Three Days at a Monastery
I have a curious spirit. I am like a hound dog trying in earnest to sniff out a bone. I know there is a deeper experience of this sacred world and all its mysteries waiting to be discovered. So, like that hound dog, I put my nose to the earth until I pick up the scent of the Divine. This past week, I was led to the Monastery of Our Lady of Gethsemani in Kentucky. Imagine a “sleepover” with 50 monks where you pray seven times a day, silence is the only language spoken, and there is no contact with the outside world. Talk about an adventure!
Gethsemani is a Cistercian monastery tucked in the rolling emerald hills of Kentucky. I have wanted to visit the monastery for many years because it was the home of one of my favorite authors, the Trappist monk, Thomas Merton. The brothers of Gethsemani give up living in the world to devote their whole lives to prayer and the study and contemplation of God within the hidden community of a monastery. A couple times a year they allow women to come and participate in the monastic life. I had no idea what I was getting myself into.
First, no one warned me before my trip of the silence policy!! There were signs all over the monastery that read, “Silence is the only language spoken here!” Imagine not speaking a single word for three days! There was no internet, no iPhones, no computers! We even ate all of our meals in silence. The first day was treacherous. After a couple of hours, I literally hiked up a mountain to call home. By the second day, I settled into the quiet. I was surprised by how content I was to just be with myself.
Silence scares us. It explains why we hold on for dear life to our iPhones and have the T.V. blaring twenty-four hours a day. We feel strangely protected in the world’s noise. And yet, what are we not hearing? The monks believe silence is the path to understanding who we are, who God is, and what our destiny is on this planet.
Second, the brothers of Gethsemani participate in the Liturgy of the Hours, which means they pray seven times a day. A monk’s day begins at 3:15 am in the morning with Vigils and ends after the 7:30 pm Compline service. I must confess. I slept through the 3:15 am service, arrived to the 5:45 am service in my PJ’s, and then was up and rolling by the 7:30 am service. Just when I would sit down to write the bells would peal, and I would sprint back to the chapel for yet another service (3:15 am Vigils, 5:45 am Lauds, 7:30 am Terce, 12:15 pm Sext, 2:15 pm None, 5:30 pm Vespers, 7:30 pm Compline).
Talk about God interrupting your life! And yet, this was the most powerful experience for me at the monastery. Every service is sung by the monks. I have never heard the Psalms or the Lord’s Prayer sound more beautiful. My favorite service was Compline. The brothers believe the night service is the most important: “We gather in the night, in the awareness of the dark forces within us, turned toward the light, confident in the coming of the Dawn.” It was as if the monks were singing my soul a lullaby. After the service, we processed up the aisle to receive a nighttime blessing of holy water before going to sleep.
Once I surrendered to my day being organized by God and not the world, it was like I had been given permission to breathe after having held my breath for far too long. There is a peace in the monk’s ministrations that I envy. Outside the gates of the monastery, I live at mach speed with the speakers of daily life thumping at soul-splitting decibels. And I wouldn’t dream of it any other way. But my soul longs for the quiet for clarity of mind and heart. There was a psalm the monks sung each day about this beautiful place under the shelter of the Beloved’s wings. It was a place the monks knew well. And I would like to know better. “Be still and know that I am God,” is the first step!
I admire the monks in their pursuit of holiness. They have experienced contours of the Divine that I could only dream. And yet, this hound dog happily returned home to a different kind of monastery, no less sacred. Loving on five kids and a husband, writing, ministering to those in need, making pesto, walking at Radnor Lake, and laughing with my friends is prayer. Maybe its time I start naming it as such because I know God does!
Next week, I’ll post ways to bring a little of the monastery home!
Live in Hope,