I have been to many retreat centers. Probably the most significant one was the Abbey of Gethsemani. This is the one where Thomas Merton chose to live out his monastic life. His social justice writings as well as his books on meditation have enlightened me more than once. My first trip to Gethsemani was by myself. Having never been to a monastery before I was more than a little apprehensive. But living in community with homeless, mentally ill, seminary students and other staff in the poorest section of Louisville, KY, I was ready for a spiritual alone time.
I pulled up to the wall that surrounded the cloistered community and pulled into a visitors parking space. I saw no door. I was arriving around 8pm which is late for a monastery, so all was quiet. I had driven down a dirt road to reach the seemingly out of place monastery in Kentucky. The place with the wall and no electrical lights outside was formidable. As I look up and down the wall there was no door that I could see. So, I started walking beside the wall hoping to find an entrance. Just as I was beginning to lose faith that I would find the door. I heard someone clapping behind me. It was a monk with a smile waving me this way. He took me to the gate and once inside to a small office. I had known the Trappists took vows of silence but I had never experienced it before.
The monk led me through registration and showed me my room without a single word. I was left in my room alone. I observed the single bed, chair and desk, night stand with lamp, and wood cylinder to hang a couple of garments. Then I listen; it was total silence. I was living in the inner city of Louisville. I woke up to homeless gathering by the door directly under my window. If they felt I was late opening the door they banged. I almost cried at the silence. The constant pressure of trying to meet everyone’s needs was gone for the next five days.
I slept soundly; upon awakening I went to breakfast. The monks eat facing one way so as to prevent conversation. I looked around at the different visitors and monks. The food was good eggs, toast and their famous cheese. They were also famous for their wine, which must have been kept for themselves because it would not be served with any of the meals.
So, I spent the week listening to Gregorian Chants and Mass. I prayed. I walked the grounds which were hundreds of acres. It was my last day and I had one more thing I wanted to do. Thomas Merton, when he was alive, had a small cabin in the woods where he would write, have visitors and so on. It was his hermitage and I wanted to see it. I had travelled the trails and had been to every section of the monastery’s ground but a section that was off limits to retreatants.
That was where I was going to explore today. Being sure that no one saw me I passed the sign that said monks only. I took an old foot path and within fifteen minutes of walking I saw it. The famous cabin of Thomas Merton. Stealthily I made my way up to the porch. I caught my breath and looked through the window. Just as I did this a monk jumped up from a desk looking out the window. He was laughing. I was in full peeing in pants mode.
After I recovered I smiled at him. He gave me that shame on you look. And I knew it was time for me to return to the retreatant part of the grounds. As I walked back I thought of the homeless whom I felt were constantly invading my personal space and laughed. I was just like them.
I only broke my silence once while I was the monastery. It was when I shrieked “Shit!” at the monk who had jumped out at me. I had thought my first word would be profound. And maybe it was. I leave that up to you to decide.