Mount Saint Benedict Monastery, Erie, Pennsylvania

He’d called me in the early afternoon the day before to say the end was near. I left the hermitage intending to stay with Dad until he passed, playing-by-ear what I’d to with the rest of my retreat. When I arrived, he was unconscious, but restless.

“I’m here, Dad.”

He responded by reaching up in the air as if he were trying to pull pillows to his chest and howling—that’s the only word for it. He sat up part way and let out a roar mixed up with a sob.

Not the comfort I was hoping to provide.

I took Dad’s hands, but he wouldn’t be consoled. He squeezed so hard I thought, “This man’s got way too much vinegar in him to die anytime soon.”

For the hour I was with him, he sat up part way at least a dozen times and howled. Not a single howl, but a few strung together. His hands crushed mine and reached for invisible pillows. Over and over. He was having a nightmare that he knew was a nightmare, but he couldn’t will himself awake. That’s what I imagine, anyway.

Sixty minutes of this was enough. I said goodbye as best I could and drove back to the hermitage. What did I do that evening in the quiet woods? No idea. I only remember thinking that I had to let my father die alone because if I weren’t there he might calm down.

Dad had the most tortured death of anybody I know. I’m not just talking about his deathbed, but his final months. Every time I visited him, he reached for me and cried, tortured by his dementia. The only thing he knew was that he’d lost his mind, and he couldn’t stop trying to get it back. He could never let go into oblivion. “If I had a gun,” he often said, putting two fingers to his temple in the universal suicide gesture.

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Untitled, Mark Rothko, 1970, the year of his suicide (Photo Credit: Wikipedia)

When I touched Dad’s forehead at the funeral home, it felt like cold, hard rubber. In eighty-five years he never lost one of his wavy gray hairs, but nothing was left underneath them.

So this memory compilation of my father ran in a loop during morning prayer. I guess it was my morning prayer. Restful as retreats can be, a visitor like this can be tiring. My siesta this afternoon will be sweet, delicious.

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A Gethsemani Siesta

In this moment I’m not sad. I accept that Dad’s death loop has to run every once in a while until I’m finished grieving, which may be never. So be it.

For some reason I feel light, as if some emotional sediment floated downstream. It’s strange to think that part of the reason I retreated eight hours to Kentucky may be that I needed to see Dad die again as birds sang around me in the morning air.

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Morning Mist over Monks’ Graves