I met her last year.  Well, I didn’t actually meet her.  We just saw one another briefly two or three times a day over the course of a week.  We made eye contact a few times, but never actually spoke to one another.  The primary reason that we never spoke was that our paths crossed in the Retreat House at the Abbey of Gethsemani near Bardstown, Kentucky, where silence is strictly observed.  I was there for a week-long sabbatical and spiritual retreat.  She worked in the kitchen where the meals for retreatants were prepared and served three times a day.

Just as silence is observed throughout the monastery’s retreat house, grounds, gardens, and walking trails, so it is also in the small commercial kitchen where retreatants fill their plates and soup bowls from a serving line before walking into the adjacent dining room to eat their meals.  On each of the tables is a small placard that offers the gentle reminder, “Silence Is Spoken Here.”

Between meals, she could often be found in the dining room, seated near the kitchen door, facing the large window that overlooked a peaceful garden, sipping coffee, and working diligently through the pages of a paperback crossword puzzle book.  I’m not sure why I even noticed her fondness for crossword puzzles, but she seemed devotedly passionate about them.

As I stood in the serving line each day or returned to the kitchen to refill my coffee cup, I would smile at her, hoping to communicate gratitude for the delicious food she had prepared.  However, I felt like I spoiled any positive impressions by arriving late for a couple of meals after the serving line had already closed and she was mopping the floor.  Though no words were ever exchanged, I found myself on the receiving end of “the look.”  While I’m totally incapable of knowing her heart or her intent, I interpreted “the look” as meaning, “Are you serious?  Can’t you read?  Can’t you tell time?  You’ve got gray hair, for crying out loud!  Get here at meal time if you want to eat!”  I just sheepishly grabbed a banana from the ever-present fruit bowl, and toughed it out until the next meal.

I returned to the Abbey of Gethsemani two weeks ago for another much-needed week of spiritual renewal, refreshment, and undistracted focus on matters of the Spirit.  Not until I arrived there did I realize just how badly I needed a week away from my normal routine.  Disconnected from the noise and endless beckoning of my office phone, cell phone, computer, email, Facebook, television news, and the daily demands of ministry, I soon became acutely aware of how conflicted my heart had become.  I was immensely blessed through the course of the week to be able to wrestle through some inner turmoil, anxieties, and fears and be graciously restored once again to a sense of peace, emotional calm, and renewed spiritual strength.  I was reminded of my daily dependence upon the Word of God and disciplined times of extended prayer.

Among the things that were familiar to me on my second visit to the Abbey was the lady in the kitchen.  With as many people as she encounters throughout the year, I felt like there was little chance of her recognizing me or having any lingering negative impressions from last year’s episodes of tardiness.  Perhaps we could enjoy a fresh start!

About midway through the week, I realized that I had failed to pack a couple of needful things and decided to briefly leave the Retreat House and drive into Bardstown to purchase the items at (where else?) Walmart.  I don’t know why it hit me as I neared the store, but I decided that I would buy a crossword puzzle book to give the lady in the kitchen.  I didn’t know her name or anything about her or her family.  I just thought she might enjoy it.

That night, I scribbled a brief note, slid it between the pages of the crossword book, walked downstairs to the darkened dining room, and placed it at her “spot” on the table near the kitchen door.  I can’t remember exactly what I wrote, but it was something to the effect of, “Merry Christmas!  Thanks so much for what you do for God, and for the delicious meals that you prepare and serve every day.”  I signed it, A Grateful Retreatant.

The next morning, I noticed that the new book had been neatly placed beside the other puzzle books she had been working through.  I saw her as I walked out of the kitchen with my bowl of oatmeal and cup of coffee.  Maybe it was just me, but her face seemed a little brighter and her smile a bit kinder and sweeter.  Not knowing which of the 30 or so retreatants had left the book for her, she could afford to look at each of us as if we might have been the responsible party.  A multiplied dividend!

Later that day (or the next, I can’t remember for sure), as I carried my meal tray past her “spot,” I noticed the new puzzle book on the table by itself, with my little note visibly sticking out of the pages.  Beside the book was a napkin upon which she had written, “Thank You!”  She didn’t know exactly to whom she was directing her appreciation, but the message was received.

A small, simple gift of affirmation and gratitude!  The book cost practically nothing, but it assured someone created in the image of God that her efforts were noticed and appreciated.

I hope that I will have the opportunity to return to the Abbey of Gethsemani again for another retreat.  If I do, I know of one item that I will be certain to pack.

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