Tuesday, September 01, 2015

Lessons from Gethsemani Abbey – Part I, A Week In Silence

A week ago I returned from Gethsemani Abbey in northern Kentucky. In between the two rounds of 14 hours of interstate grind to and from the abbey, a friend and I had spent a week-long self-directed silent retreat at the Trappist Monastery (Order Cistercians Strict Observance, OCSO), the monastery made famous by modern mystic Thomas Merton.

The office of None (Ninth Hour, 3 PM)
Gethsemani postcard; all other images here taken during my week at the Abbey

In the week that has ensued since departing Gethsemani, I find myself still hearing the soft, melodic voices of the Gethsemani monks as they sing their liturgical hours in unison. There is something tremendously calming and profoundly holy about Gregorian chant. The monks mark the liturgical hours which begin at 3 AM matins and continue through 7:30 PM compline. That service concludes with a blessing by the Abbot who sprinkles each of the monks and retreatants with holy water one by one.

The Trappists literally sing their way through all 150 of the Psalms within a two week period.  The explanation we were offered for this in the once weekly information session given by a retired priest from Florida was that these were the prayers that Jesus prayed to his Father and thus the monks enter into that prayer through their sung services throughout the monastic day. While that may or may not be terribly historically accurate, it is a comforting thought that the monks and their guests may well be engaging in a form of worship which Jesus would have at least recognized.

I can see why Thomas Merton would have found this place ideal for the solitary meditative life he led there. The daily schedule offers structure for lives like Merton’s which had previously been chaotic and, at times, self-destructive. The manual labor required of all monks (the monastery has historically been a producer of wonderful cheeses, fruitcakes and chocolates) is grounding and helps provide the stability which is one of the marks of the order. The liturgical hours and Eucharistic celebrations offer opportunities for creative expression in liturgy and music. The settings for the chants are largely original to the abbey as is the pattern of bell ringing from the abbey tower marking the hours.

Gethsemani Abbey

The Abbey is a multistory brick structure with confusing passages and stairwells that connect the buildings constructed and reconstructed over the 167 year history of the Cistercian order there in Kentucky. A few of the areas are cordoned off to protect the privacy of brothers who strictly observe the rule of silence and require all guests to do the same. Surrounding the abbey are the rolling hills punctuated by rounded, wooded peaks called knobs and cultivated fields of soybeans and corn.

It seems we had come at a particularly propitious time for the Abbey. This year is the 100th anniversary of Thomas Merton’s birth and his legacy is alive and well at the abbey particularly in its museum and bookstore. It was also the week in which the 900th anniversary of the founding of the Cistercian Order by Bernard of Clairvaux was celebrated.

Sleeping Disciples, Jonathan Daniels Memorial, Gethsemani

In the woods across the road from the Abbey atop a medium grade hill just beyond the small reservoir which supplies the Abbey with part of its water, there is an incredible set of sculptures which commemorates the events in the Garden of Gethsemane from the Gospels. Jesus’ disciples slumber collectively in one graceful dark granite sculpture which points toward the top of the hill several feet away where a powerful stone depiction of a Jesus agonizing over his rapidly approaching encounter with his Roman executioners is to be found.

“His sweat became like great drops of blood falling down on the ground.”

The sculptures were the gifts of the family of Jonathan Myrick Daniels, a young Episcopal seminarian who had been slain in Mississippi during the 1960s Civil Rights movement. Daniels had died protecting a black woman who was simply seeking to enter a grocery store to buy food when she was attacked by a white racist man wielding a shotgun. Daniels pushed the woman out of the way and took the brunt of the blast which killed him instantly. His feast day had just been celebrated on the Episcopal Church’s calendar the preceding week.

Whispered Insights Arising from Silence

A week in silence at a monastery is a good opportunity to check in with oneself, to explore one’s inner depths and to consider whatever insights may arise. It would be hard to do justice to this week of meditative silence, liturgical worship and walking the woods with my friend and fellow priest, Dale Truscott, who generously agreed to make the
drive to the abbey. But here are a few thoughts that emerged for me over the week.

1. Silence is a gift. -  If you ever want to assess how much noise we all endure as a matter of course in our daily lives, go to a place where silence is the rule and distractions such as cell phones, internet, television and radio are largely eliminated. By the morning of the second day, I was suddenly aware of how light I felt not having to endure the onslaught of noise that most of us see as the expectable background to our daily lives.
The abbey provided some written guidelines for retreatants in their rooms. Among the guidelines was the following:

            A retreat here at the abbey is meant to provide two important things:

            1. A sharing in the monastic liturgy

            2. The elements of silence and solitude so as to be open to God in a 
                particular way that is not always available in the world today.

It is important to allow others that space and silence they need to be open to God and to receive those graces he may wish to give. If you came with people      allow   them their silent space. Leave them alone so that they may be with God. You have them year round. Allow God to have them for a few days on his own.

A gentle reminder from the monks

There is much to be said about this. So much of what passes for prayer is spent in talking at the divine. Somehow we seem to believe that G-d needs our constant reminders to do G-d’s job as we would see fit. On a good day, praying for our own needs provides an opportunity for reflection and distinction between our needs and our wants. I also am clear that praying for the needs of the others and the needs of our world are helpful for drawing us out of our native myopic and egocentric tendencies to engage the world.

But what is usually lost in that transaction is any ability to actually hear what our lives, our depths, our very Spirit may be trying to tell us.  It’s pretty hard to hear any responses of any kind when we are constantly engaged in talking. Indeed, might our non-stop talking signal a fear of actually hearing what might come to us?

Merton’s abbey has reinforced a recognition that has been dawning on me over the past two years of gradual withdrawal from active life in academia that I not only need silence to lead any kind of quality life, I actually crave it. In all honesty, for a once screaming Extrovert who now tests out near the dead center of the E/I scale in the recently discovered land of Ambiverts, I admit that I find this somewhat puzzling. But I also know that when these assessments ask me whether I enjoy time alone in silence with only my own company, I inevitably find myself checking the “strongly agree” box.

That is a major sea change for me. But what I realized at the Abbey is that the silence I find myself craving is not a given. Silence was very intentional at Gethsemani and implicitly but effectively enforced. If I want silence in my life, and, increasingly I find that I do, I must be intentional about it. For that insight, I am grateful to an order of monks whose order bears words that historically would have sent me running away screaming: Cistercians of the Strict Observance.

2. Solitude is a gift – Maintaining silence often requires being alone. Most of my life I have felt the need, even the compulsion, to be with others most, if not all, of the time. Sometimes my need for others was due to fear of my surroundings. Feeling threatened as I did during my younger days of teaching in a hostile rural school district made being alone intolerable and ultimately insured that my tenure teaching there was brief. The constant challenge of my expertise, my ethics and my very person during my days as an attorney made my need for supportive company an ongoing concern.

Now at what may well be the end of my full-time working career I find that I feel little threat from any source. My home, rebuilt after destruction by a hurricane, is secure and paid off along with all my other debts. I no longer need to justify my existence to academic bureaucrats, ecclesial authorities or judges in courtrooms. My person is no longer under attack and thus I feel little need for constant supportive company.

Making the journey in solitude

What has surprised me in the lifting of these existential sieges endured during my various careers is that for the first time in my life I find I actually like my own company. I enjoy time alone and increasingly find it absolutely necessary to reflect upon the considerations which now occupy my attention. It is increasingly important to me to have time uninterrupted by concerns for online course technologies failing, unhappy student consumers or commuting and campus parking surprises encountered without warning. I have come to begrudge interruptions from UPS delivery people, the neighbors’ yard services and even the sad ghetto kids peddling everything from candy to household cleaners, trying to win trips to Disneyworld.

For while solitude is a gift, it never a given. It is necessary to cultivate solitude, to resist the temptation to distract myself with any number of online sites from weather radars to Facebook.  It is also a struggle to discern when enough solitude has been engaged, when it’s time to leave the house and engage the world if only to go to the grocery store.  For the realization of the need to work to create and preserve the gift of solitude, I am grateful.

He leads me beside still waters, he restores my soul

3. Being Kind to Brother Ass – Bernard of Clairvaux lived in a time of great ferment among Europe’s religious orders. While the Cistercians were a reform movement within the much older Benedictines, Bernard’s contemporaries included Francis of Assisi of whose Franciscan order I am a tertiary professed member.

Franciscan theology has always struggled to provide a creation positive alternative to the ascetic, world denying theology of the middle ages which saw the body largely in negative – if not evil – terms. Christianity has never completely shaken off its Platonic dualistic roots here which privileges the spiritual realm of the Ideal while seeing the material realm and especially the body as the prison for the spirit, a burden to ultimately be transcended.

As Francis of Assisi was dying, his hands were bleeding from the stigmata he had received, his eyes blind from the cauterization employed to seal open sores possibly contracted from the lepers among whom Francis lived, served, his poor body completely given out after a brief lifetime of relentless hard work. Francis was only 44 when he died, well short of the life expectancy anyone from his social status could have expected. As he took his final breaths, Francis felt compelled to apologize to his body. Reflecting the medieval aversion to the body, Francis called it Brother Ass, probably because it had proved so recalcitrant to being constantly denied and denigrated.

Francis was able to see the divine everywhere he looked in the good creation – except in the mirror

Perhaps it was an epiphany for Francis who was so able to see the divine everywhere he looked in the good creation - except in the mirror. Yet, the good creation Francis loved included the body which housed his noble spirit, a body which bore the image of G-d. As he lay dying, Francis begged the pardon of poor Brother Ass. Had he been able to do it again, he might well have treated his own body a bit more generously.

Perhaps Francis is not alone in that concern. A good bit of my time at the Abbey was spent in bed. Wakened periodically by the bells ringing just outside my room, I read from Merton’s Palace of Nowhere, the work of one of Merton’s novices at the abbey, James Finley, only to find myself repeatedly drifting off to sleep.

What began to occur to me is that I had come to the abbey exhausted. But I also realized that since arriving I my caffeine intake had been restricted to a cup of coffee in the morning and a glass of iced tea at lunch. Moreover, I had no wine to numb the pain at the end of a long, driven day.

My body was relaxing. But how long had it waited to do so? How driven had it been prior to that point, unable to register its suffering? And to what end?

“The spirit is willing but the flesh is weak“

I think I should not wait until the end of my mortal days to apologize to a Brother Ass I have neglected and abused. If I am going to live a life of reflection, writing, and productive engagement of the world, I am going to need to give Brother Ass his due. For that insight, I am grateful to my time at the Abbey.


Harry Scott Coverston
Orlando, Florida

If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding.

For what does G-d require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your G-d? (Micah 6:8, Hebrew Scriptures)



MZ Normann said...

Just to correct a common error, the Cistercian founders are Saints Robert of Molesme, Alberic, and Stephen Harding. Their feast day is January 26. There is no doubt, however, that Saint Bernard's contribution to the expansion of the Order is critical to the understanding of the Cistercian charism.

Anonymous said...

Retreat visits at Gethsemani Abbey have been life-stabilizing over the past nearly 50 years. God's continued Blessing upon you Trappists.