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Saturday, November 22, 2014

The Tale of a Totally Unsuspecting Traveler

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This week’s guest reflection is by First Presbyterian member, Pat Baker. Pat is a writer and poet at heart, a retired schoolteacher by trade, and a lover of literature. She is the wife to Joe and the mother to Amanda. A proud southern Illinois girl, Pat calls Lincoln home and cheers for the Cubs when she isn’t reading William Maxwell.

I asked myself, not for the first time, “exactly,how and why did I wind up involved in a retreat to The Abbey of Gethsemani?”

In the letter written by the PNC, introducing Adam and Teresa, I was pleased at Adam’s mention of two authors, Wendell Berry, a favorite of a cousin of mine who was a Catholic priest, and Thomas Merton, a vaguely familiar name due to Bruce’s many references to him, 2 pastors, 2 interims, and 30 odd years ago. Soon after his arrival, Adam and I came to discuss books and writing styles frequently. He eagerly shared a few of his vast (he’s 29?) book collection. I enjoyed Rob Bell’s Drops Like Stars and bought my own copy, but the first Merton book I attempted to read left me more than a little confused and uncertain. I saw disappointment in Adam’s eyes when I returned it saying, “I’m not sure I ‘get’ his ideas on contemplation.”

Thankfully, Adam didn’t give up there, and neither did I. Slowly, with help from Adam’s sermons and books by Barbara Brown Taylor, Anne Lamott, and others, Merton’s words began to open my eyes to a new way of exploring and expanding my faith. I began to envy Merton’s unmatched ability to describe deepening his relationship with God. And I became very curious about the place Merton chose to live for over 27 years and where he is buried, and why this area in central Kentucky became so special to a man who had lived in and traveled to many other countries.

In preparation for this mental and physical journey, I made a list of terms I saw as central to the trip:

• silence—The condition or quality of being or keeping still and silent. 2. The absence of sound; stillness. 3. A period of time without speech or noise.

• Contemplation—Deep reflective thought. 2. concentration on spiritual things as form of private devotion.

• Retreat—The act of giving up and withdrawing or a time away in a quiet and secluded place where you can relax.

I then explored many websites seeking further information on the Abbey. Its history is remarkable and impressive. Amid 2,200 acres in the hills of Nelson County, Kentucky, the 166-year-old Abbey of Gethsemani is known for its peace and tranquility. It is a part of the Order of Cistercians of the Strict Observance, better known as the Trappists. Founded on December 21, 1848 and raised to an abbey in 1851, Gethsemani is considered to the motherhouse of all Trappist and Trappistine monasteries in the United States and is the oldest monastery in the United States that is still operating. Currently 42 Monks are in residence there.
The night before the trip, I felt well prepared. Our group planned on having blocks of time for our own use. Reading was a priority for me. I also wanted to keep a written record of what I saw and experienced. I added a few tasty provisions to stave off starvation.
My former “teacher bag” was adequately filled with appropriate items for the weekend ahead:
1). 2 books, Acts of Faith ( Book Nook selection, about half read), An Invitation to the Contemplative Life, by Thomas Merton, appropriate because he and his writings were the focal point for the trip,
2). an issue of Martha Stewart’s magazine, Living in case I had done enough serious contemplation for the day.
3). a travel journal
4). 3 pens and 2 pencils
5). my Daily Prayer Book, on which I’ve come to depend
6). snacks, for a different kind of sustenance

Sufficiently equipped to make the most of every moment of the trip, boredom would not be an issue. I had plenty of worthy reading material, and my journal contained many blank pages that waited for my weighty words.

The drive was filled with enjoyable conversation which allowed all of the travelers to get to know each other better. Periodically, Adam, appropriately sympathetic, provided a near photographic description of the many animals which met their untimely deaths along the road.

It was dark when we drove by the Abbey and arrived at the Bethany Spring Retreat House. Our curiosity would have to wait until morning. We were greeted by the owner and shown to the various bedrooms. After getting settled and exploring the large old farm house, we began to gather in the living room for an enjoyable and wide ranging conversation. Plans for the next day were determined by the Abbey’s schedule of prayer services, the liturgy of the hours:
3:15 am – Vigils; 5:45 am - Lauds; 7:30 am –; 12:15 pm – Sext; 2:15 pm – None; 5:30 pm – Vespers; 7:30 pm – Compline. 7:30 am seemed like a reasonable starting point for the next morning.

Night 1 – no reading, no writing.

We woke to an overcast and foggy day, and soon traveled about a mile down a narrow, winding, black topped lane. Our first glimpse captured the Abbey and its surrounding hills shrouded in wisps of fog and mist. It was captivating in a truly timeless way. The stark white of the Abbey walls sat in simple contrast to the muted colors of the trees and harvest ready fields of corn. The sacredness was perceptible even before the stillness and tranquility made themselves known.

Gethsemani was a very special place indeed.
There were signs that guided our way and requested silence as we entered the walkway.

When we entered the Abbey, the lighting was fittingly dim, the reverence almost tangible as we joined approximately 20 other worshipers. Soon doors began to open as men in long white robes with black scapula entered quickly, quietly, and with familiarity. Two or three yawned. The chanting began, and there were points in the liturgy for responses, but I was satisfied to simply take it all in. After 15 minutes the service was over, as simply as it began, and the Monks silently filed out.

At this time we were fortunate enough to meet and spend a few minutes with one of the Monks, Brother Paul Quenon, OCSO, who Adam had met while he was a student at Bellarmine University. Brother Paul is an established poet (excellent haiku) and a photographer. His easy smile and wise guidance touched us all. Our gifts of the books Billie Dyer, by William Maxwell, and Links, by Rev. Bruce Allison, and an excellent bottle of red wine were warmly received. As he turned Bruce’s book over and looked at his picture, he commented, “Ah, I like his face!” I imagine Bruce would have liked his too.

The rest of the day saw many of us attending five more prayer services, each one different, but their pattern soon became reassuringly familiar. We broke up in smaller groups and read or wrote or explored on our own. Later Adam led us on a pathway through the woods that passed several stunning sculptures, looking perfectly at home among the growth of the forest.

The more I observed and sensed, the clearer Merton’s attraction to this place became. The quiet, reverent, stillness became addictive as I considered all that I had heard and experienced.

Compline was the final service of the evening, and it was quite special. Conducted in complete darkness save for one candle, their prayers and hymns were especially comforting. The power of the simple service was surprising and sustaining.

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.

“Every day, seven times a day, day by day, week by week, year by year, beginning the day after they first arrived from France in 1848, and continuing until the end. In a wild, sordid, noisy, violent world, we sing, we sing ancient songs, rich in history, graced by God, for our healing and the healing of the world.”
Night 2 –totally inadequate descriptions were added to the travel journal.

The next day, as we prepared to drive home, I laughed as I lifted my bulky teacher bag. Two days before, I had smugly arrived certain that my bag held all that I would need, but in reality it held nothing I needed. As I left, the bag was overflowing with lessons learned, practices begun, and a heartfelt appreciation for what is alive in the quiet of time.

The how and why I became involved in this journey had been made clear. “God is always there for us,” to quote a wise Monk. It is the intentional and unguarded listening that makes us aware and receptive. Thomas Merton described the Abbey as a place apart “to entertain silence in the heart and listen for the voice of God—to pray for your own discovery.” Thank you Gethsemani, you are a special place indeed!
[Pat Baker, First Presbyterian Member]



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