Apothic Red, Java, and the Weeping Birds of Gethsemani

I used to make retreats hard work. Stick with the program! Pray, read, worship, rest, walk (or run), and write—this last one has always struck me as okay because writing for me is a way of meditating. This Gethsemani retreat has been different. I haven’t turned my short stay into an exercise in competitive contemplation. Relax, Coleman.

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Small Prayer Sculpture in Meditation Room, Gethsemani

I’ve enjoyed a splash of wine in the evening, sitting at my desk, writing, and giving thanks for the cool breeze on my arms and face.

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For Medicinal Purposes

I’ve spent a couple of hours each morning in Bardstown, about fifteen minutes from the monastery, at The Java Joint. It’s unique in my experience: trippy, artsy to the eye, but Rush Limbaugh blusters on the radio—thank God for ear buds and Pandora—and, pleasant as the employees are, the coffee’s, well, ugh. Still, it’s been an amiable second home this week. Oh, yes, and free Wi-Fi.

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A Writer’s Java Joint Perch

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A Bust Vase in the Java Joint Japanese Garden (Suggesting What Many Women Claim, That Breasts Are Like Snowflakes

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Painting in the Men’s Room by Cantrell, 2008 (What Are They Putting in My Coffee?)

I’ve also permitted myself a touch of interior grumbling, which is way out of line, considering what a gift this week has been. Yesterday morning I visited graves not within the monastic enclosure. Mainly I wanted to see the resting places of Fathers Louis (Thomas) Merton, Matthew Kelty, and Roman Ginn. Merton’s marker was so slathered with sacred litter that I had to nudge the leavings aside to photograph his name. Kelty’s and Ginn’s bore pilgrims’ droppings as well. I felt mildly cheated, wanting to pay homage to these monks I regard as spiritual masters, not look at what amounts to big fat red lipstick kiss marks all over the crosses bearing their names. But, thankfully, these harrumphs were fleeting, quietly scolded into silence by a few good laughs at my own fussiness.

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Father Louis (Thomas) Merton’s Grave Marker

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Father Matthew Kelty’s Grave Marker

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Father Roman Ginn’s Grave Marker

I’ve even enjoyed some healthy irreverence. I have to think that Father Louis Merton is buried next to Abbot James Fox for cosmic reasons. According to Merton’s journals, he considered his abbot something of a megalomaniac, and they drove each other nuts for many years. Yet their bodies rest together, Dom James and Father Louis, hopefully having come to terms.

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Contrary Neighbors, Dom James Fox (Left) and Father Louis (Thomas) Merton

My last couple of posts have mentioned the birds of Gethsemani, the singingest flock I’ve ever heard. In all irreverence, I have to say they’re prolific in another common means of expression as well. One photo below shows a chair that obviously serves as a bird latrine. The other photo shows part of a statue called The Epiphany. Lovely work, and at first glance you might think the young Jesus is miraculously crying for our troubled world. Quick, call the Vatican! Ah, well. Turns out that the boy’s forehead is a favorite perch, and the tears are wept by birds lightening their burdens before take off. (How one enterprising sparrow or robin managed to weep into poor Jesus’ eye socket is a mystery.) Everything is sacred, and nothing is sacred.

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The Birds’ Loo (I’ll Take a Pass on This Prayer Chair)

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An Ambivalent Expression (For Good Reason)

I even used to feel guilty on retreats if I napped for too long. It didn’t stop me, but the voice of fervor and time’s winged chariot hurrying near were always on my mind. Not so now. Yesterday’s siesta, so needful, lasted two hours—two hours of snoring and drooling with abandon, followed by fifteen minutes of staring in a stupor at the ceiling. Lovely! In a couple hours, I’ll rest again, for as long as I please.

This is my last full day on retreat. Tomorrow I’ll head to Columbus, rattle around there for an afternoon, sleep one night in a hotel, then get home Saturday. In spite of the rugged stretch in prayer yesterday morning, this week has been joyful, freeing. Some would say I’ve been a retreat cheat, slinking off to a coffee shop in the morning and sipping wine in the evening. But this has been my retreat.

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North American Robin (Just Like One That Wouldn’t Keep Still for a Portrait This Morning, Photo Credit: Wikipedia)

Gethsemani’s birds speak for me, in their singing and in their weeping.

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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

A Siesta in the Brothers’ Peace

IMG_0367I’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.

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Photo Credit: Stahrman

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?!

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Photo Credit: The Abbey of Gethsemani

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.

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Photo Credit: Stahrman

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.

The Abbey of Our Lady of Gethsemani

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.

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Guest quarters (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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.

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