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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.

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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