Retreat at the Abbey of Gethsemani – Thursday

Over the years upon learning about my retreats at the monastery and about the vocation of the monks people have asked me, “What is the value of withdrawing from the world like that? Should we not stay engaged with the world?” It is a good question, and one that I will address here as I share about my last retreat day.
 
To start, I would respond that I believe that the vocation of the monks is not one of simply withdrawing from the world, but rather of engaging with the world in a much different way. If the monks were to withdraw from the world, they would not be so deeply committed to the practice of hospitality. It would be more accurate to view their vocation as one of engaging deeply with the world through prayer and bearing witness to the grace and purposes of God through their way of living. 
 
For instance, to give up your worldly possession to live in a community of other monks bears witness to the truth that Jesus taught that our only real and lasting treasure is in Heaven (Matthew 6:19-21). Their way of living speaks the truth to the lie so prevalent in our world that we find meaning and joy through the consumption of goods and experiences. You can speak that truth verbally, but living it out through a monastic life is much more powerful. I have found that watching the monks live out their days in this way communicates the truth to me that God is truly all I need.
 
In a similar way, the practice of silence (contrary to popular belief, the monks do not take a vow of silence, but practice it as a rule) reveals to us how much we use noise and speaking to distract ourselves from the voice of God. The practice of silence helps us to hear the voice of God and to contemplate God’s goodness, truth, and beauty in ways that might be impossible otherwise. In addition, I can’t help but think of all the Proverbs that warn us against speaking too much or too quickly, for instance 10:19 – “When words are many, transgression is not lacking, but whoever restrains his lips is prudent.”
 
The purpose of monastic life as I see it is not to withdraw from the world, but to engage with the world in such a way that the truth and beauty of God is revealed to the world in ways that words could never communicate. And it may well be that as Western civilization becomes more and more secular and disconnected from it’s Christian roots that this witness may become more and more valuable. In fact, author Rod Dreher, in his notable 2017 book, “The Benedict Option”, wrote about how Christians in the West are going to need to draw from the wisdom of Saint Benedict, who when he saw the moral collapse in Rome following its sack, realized that some new practices and new ways of living for Christians were needed for faith to survive the coming dark age. It may well be that communities like Gethsemani will help Christians in the coming years to see how we must find new ways of preserving our faith from the corrupting influences of a degrading culture and to find new ways of engaging with that culture so as to influence it and not the other way around.
 
As I mentioned in Wednesday’s post, I spent the good deal of Thursday reading, and most of that reading was from “The Crucifixion” by Fleming Rutledge. I’ll share one insight that I gained yesterday regarding the shame of the cross. Rutledge writes about Paul’s repeated emphasis on the scandal of the cross, and of why he felt the need to say in Romans 1:16, “I am not ashamed of the gospel.” Why would Paul be ashamed? Rutledge claims, rightly, that the shame is not because Jesus died (there were countless stories in antiquity of dying and rising gods), but because of the way that he died. It is nearly impossible in 21st century America, where we have crosses everywhere, to recapture the absolute shame involved in Jesus, the God-man, dying on a Roman cross.
 
That shame, writes Rutledge, is central to understanding what was going on at the crucifixion. It forces the question, “Why did Jesus have to die in that way?” Something more had to be going on than just a way for Jesus to show us his love, which he was certainly doing.
 
I couldn’t help but think about the shame of sin, and how Jesus dying in that shameful fashion was his taking upon himself not only the consequences of our sin, but all the shame of our sin. And if he took upon himself all of the shame of our sin, what does that mean for us? What does that mean for those of us who have such shame in our past that there are things we would never share with anyone? What if Jesus, indeed, took all of that?
 
That is part of the power of the gospel. One of things Rutledge accomplishes with her book is to communicate how the crucifixion is something you can ponder over and over again, from every angle, and be amazed and awe-struck and never plumb the full depths of. And I thank her for that.
 
Today I will be heading back to Tallassee. Pray for me, as I will no doubt be sleepy on the road after a week of getting up at 3:15 AM every morning. I look forward to seeing you all on Sunday.
 
Grace and peace,
 
Clint
 
 

The monks are buried in simple, unmarked graves.

The garden area outside the guest house.

The sanctuary. It is built in the shape of the cross.

The walled garden where there are Stations of the Cross.

One of the monks farming.

A picture of the monks working the fields. This must be from no later than 1960.