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.

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.