The Abbey of Gethsemani
near Bardstown, Kentucky
Last year over the four-day Thanksgiving Day weekend, I took a retreat from writing and technology and everyday distractions and discontents. I didn't even have to pack a suitcase as I stayed at home and hunkered down with books and my journal and sketchbooks. Many naps later, I felt restored.
This Thanksgiving week, beginning Monday, I am going on another retreat but I will have to pack a small bag. I am signed up for four days at the Abbey of Gethsemani, a Trappist monastery about one hour away from my home.
Over the past 20 years or so, I have stayed many times in the Abbey's guesthouse and roamed its wooded grounds and gardens, browsed the shelves of its library, and attended frequent prayer services with the monks and other retreatants.
Meals there are taken in silence. No talking or listening to music or radio in one's room. No whispering in the hallway. There is no internet or cell phone service. I find it to be quite refreshing to be away from the chatter of the everyday world.
The Abbey is also a famous literary site as it was the home of author Thomas Merton who is best known for his autobiography The Seven Storey Mountain, along with his journals and letters, and his books containing reflections on the spiritual life.
My favorite is his Secular Journal in which he writes about art and literature and travel. Its entries were made before he came to live at the Abbey. In its last pages, Merton writes that he is spending time at Gethsemani to consider whether to become part of its community. The final entry reads:
"I shall speak to one of the friars."
Merton, known to his fellow monks as Father Louis, entered the Abbey on December 10, 1941. Twenty-seven years later to the day, Merton died in Bangkok, Thailand after giving a talk at an interfaith conference there. He was accidentally electrocuted by an electric fan as he stepped out of his bath.
His body was flown back to the Abbey of Gethsemani and he is buried there. His grave marker is as simple and plain as the white robe and hooded black scapular that he wore.
I am looking forward to this uninterrupted time away from my computer and chores and am resisting the impulse to overpack - not clothes, mind you, but books. I usually take too many and then find something in the guesthouse library that I end up reading instead.
It will be a fine way to spend these few days at Thanksgiving, to fall into the rhythm of the monks' schedule, to read and reflect, and to be away from the distractions of worldly affairs.