Friday, December 4, 2015

Thanksgiving at the Abbey of Gethsemani

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For the second consecutive year, I spent four days during Thanksgiving week on a private, silent retreat at the Abbey of Gethsemani. It was a relief to be free from the distractions of computers, cell phones, and chores.

Not much changes at the Abbey, a Trappist monastery in the midst of the rolling hills of Kentucky about an hour's drive from my home. Constancy is the word that comes to mind. Our little dramas come and go, people in our lives come and go, and yet for over 165 years the monks there have continued to pray for us and for the world. 

Somebody has to.

I have been staying at Gethsemani off and on for 25 years. Although it is a Catholic monastery, I don't by any means consider my retreats there to be religious. I do attend several of the nine daily prayer services to listen to the monks chant the Psalms and give thanks. It all adds to the contemplative atmosphere.

Because I live alone, you might think it odd that I would feel the need to go somewhere to carve out some solitude. But a retreat offers freedom from the constant decisions and engagements of life: planning meals, cooking, cleaning, running errands, attending to household chores, shopping. All those things that I have to do for myself.

At the guesthouse of the monastery, all that is taken care of. Tasty and simple meals are served and someone else gets to prepare them and clean up. All I have to do is sit down and eat. The only decision I have to make during my stay is what flavor salad dressing to have.

The Abbey was the home of the American writer and monk Thomas Merton (1915-1968) and this past year has seen events and articles celebrating the 100th anniversary of his birth. 

He wrote over 60 books. His autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain, was written after he entered the monastery in 1941. It was written at the suggestion of the Abbot and was published in 1948, the centenary of the founding of the Abbey.

The library in the guesthouse has an entire bookcase devoted to Merton books. My favorite, and one I have read several times, is his Secular Journal which covers the years 1939-1941. It ends just days before Merton entered the monastery. 

He writes about literature, art, poetry, and time spent in Cuba. He also often reflects on war and the inability of the people of the world to get along. He could have been writing about today. 

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This is what the Abbey church looked like in Merton's day...

...and its simpler look today.

On my Kindle I took a copy of The Sign of Jonas which contains portions of his journals from his first five years as a monk. 

I love Merton's 'journal' voice. I sometimes laugh out loud at his descriptions of the goings on at the monastery. Who would think that events there could be so humorous. Merton also enjoys recording the weather doings and makes astute observations about the flora and fauna inside and outside the walls of the Abbey.

As per his instructions, his complete personal journals were not published until 25 years after his death. There are seven books in the series starting with the years before he entered Gethsemani. If I were to download all volumes to my Kindle I would have over 3000 pages to read!

Anyway, my retreat was splendid, I feel refreshed, and I plan on signing up for next year. 

How was your Thanksgiving week?


  1. That sounds lovely. I would love to have a few days of solitude without the work of life intruding. Even without the retreat aspect, I often find that a trip, even just a weekend away, helps me think more clearly without the constant distractions of life getting in the way. I'm happy you were able to be refreshed!

    As for my Thanksgiving, it was fairly quiet. We had the (divorced) inlaws over for a meal, watched some football, talked. It was extra work, but not too bad.

    1. Hi Kathy. Your Thanksgiving sounds peaceful too. Except for the 'extra work' part.

      Even on a vacation there are still so many decisions to make: where to stay, where to eat, what to see. At the Abbey all that disappears. It was a chance to let my mind clear and not engage with anyone. Not for everyone but these retreats do work for me!

  2. Sounds wonderful Belle! Having grown up with silent retreats twice a year at school not taking them very seriously due to the hell fire and brimstone sermons that accompanied them, I now appreciate what was the intent but not the presentation.
    I have a friend who attends week long (minimum) Buddhist retreats and she always comments about the startling “noise” of the world when she emerges. My only recent experiences of that “noise” was when I returned after a solo sea-kayaking trip a few years ago not seeing or speaking to anyone for 4/5 days, as I approached civilisation the din was evident from KMs away. It was striking how noticeable and irritating the sudden loss of silence can be!
    I didn’t realise the Monastery you visited was the one-time home of Thomas Merton, that is most interesting, truly hallowed ground. There are so many excellent books by Merton especially the ones on monasticism; the one I refer to regularly is “The Literary Essays of Thomas Merton”, one forgets what a truly literate person he was. This book contains his Master's thesis on William Blake worth the price of admission alone.

    1. Well, Tullik, no hellfire and brimstone sermons here. I am given the key to my room and then no one pays any attention to what I do. Lovely.

      Yes, the world is very noisy. I have come to the conclusion that most people have no idea how to be still or be quiet. I am always wanting to hold up a sign to some of the other retreatants: Whispering is not Silence!

      I will investigate Merton's literary essays. It seems he was always reading and then writing about what he was reading.

      Here is an interesting tidbit: The cemetery at the side of the monastery holds the graves of all the monks who have died there. All marked with simple white crosses. Merton's body is the only one that is in a coffin because his body was shipped back in one from Thailand. All the other bodies are buried directly into the ground. The monks line the grave with evergreens before placing the wrapped corpse in the grave. A gentle touch.

  3. Belle, I love your account of your Thanksgiving retreat! I have never done such a thing, but just unplugging for a few days is so necessary. We are constantly in motion and, as you say, making decisions. I have never read Merton: he's on my list now.

    1. Kat, I haven't read much of Merton except the journals that I mentioned. Some of his flights into Catholic mysticism I just sort of skip over. But I enjoy his accounts of daily details. He only had to concern himself with typewriter ribbons, never screens.

  4. On a tour of national parks in the west, our group stayed at a Greek Monastery near Yosemite. I lived most of my adult life in California in Los Angeles County, and I had a difficult time getting used to the idea that our doors had no locks. We were out in the hinterlands, and looking back, I laugh when I think about the things I piled in front of that window so I could hear if someone tried to break in. I used the old chair under the doorknob trick for the door.
    What a sissy!

    1. Hi, Patsy. I understand completely. When I first started going to Gethsemani (25 years ago!) I was given a key to my room but it sat on the desk the entire time I was there. Now, when I am handed my key, the monk tells me to please lock my door - when I am in the room and when I am out of my room. Times have changed.
      Thanks for your comments.