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.
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?