Retreat at the Abbey of Gethsemani – Monday

I arrived at the Abbey just before 4 PM Eastern time. The Abbey is located a few miles to the east of a small Kentucky town named New Haven. When you approach the monastery from the parking lot, the first thing that you notice is the cemetery. It is a small cemetery where some laity are buried (the monks are buried in simple graves inside the monastery grounds).

I noted that most of the graves are marked from the mid 19th to the early 20th century. There were maybe only one or two that were dated past 1950.

 
The monastery is a part of the Order of Cistercians. They are more commonly called “Trappists”. It is a Roman Catholic Religious order that originated out of France, and is known for being one of the more austere religious orders.
 
The most prominent and visible building as you walk onto the grounds is the guesthouse. The Abbey of Gethsemani follows the ancient Rule of Saint Benedict, which calls the religious order to be hospitable to outsiders at all times. This follows the Biblical teaching that when we welcome the stranger, we welcome Jesus himself (Matthew 25:35 and Hebrews 13:2).
 
After I checked in at the guesthouse, I unloaded my luggage in my room, which is not actually in the guest house but is in one of the wings of the monastery itself. This wing used to house monks, but is now reserved as a kind of overflow when there are more retreatants than can be housed in the guest house alone. My room is simple: a bed, a sink and a small desk. There is a communal bathroom with showers down the hall. While there is air conditioning in the guest house, there is none in the monastery, so I was prepared for muggy, humid night, but fortunately the evenings in central Kentucky are still cooler in early June than the evenings in Tallassee, Alabama.
 
The retreat itself is silent. There is no speaking anywhere on the monastery grounds unless you are in worship, and then the speaking is focused on praying the psalms. The retreat is not monitored or scheduled in any way. This is the biggest difference from many of the other retreats that I have been on. Most retreats are scheduled with activity after activity, some with the stated goal of wearing out the participants so that they will be more open to God’s moving in their life. The atmosphere at the Abbey of Gethsemani is quite different. Retreatants are invited to join the monks in following the Daily Office, which is a schedule of seven set times of prayer during the day:
 
3:15 AM – Vigils
5:45 AM – Lauds
7:30 AM – Terce
12:15 PM – Sext
2:15 PM – None
5:30 PM – Vespers
7:30 PM – Compline
 
This is laid out the Rule of Saint Benedict. Most of these prayer times are taken up by chanting the Psalms. In fact, the monks will pray through the entire Psalter every two weeks!
 
They pray through them using Gregorian Chant, which uses simple note patterns that enable you to pray the words without getting distracted by overly complex musical patterns. The spirit of this kind of worship is unique to anything I’ve seen elsewhere.
 
By the way, you read that right…the first hour of prayer is at 3:15 in the morning. The first time I went on one of these retreats several years ago, I wrestled with whether or not I wanted to get up that early. After all, I wondered, aren’t six hours of prayer plenty for me? But in the end, I decided that if was going to do the retreat right, then I needed to follow as much as possible the pattern of life that the monks followed. And so I got up at 3:15 in the morning to pray the vigils, and I’ve done so ever since. It’s one of the best retreat decisions I’ve made. It makes Scripture like Psalm 119:147, “I rise before dawn and cry for help; I hope in your words” much more clear and meaningful.
 
Typically on these retreats I choose two books to read: one a devotional or theological book, and the other more devoted to church leadership. For this retreat I’m reading “The Crucifixion” by Fleming Rutledge and “Canoeing the Mountains: Christian Leadership in Uncharted Territory” by Tod Bolsinger. I’m looking to getting started on those. 
 
Tomorrow I’ll share about the several hundred acres of trails and sites on the monastery grounds, because some of them have some great stories!
 
Grace and peace,
Clint