Fruitcake and cheese made by the monks at the Abbey of Gethsemani

Retreats at the Abbey of Gethsemani are “silent, unstructured, and undirected.”  As I have mentioned earlier in this series, retreatants are pretty much on their own to pursue their own spiritual goals and objectives for the week in a context of silence and solitude.  However, in addition to being welcome at all of the daily hours of prayer in the chapel, a morning lecture was provided at 8:30 on Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday.  I took advantage of this opportunity each morning to hear from one of the resident monks and to gain more insight into monastic life at the Abbey.

The morning lectures were shared in a conference room, which was one of the two or three designated areas in the retreat house where conversation was permitted.  Still, when the other retreatants and I entered the room after breakfast, we all sat in silence until time for the lecture to begin.  This was not awkward silence, but respectful silence.  In most other group settings in life, we often feel pressured or compelled to speak, regardless of whether we actually have anything to say.  It was nice to be a context where mutual permission was granted not to break the silence.

The presentations each morning were made by the guestmaster, Brother Christian, who has been of a part of the monastic community at Gethsemani for 38 years.  Although he did not mention his hometown, my fairly confident guess would be Brooklyn in New York City.  It struck me that, even after living in Kentucky for nearly four decades, one’s accent probably doesn’t change very much when you spend most of your life in silence.  Brother Christian was informative, gracious, engaging, and displayed a very robust sense of humor.  Below are just a few of the valuable nuggets that I gained from these morning lectures.

  • The primary elements of life for the Trappist monks at the Abbey are prayer, work, and spiritual reading.  However, as was pointed out, these are not uniquely monastic, but rather universally human and needful for everyone.
  • The walls are not intended to keep people out, but to keep noise out.  Silence, solitude, and seclusion need to be practiced by all Christians on a smaller scale as we build “cloister walls” within our lives for prayer and the reading of Scripture, which are just as necessary as physical food and drink each day.  Reducing the noise can be as simple as turning off the radio during your morning and afternoon drive time for spiritual reflection and prayer.
  • The monastery is noted for their production of cheese, fruitcake, and fudge.  A thriving mail order business, particularly in the last three months of each year, provides the monks with the means to “pay the bills, give to charity, and maintain the monastery and guest house.”  Despite a huge demand for their products, they resist the pressure to turn the monastery into a year-round factory or a “zoo.”  Brother Christian said, “Our goal is to make a living, not a killing.”  I don’t know if that was original or not, but it is brilliant.  How many people in this world are not content to make a “living,” but instead will sacrifice themselves, their values, and even their families in order to make a “killing?”
  • Living in community with others is challenging.  “Bearing with one another” means setting an example of not getting flustered over those things in life that are not that grave.  It also means being patient with “holy bunglers,” those well-intentioned people who try to be helpful, but somehow manage to regularly mess things up for you and your plans.  Later that day in the garden, there was a pesky fly that was obsessively drawn to the surface of my yellow legal pad as I was trying to write.  After numerous failed attempts to shoo it away, I contented myself with its presence, decided to just work around it, and named my new insect friend “Holy Bungler.”
  • From the rather brief Commemoration of Mary that was sung at the end of the hours of prayer, I was beginning to think that perhaps Mary was more ancillary to Catholic teaching and practice than I had presumed.  Thursday morning’s lecture cleared that up and communicated in very detailed fashion just how essential her role is in the work of salvation and the life of the Roman Catholic Church.  Brother Christian was very open about the fact that this teaching did not emerge directly from the pages of Scripture, but had rather been revealed through the Doctors of the Church and mystics down through the ages.  Though my understanding of the person and role of Mary in Scripture is radically different, I was still extremely grateful for a very beneficial, enlightening, and clarifying presentation on the subject.

In addition to this “food for thought” each day, samples of the Abbey’s cheese, fruitcake, and fudge were provided at various times during the week in the dining room.  The aged Trappist cheese was incredibly flavorful; I had some every day with my lunch and dinner.  Despite the “bad rap” that fruitcake has gotten in contemporary culture, it brought back some great childhood Christmas memories for me, and I would highly recommend it if you are a “fan of the fruitcake.”  By the way, the “special little something” comes from being soaked in Kentucky bourbon.  And the fudge?  Well, how can you go wrong with fudge!?!  So, if you are looking for a unique Christmas gift to mail to that “hard-to-shop-for” friend or relative, you may want to do some browsing here.