Retreat at the Abbey of Gethsemani – Wednesday

Yesterday I mentioned about how the long morning period in between the 7:30 AM Terce and 12:15 PM Sext times of prayer were devoted primarily to the monks’ daily work. You may have wondered, “What kind of work do they do?” You may also have wondered, “How in the world do monks, who have given up all worldly possessions, support the monastery?”

I didn’t sneak in and take the picture, I just stole it from their website.

The answer is that they work to support the monastery. How they have worked changes over the years. Several decades ago, the monastery was primarily supported through agriculture. The monks were all farmers. The most well-known resident of Gethsemani, Thomas Merton, in his autobiography “The Seven Storey Mountain” (which I warmly recommend), talked about the experience of working in the fields all day while being weak from fasting. However, the same economic factors that made it increasingly difficult for small farms to be profitable also affected the monastery, and they shifted to making homemade fudge, fruitcake, and cheese. The fudge and fruitcake are made with Kentucky Bourbon because, as one of the monks once joked, “We have to keep the bourbon industry happy by buying their bourbon and all the Southern Baptists happy by not selling bourbon. So we put it in fudge.” Both the fudge and the fruitcake are outstanding, by the way.
For the Trappist monks, their work is not just a way to support the monastery. It is a part of their life devoted to God. The motto of the Rule of Saint Benedict (that I mentioned a couple of posts ago) is “Ora et Labora” or “Work and Pray.” Benedict saw daily work and daily prayer not as two separate things, but as one. So when you are at prayer, you are doing God’s work, and when you are working, you are offering up that work to God as a part of your prayer life.
There is something for us to learn in that. We often struggle with how to fit prayer into our busy lives and schedules. While scheduled times of focused prayer are still vital and important, what if we had a new vision of life where all that we did was offered to God in prayer? Could this be part of what Paul was referring to when he called us to “pray without ceasing”? (1 Thessalonians 5:17)
I mentioned in the Monday post that I’m reading two books, and I thought I would give a quick update on both. “The Crucifixion” by Fleming Rutledge has been a pleasant surprise. It’s not a book I would have read naturally, not having been exposed to Rutledge before, but a number of people I respect had recommended it, and it won the Christianity Today Book of the Year award, so I decided, “Why not?” The book is long, so alas I have no chance of finishing it here as I originally intended. Rutledge’s main point is that there is a constant pull away from the crucifixion of Jesus because, frankly, it’s offensive and off-putting. So in church-world, we tend to find all kinds of religious ways of de-emphasizing it. Sometimes those ways are explicitly heretical and dangerous, such as the Prosperity Gospel that is so prevalent in America. Some of those ways are more subtle and non-threatening, such as a growing emphasis on Jesus’ incarnation and its hallowing of creation (you can find this in Anglican and Eastern Orthodox traditions), without a full recognition that Jesus took on humanity for the primary purpose of going to the cross. So Rutledge’s book is an attempt to call the church back to the primacy of Jesus Christ and him crucified. The book is powerful and beautiful and challenging, and I’m glad I decided to read it.
“Canoeing The Mountains” tells the story of Lewis and Clark, and how they had to completely re-tool their expedition when they reached the Rocky Mountains because no one expected those mountains to be there…the conventional wisdom was that the Missouri River would just lead straight to the Pacific. Being that they couldn’t “canoe the mountains” they had to change their way of working. The parallel for church world is that we now live in an increasingly secular age where there is no cultural expectation that people will come to church. Most of our church ministry and training is for a world where we don’t have to reach people, they just come to us. But now, like Lewis and Clark, we are in a new situation and have to change how we think and what we do.
I’ll probably spend most of today reading. My afternoon hike yesterday ended up being several miles (I can’t read maps, apparently) and my legs are pretty sore, so I’m going to devote the day to reading.
Grace and peace,