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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.

Today I want to share a few final thoughts and observations as I bring this Gethsemani Journal series of blog posts to a close.

I want to thank the shepherds of the Broken Arrow church where I serve for seeing the long-term value in providing for an annual week-long sabbatical for the ministry staff.  While I have benefited greatly in past years from attending conferences, seminars, lectureships, and one-week intensive seminary courses, I have never gained so much spiritual refreshment and renewal as I did during the week that I spent in a silent retreat at the Abbey of Gethsemani.

I also want to thank the Trappist monks who live, serve, and receive guests at the Abbey for the warm welcome, the gracious accommodations, and the idyllic setting that are provided for retreatants.  I was blessed by your kindness and hospitality.

My sabbatical week caused me to rethink our typical approach to what we commonly call “retreats.”

First of all, when I normally mention to someone that I am going to be attending a retreat, one of the first questions that I am asked is, “Are you speaking?”  The assumption is that I will be teaching and/or leading some sort of discussion.  It was wonderfully refreshing, not just to be freed from the preparation of lessons and the preoccupation of presenting them, but to be relieved from talking altogether.  “No, I won’t be speaking this week; at all!”

Secondly, I returned from this silent retreat incredibly rested and refreshed (physically, emotionally, and spiritually), rather than the usual feeling of exhaustion that accompanies the end of a retreat.  That’s because most retreats could be more accurately described as “Bible Boot Camps” or “Fellowship Free-for-Alls.”  Roll out of bed at dawn, breakfast, clean-up, lecture, break, discussion group, lunch, clean-up, lecture, 15-minute quiet time, discussion group, team-building exercise, dinner, clean-up, evening worship, cards and board games, campfire and s’mores, lights out, rinse and repeat.  If you’re not exhausted, then you’re just not trying.  Not that there’s anything wrong with that!  My intention is not to trample on anyone’s fond memories of such events or to devalue the blessings  that can come from them, but simply to suggest that maybe we could find something else to call them instead of “retreats.”

I have already been asked about the possibility of planning a silent retreat for those who would be interested in attending and sharing in the experience.  It could be still be hosted at a traditional camp or retreat center.  The format would just be significantly different, and the schedule, well, there really wouldn’t be much of a schedule.  It would take some creativity and a paradigm shift, but the retreat could center around silence, prayer, reading of Scripture and devotional literature, meditation, journaling, rest, etc.  I am not so naive or idealistic as to think that this would appeal to everyone, but I am confident that there are many who would jump at the opportunity to share in a silent retreat.

“Come away by yourselves to a secluded place and rest a while,” said Jesus (Mark 6:31).   We would be wise to accept His invitation.

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.

My silent retreat at the Abbey of Gethsemani in September provided an incredible, distraction-free week of prayer, reading, meditation, introspection, writing, and spiritual renewal.  It also provided a glimpse into the monastic life of the Trappists who live, work, and worship there.

As mentioned previously, the Abbey was founded in December of 1848.  Since then, the resident monks have observed 7 daily hours of prayer, rain or shine, summer and winter, in wartime and peace, 7 days a week, 365 days a year, for the last 164 years.  While some European monasteries might still consider the Gethsemani monks as “new kids on the block,” 164 years is a long time in this country.

Having spent my entire life worshipping in a manner that would be categorized in ecclesiastical terms as non-liturgical and “low church,” it was enlightening to visit the guest chapel which adjoins the main sanctuary.  The seven daily services that make up the Liturgy of the Hours are Vigils (3:15 a.m.), Lauds (5:45 a.m.), Terce (7:30 a.m.), Sext (12:15 p.m.), None (2:15 p.m.), Vespers (5:30 p.m.), and Compline (7:30 p.m.).  These do not literally last an “hour” each.  Vigils is the longest at about 45 minutes or so, and all seven combine for 2 1/2 to 2 3/4 hours each day.  Mass is also celebrated every morning.

Over the course of the week, I attended each of these hours of prayer at least once, with the exception of Mass.  I attended Vigils on two mornings at 3:15 a.m. (partially to see what it was like to assemble at that hour of the morning) and Compline each evening at 7:30.  At the heart of each of these services were the Psalms, with all 150 of them being sung or recited every two weeks in a liturgical cycle that is repeated 26 times a year.  The services also include prayers, hymns, Scripture readings, and a commemoration of Mary (which will be further discussed in the next post).

Despite the very significant ecclesiastical divide that exists between Catholic theology and practice and my own understanding of Scripture and the life of the church, there was still much with which I was impressed in the Liturgy of the Hours.  First and foremost was the centrality of the Scriptures, whether in song, reading, or recitation.  It is only through regularity, rhythm, and repetition that the Word of God can truly become written on our hearts and etched into our consciences.  It takes an incredible amount of commitment and discipline to allow every single day of one’s life to be regulated by hours of prayer that begin at 3:15 a.m.  How often do I “rise before dawn” to commune with my God and Savior in prayer and the reading of His Word?  How frequently do I pause throughout the day to turn my heart, my mind, and my lips heavenward?

A beautiful doxology is sung several times during each service: “Praise the Father, the Son and Holy Spirit, both now and forever; the God who is, who was, and is to come at the end of the ages.”

While the liturgy during the other hours of prayer differs every day in the two-week cycle, the Compline service is the same each evening, 365 days a year.  Psalm 4 and Psalm 91 are sung, which include the thoughts, “I will lie down in peace and sleep comes at once, for you alone, Lord, make me dwell in safety” (Ps. 4:8) and “you will not fear the terror of the night…nor the plague that prowls in the darkness” (Ps. 91:5-6).  These are psalms of trust in the Lord and confidence in His protection.

Of particular beauty and appropriateness at the close of the day are two other songs which are sung during Compline each evening.  The first is an ancient hymn, the lyrics of which are attributed to Ambrose (c. 330 – 397 AD).

Before the ending of the day
Creator of the world, we pray
That with Thy gracious favor, Thou
Wouldst be our guard and keeper now

From fears and terrors of the night
Defend us, Lord, by Thy great might
And when we close our eyes in sleep
Let hearts with Christ their vigil keep

O Father, this we ask be done
Through Jesus Christ, Thine only Son
Who with the Paraclete and Thee
Now lives and reigns eternally

Amen

The other is “Antiphon for Canticle of Simeon”:

Lord, save us, save us while we are awake
Protect while we are asleep
That we may keep our watch with Christ

And when we sleep, rest in His peace

This service, about 15 minutes in length, seemed to effectively put one in a frame of readiness to retire for the night, which I suppose is extremely helpful if you have to be up at 3:00 each day!

The greatest personal “take away” for me from these services was a renewed commitment to delight in the words of Scripture and meditate on them day and night (Psalm 1:2) and to treasure His Word in my heart (Psalm 119:11).  If the monks at the Abbey can sing through the Psalms every two weeks, surely I could read through this book of sacred poems every week as part of a morning and evening devotional reading schedule.  It is one of the spiritual disciplines and goals that I am considering for 2013.

“Seven times a day I praise you for your righteous law.”  (Psalm 119:164)

I plan on bringing this Gethsemani Journal series to a close with another post or two in the next few days.

Peter, James, and John Asleep – Abbey of Gethsemani

Wednesday, September 19

After breakfast, I took advantage of a crystal clear sky and the crisp, windless, 40 degree air and set out on what turned out to be a five-hour excursion along the trails that traverse the 2,000 acres that belong to the Abbey.

My first destination was the Garden of Gethsemane and its statues.  I walked north on the highway a short distance to the trailhead.   Stepping stones soon gave way to a graveled surface on the narrow trail that wound its way through the trees and undergrowth.  The gravel only extended for a short distance, and the remainder of the trail was the hardened dirt that I had expected, packed down firmly by the feet of monks and guests over the course of decades.

I emerged from the shadowy forest into a clearing, and on my left was the Guesthouse Pond, the absolute epitome of peaceful beauty.  The pond, still warm from the summer’s heat, was releasing a low-hanging mist from the surface of the water into the significantly cooler air above.  Passing the pond, I re-entered the wooded trail which began to follow a ridge line.  The trees along the trail were amazing.  This property has been attached to the monastery since 1848, and it was clear that no timber had ever been cut here.  The high canopy overhead and the undergrowth that blanketed the descents along the ridge brought back wonderful boyhood memories of traipsing through the woods in Kentucky and Middle Tennessee.  Few sights are more beautiful and calming to me.

As I entered the area of the Garden, I came to a statue of a reclining Peter, James, and John, depicting the scene of the apostles as they slept.  A bit further down the trail was a statue of Jesus in prayer, His hands covering His anguished face.  I sat quietly for quite some time on a bench that faced the statue.  Then I began softly quoting the Sermon on the Mount, which I first committed to memory over 20 years ago.  I know that the Message on the Mountain (Matthew 5-7) is far removed chronologically from the agony of Christ in the Garden, but it just seemed appropriate in the stillness and quietness of the moment.  The recitation took much longer than usual, as I would pause and reflect between sections of Jesus’ words.

Another trail took me to a fork in the path, literally!  A sign with an arrow pointing to the right read, “To the Cross.”  It struck me that this was the “sign” that Jesus followed throughout the entirety of His earthly life and ministry leading up to Golgotha.  The particular cross that I was seeking, however, was one that sat atop Cross Knob, which appeared on my map of the Abbey’s trails.  Like the previous one, this trail followed a ridge line, ascending toward the crest of a knob that was 800 feet above sea level compared to the Abbey’s location at 570 feet.  At the point where the trail became intensely steep, I saw a couple of sturdy, natural-cut walking sticks leaning against the trunk of a tree.  I sensed an unwritten message which clearly communicated, “Feel free to use these to aid you on your journey to the cross.  When you have completed your journey, return them here to assist the next traveler.”  There are all kinds of useful lessons in that one!

I reached the summit of the trail with my pulse pounding and my breathing labored.  My recent weight loss had not been accompanied by rigorous exercise, so the ascent mercilessly exposed the weakness of my cardio fitness.  This was not a “bald knob” as I had imagined, but one that was still heavily wooded.  However, a few trees had been cleared down the descent toward the monastery, creating a “window” that framed the Abbey which was located well over a mile in the distance.

I snapped a quick photo of the large, wooden cross that stood by the trail.  I looked at my watch and saw that it was nearly 11:00 a.m.  For some reason I felt rushed.  Lunch was served promptly at noon each day.  The lady who worked in the kitchen had already given me “the look” a couple of times when I showed up at the serving line just as things were being put away.  Monastery guest house or not, “the look” was as loaded with negative vibes as any I had ever seen anywhere.  It seemed to be saying, “Dude, you’ve got gray hair!  Can’t you tell time?”

Maybe it was wisdom.  Maybe is was a still, quiet voice.  Maybe it was the fact that I had just spent time reflecting in the Garden of Gethsemane.  But, something brought to my heart and mind the words that Jesus spoke to Peter, James, and John when He returned to find them sleeping.  “Could you not keep watch with Me for one hour?” (Matt. 26:40; Mark 14:37).

What was my rush?  Why the hurry?  It had taken me nearly 50 years to make it to this place.  Why did I want to leave?  For lunch?  I remembered His words, “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God,” (Matt. 4:4; Luke 4:4).  I should at least wait until my heart rate got back down into the double digits and my respiration returned to normal.

“Tim, can’t you keep watch with Me for one hour?”

“Yes, Lord, I can.  Yes, Lord, I will.”

I sat down on the small bench in front of the cross, looking out toward the distant Abbey.  I closed my eyes and began to pray.  I spent time in thought, then opened my eyes and prayed some more; it was really more like talking.  I wondered, “Shouldn’t my prayers be more like this anyway?”  I thought about how sleepy Peter, James, and John must have been.  Since I had not been sleeping well at night (more on that later), I was feeling a bit drowsy myself and was tempted to stretch out on the bench.  I resisted, and kept watching and waiting.

I heard the pealing of the distant chapel bells at each quarter-hour until they finally announced the arrival of noon.  The hour had passed rather quickly.  It had been spent far more meaningfully than it would have been if I had scrambled down the trail like Pavlov’s dog, enslaved to the dinner bell, and desperately seeking “the food which perishes” (John 6:27).  The bowl of oatmeal that I had for breakfast would sufficiently satisfy me until the evening meal.

I resolved to more regularly seek hours in which to “watch and pray” when I returned home from my retreat.

Jesus Praying in the Garden – Abbey of Gethsemani

“Be still…”  (KJV, NIV, NLT, ESV)

“Cease striving…”  (NASB)

“Calm down…”  (CEV)

“Step out of the traffic…”  (The Message)

“… and know that I am God”

(Psalms 46:10)

Tuesday, September 18

I am learning that silence is not “soundlessness.” 

On Tuesday, I sat in the garden in the cool morning air.  The ground, trees, and shrubs were heavy with moisture from the rain that fell during the night.  I heard a car or truck traveling down the nearby highway, a sound that was greatly amplified by the tires on the wet surface of the road.  My first reaction was one of being slightly annoyed by what I considered to be an intrusion upon my solitude.  But, my own silence was beginning to foster a new level of attentiveness that allowed me to reinterpret this “annoyance.”  I began to ponder some questions?  How many people were in the car?  Where were they going?  To work?  Taking children to school?  Traveling to the funeral of a family member or friend?  Visiting a relative in the hospital?  A sound that I was tempted to write off as an annoyance actually represented lives… souls… people created in the image of God… people loved by God… people for whom Jesus Christ died.

My “morning lesson” was multiplied exponentially a short time later when I heard a passenger jet passing overhead, hidden from sight far above the gray clouds.  This plane was likely filled with dozens of people, each with a story, each with inherent value as a precious creation of God.

In the quietness of silence, we clearly hear things that otherwise would be indistinguishable within the normal background noise of our lives.  In the slowness of solitude, we see things that otherwise would pass unnoticed beyond the range of our fleeting glances and frenetic movements.  As I walked the garden path that morning, I heard the beautiful melodies of songbirds, along with the intermittent cacophony of passing crows.  I saw tiny wildflowers, some of them brilliant blue in color, nestled among the wet grass.  I began to recite the words of Jesus, “Look at the birds of the air, that they do not sow, nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them.  Are you not worth much more than they?  And who of you by being worried can add a single hour to his life?  And why are you worried about clothing?  Observe how the lilies of the field grow; they do not toil nor do they spin, yet I say to you that not even Solomon in all his glory clothed himself like one of these.  But if God so clothes the grass of the field which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the furnace, will He not much more clothe you?  You of little faith!”

On Tuesday afternoon, the sun came out, and I sat in the garden and read for a couple of hours.  As I read, I noticed a tiny black bug crawling across my open Bible.  It was about 1/3 to 1/4 the size of an ant.  The brightness of page’s white space in the sunlight contrasted sharply with the dark bug, allowing me to see it very clearly with my reading glasses.  I have no idea what it was.  Soon afterward, I noticed an even smaller red bug, barely visible on the leg of my jeans.  As I was straining to identify any distinguishing features, it flew away on wings too small for me to even see.  I am certain that I had never seen this type of bug before – one of God’s marvelous creatures, probably among hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of species of tiny, living things.  My lack of any knowledge about it or prior experience with it did not negate its existence or reality.  What was its “function” in the scheme of things?  I haven’t the slightest idea, other than the fact that it is undoubtedly both a feeder and food – a miniscule, vital link in the chain of life – part of the order, balance, and wonder of God’s creation.

Then, it was hummingbirds that kept distracting me from my reading; or was my reading the distraction from what God intended to be the main attraction?  The divine engineering of hummingbirds is incredible!  I had as many as four in view at one time as they took turns at the feeder.  One of them would drink the red nectar and then fly away to the same branch on a massive fir about 30 feet away, doing this repeatedly and landing at almost the same exact spot on the tree.  Was this a routine?  A rut?  Was there a reason?  Again, I didn’t know.

(A brief aside about the hummingbird feeder for the benefit of my relatives in Tennessee and Indiana who know their horses and mules…  The feeder was suspended from a decorative piece of iron, crooked at the top, and crowned with the image of a horse.  It took me a long time, but I finally noticed that, despite being right in the heart of Thoroughbred country, it was a Tennessee Walking Horse that adorned the feeder frame.  Just a bit of “irony” (pun intended) and further evidence that all were welcome at this Kentucky Abbey!)

Occasionally, a hummingbird would fly close to the feeder while another was imbibing and would summarily be chased away.  I wasn’t sure if this was playfulness or micro-agression at work, but the two would dip, dive, and bank in an aerial ballet and then rocket out of sight.  Though normally silent in flight (at least to my ears), they emitted a distinct hum (thus their name, I suppose) as they shifted into warp drive on these high-speed chases.  Ornithologists and bird enthusiasts can correct me on this if I’m mistaken, but on two occasions I heard what amounted to a “chirpy” sound from them during their pas de deux.  It was brief, but definitely audible.

Speaking of chirping, a mockingbird was providing the backing track to the entire hummingbird show.  The songs of the other birds earlier in the day had been mere warm-up acts in this outdoor music festival.  The mockingbird, sitting in a nearby cedar, was the headliner and the showstopper!  It went through every tune in its repertoire, never wavering or waning in strength and clarity of voice.

All nature sings, and round me rings the music of the spheres.

The birds their carols raise; the morning light, the lily white, declare their Maker’s praise.”

This is my Father’s world!

Guesthouse Pond at Abbey of Gethsemani

Monday, September 17

“Checked into my room at 11:30 – about to go to the dining room on the ground floor.  Silence is observed in the dining rooms, hallways, stairwells, porches, gardens, etc.  Silence is serious here!  I am anxious to experience it, along with solitude, over the next four days.  Very grateful for this opportunity.  I’m serious about drawing closer to God, developing a more real and consistent devotional life, and leading my family as a more dedicated, more selfless disciple of Jesus Christ.”

Those were the initial thoughts that I jotted down as I was getting settled into my room in the retreat house on Monday morning.  I had been anticipating this retreat for four months, and I was very excited about spending the week in a context of silence.  But, to be perfectly honest, I wasn’t exactly sure how silence “worked” in practical terms.  I had never done this before.  I’ve spent most of life talking, a lot.  It’s pretty much an occupational hazard for me; it’s what I do.  I’m expected to have something to say, always, and to do so with “relentless regularity,” as Robert Oglesby once described the week-to-week demands of ministry.

Was this going to be complete silence?  Mostly silence?  Strongly suggested silence or seriously enforced silence?  I got my answer as I carried my bag from the parking lot down the sidewalk toward the guest house, church, and monastic quarters at the Abbey.  There was a sign posted on both sides of the walkway that read, “Church Entrance – Silence Beyond This Point.”  Well, that was helpful!  Questions answered!

Actually, I did speak in quite pleasant conversation with the first person I encountered, one of the resident monks who was sitting behind the desk in the lobby of the retreat house.  He welcomed me, found my name on the reservation list, gave me my room key, handed me a brochure with useful information, and wished me a wonderful and blessed retreat.  It was the last conversation that I would have until Friday afternoon, with the exception of my conversations with God.

“Silence is spoken here.”  Those words adorn small plaques on every table in the main dining room of the retreat house.  It is a gentle reminder of the lingua franca at the Abbey.  It took me until early Tuesday afternoon to reach the point where I was not having to consciously restrain myself from speaking to people as I passed them in hallways, on the stairs, and on the garden paths.  After that, it seemed quite natural, comfortable, and most suited to the surroundings.  Silence didn’t necessitate rudeness or ignoring others; quite the contrary.  I began to be impressed with how much kindness and courtesy could be communicated without speaking a word: a pleasant smile, a hesitation that allowed someone else to pass through a doorway ahead of you, handing someone a coffee mug while waiting in the service line, etc.

Mealtime took on a significantly different dynamic in a context of silence.  It negated an entire category of common speech, i.e, “table talk” or dinner conversation,  that is so integral to our usual fellowship with family and friends.  Guests in the retreat house at the Abbey quietly made their way through the cafeteria-style, self-service line in the kitchen, then found a seat in the main dining room where a taped lecture or readings from Thomas Merton would often be playing softly on the speaker system.  Another dining room (sans tapes) was available for those who wanted a completely quiet atmosphere.  And a third, smaller dining room was provided at the end of a long hallway for those who wanted to share in conversation while they ate.  I never saw anyone utilize that room all week.

Eating in silence allowed me to thoughtfully consider God’s gracious provisions for our physical needs and His faithfulness in giving us our daily bread.  Rather than merely tweeting a brief prayer of thanks (140 characters or less) before my meal, I could pray throughout.  During one evening meal, I decided that I would thank the Father for something different between each and every bite of food.  I succeeded in expressing gratitude for an extremely long list of blessings in my life.

Silence served as a bond and a unifying force among the 30 or so retreatants at the Abbey that week.  Silence fostered anonymity and functioned as a great equalizer, negating the multitude of things that tend to define us, label us, and divide us.  Small talk and “mixers” in other social settings give us the opportunity to “suss out” other people (as Aussies would say), providing us with the data that we need to figure out what to do with them, where to pigeonhole them, how to stereotype them, and assess (almost instantaneously) whether or not they are worthy of our investment of time and interest.

Did the person sitting next to me in the dining room graduate from high school or have a Ph.D.?  Were they a minimum wage earner or a CEO with a six or seven-figure salary?  Single, married, divorced, widowed?  Republican or Democrat?  Catholic or Protestant?  National League or American League?  SEC or Big 12?  No one knew.  No one needed to know.  Everyone was there on the same terms, their own!

This “relational silence” among the retreatants also caused me (actually it convicted me and shamed me!) to realize how easily we make “snap assessments” of others, not just based on what they say, but even by the mere sound of their voice.  Their accent alone signals us whether to assume that they are a snob or to question their intelligence.  Are they articulate?  Do they have a speech impediment?  Is their voice gravelly or shrill?  I repented, asked God for forgiveness, and resolved to stop being so shallow, so superficial, and so judgmental of others based on such non-substantive criteria.

More on the subject of silence and stillness will follow.

In April of this year, I had lunch with my friend and brother Bruce Binkley who serves as one of our shepherds at the Broken Arrow church.  He had recently returned from a Board of Trustees meeting at Harding University in Searcy, Arkansas, where he had engaged in some conversations about the benefit of ministers taking an annual, week-long sabbatical for the purpose of spiritual renewal.  Bruce inquired about my level of interest in the idea and asked whether I felt that this would be a worthwhile endeavor.  My immediate response was that my interest level was off the charts and I believed that it would be immensely beneficial.  The sabbatical would not be considered additional vacation time or an opportunity for a family trip of some sort, but a week to refill and refresh one’s heart, mind, and soul with the things of the Spirit.  It could take a variety of forms: a week spent at a conference or lectureship, a short-course at a seminary or graduate school of theology, or a personal spiritual retreat.  It was the latter of these that immediately captivated my interest and anticipation.  After a subsequent discussion of the concept with the entire eldership and ministry staff, it was decided that each of the ministers would be encouraged to take an annual sabbatical, the details of which were to be worked out each year by the minister and his shepherding group.

I knew immediately where I wanted to go for my inaugural sabbatical.  My first step was to have a conversation with Kim and make sure that it would not be a hardship on her for me to be away for a week in September (it was May at the time).  I always have concerns about leaving her to care for Coleman alone, given that his circumstances can go from “zero to crisis” in a very short time.  True to her nature and spirit, she loved the idea, immediately saw the value and benefit of a sabbatical, and enthusiastically encouraged me to begin making plans.  After getting a green light on my proposal from the elders who work most closely in overseeing my ministry, I contacted the Retreat Center at the Abbey of Gethsemani near Bardstown, Kentucky, and inquired about the availability of accommodations for a weekday retreat in mid-September.  Within 5 minutes, I received a very cordial email reply and had a reservation for September 17-21.

The Abbey of Gethsemani is a Cistercian (Trappist) monastery, founded on December 21, 1848, and nestled in the rolling hills of Nelson County, Kentucky, about 50 miles south of Louisville.  For 27 years it was the home of noted Catholic author and Trappist monk Thomas Merton.  In keeping with the Benedictine Rule, hospitality and the receiving of guests remain a vital part of the life of this monastic community.  People from all over the world and all backgrounds of faith are welcomed to the Abbey for personal, spiritual retreats that are “silent, unstructured, and undirected.”  In other words, you “do your own thing,” follow your own schedule, and pursue your own goals and interests for being there.  All that is asked of you is that you respectfully observe silence throughout the Retreat Center, the grounds and gardens, and the surrounding 2,000 acres of woodlands and trails where you are free to roam and reflect.  Meals are served in the dining room at set hours, and retreatants are welcome in the guest chapel (attendance entirely optional) during any of the seven liturgical hours of prayer that are observed daily by the resident monks.

What drew me to the Abbey of Gethsemani for my sabbatical was my desire to unplug for five days (no cell phone, laptop, Internet, newspaper, TV, radio) in a setting of solitude, serenity, and silence in which I could pray, read and meditate on Scripture, think, reflect, assess, confess, decompress, and recommit.  The distraction-free environment would allow me long blocks of uninterrupted time to focus on spiritual sustenance from the Word, supplication to the Father, and a sabbath for my body and my soul.

So, after teaching my Bible class and preaching in Broken Arrow on Sunday morning, September 16, enjoying lunch with my family and our Life Group, and leading the small group Bible study in our home in the early afternoon, I boarded a plane for Louisville.  I overnighted in the River City where I lived for three years as a child, then hit the road on Monday morning, taking the scenic route down U.S. Highway 31-E through Bardstown.  I took the turn on Highway 247 toward the monastery and pulled into the Retreat Center at 11:00 for check-in.

My materials for the week were my Bible and some blank legal pads.  My only agenda was a heart in need of respite, refreshment, and renewal.

In the posts that follow over the days ahead, I will share some selected insights, impressions, and journal entries from my sabbatical.  It was an incredible week on many different levels, and I hope that visitors to this blog will be encouraged by reading and reliving the experience with me.

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