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
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
• Contemplation—Deep reflective thought. 2.
concentration on spiritual things as form of private
• Retreat—The act of giving up and withdrawing or a
time away in a quiet and secluded place where you
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
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
3). a travel journal
4). 3 pens and 2 pencils
5). my Daily Prayer Book, on which I’ve come to
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
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
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]