My time at the Abbey of Gethsemani


“The aching may remain, but the breaking does not”.  This is a verse in a song by Andrew Peterson called “The Silence of God”.  He wrote this song after a retreat he had with God at the Abbey of Gethsemani.  I find it to be an extremely gratifying phrase.

I, too, am spending some time at the Abbey.  I come with the expectation of getting rest, seeking out direction, looking over some current projects I’m involved in, reading and writing.  I don’t expect to get everything done I intend on doing but I do expect what HE intends on me getting done will and so much more.

As I pull into the drive, immediately a sense of peace was in this place.  The grounds were clean and neat without fan fair.  Tucked away in simple spaces were benches or large stones with moss growing on them for seating.  A place to sit, take a deep breath, closing my eyes and slowly breathing out to release what I came here with.  Some are out in the open spaces, and some nestled under a clump of trees so to be shaded and even more, left for a place of aloneness or solitude. Breathing, deep long breaths.  Releasing all the hard that I’ve held inside. Releasing.

I park my car to find the registration desk so I can get settled in.  I see people.  Not crowds of people, hustling and bustling as they generally are in our world.  But people walking, slow walking, contemplative walking. No reason to hurry.  Simple deep breathing and walking slow to the place where they could let go.

I first go into the visitors building, and it is like most visitor buildings, lined with information, pictures, quotes and local symbols on the walls. I can hear something, where is that coming from, the faint sound of peaceful, solemn, sincere song.  I’m thinking that this building must be attached to the church and the monks must be in service. I searched, hoping to sit.  I find a theater, as there generally is in a visitor area, with a video that gives information about the Abbey and “YES”, there it is, beautiful song.  Peaceful, so I sit a while.

I head into the gift shop and look around for a minute or five.  Wall hangings, crosses, crucifixes, figurines, journaling books, devotionals and so much more.  I find the perfect item for my home to have as a reminder.  A wind chime, it is for me.  Not your normal wind chime though.  These are a mix of special metals from India. A beautiful long slender piece of curving metals with small miss matched and hand molded bells dangling down from each curve of the metal.  They give a gentle ding, ding, ding as the breeze would move them to and fro. Just enough sound that it brings the sound of the gentle breeze but not enough to break the peace that is felt by it.

I check out my beautiful purchase and get information of where I need to go for registration as a guest to the Abbey. I walk down a paved path through a cemetery of very old and weathered headstones with names and dates of loved ones.  As I walk into the guest house I am greeted by a monk, who welcomes me with a smile and a solemn presence. He gives me my key to my own personal room.  He says, “Enjoy your time with us” as I move toward the elevator.  I enter my room.  A simple room.  Relaxing colors of gray and lavender. A twin bed, a pillow and blanket for comfort and one set of towels.  Yes, one set for 3 days.  Simple, serene and no frills. I remind myself, “this is what I came here for”.  A small desk sat next to the bed with a lamp for gentle but needed light and a chair for sitting, contemplating, and writing.  Oh, Yes!  And a private bath.  I really wasn’t sure what there would be, so I was thrilled to know I didn’t have to share my bathroom space.  “Thank you, Lord”, I say to myself.

I sit at the desk, to go over the information that the monk had handed me when I arrived.  There was a small piece of paper with a Retreat Schedule printed on it.  This was not a recommended or required schedule, because this weekend was all about me and God, but they wanted me to know that I was welcomed at any of the formal services that the monks and possibly other guests would be gathering.  First thing I’m looking for is when the mealtimes are. Yes, a weekend that I don’t even have to consider what or when I’m being fed.  I simply show up. Not only am I being spiritually fed here but I’m also being physically fed. What a tremendous blessing all around.

I don’t believe I mentioned that this retreat is also a retreat from speaking.  Silence is the purpose for this retreat. Most who attend come alone.  Not with the intentions of meeting new people but to be quiet with God. Contemplating His words and the meaning they have in my life.  That also means screen time for me is a no no, this is my purpose anyway.

Now, back to the schedule. The first time slot was at 3:15 am!  Yes, 3:15 am!  This is when the monks have their first service for the day, and they continue throughout the day until evening when rest is needed.  I sit looking at the schedule, the times, and the title of the services.  They are different.  I need to look them up. Names such as Lauds & Eucharist, Terce & Eucharist, Sext, Vespers, Reconciliation, Benediction and Compline. I look each up to see what they mean so I can determine which I will attend.  Some are followed by Mass, which is the central act of worship in the Catholic Church.  In case you’re wondering, I’m not of the catholic faith.  But I am Christian.  I know they said, “Come, you are welcome.” but am I really? Will it be weird?  Will I stand out? Do I belong there? I decided.  I would join a service on Friday night, two on Saturday and two on Sunday, each day includes a Mass.   

I’ve gotten settled in, mapped out my schedule for my unscheduled weekend.  I must chuckle about that!  So now, time for service before our evening meal.

I head outside to walk up the massive, stone staircase that leads up to the large wooden doors into the church.  As I walk into the foyer, there is a beautifully carved stone urn with holy water in the basin.  I’m not catholic but I do understand that this symbolizes water that has been blessed by a member of the clergy and is used in baptism and to bless individuals, churches, homes, and articles of devotion. A natural symbol of purification. In the book “Holy Water and It’s significance for Catholics” by Rev. Henry Theiler, he writes, “Actual Grace is obtained through the use of holy water

Not sanctifying grace, mind you, but the grace to enlighten the intellect to avoid evil and do good. We call it Active Grace. Like any grace, though, to receive the effects from holy water, we must be in a state of grace, be of firm faith, and in submission to Christ and the Church. Once we are in this way disposed to the Holy Spirit and effects of holy water, the largest effect of holy water can then be obtained, which is protection against the evil spirit”. I wonder to myself, “Is it okay for me to use this?” 

I walk through the large glass doors that enter guests to their seats.  

As I settle into my seat, waiting for service to start, I hear the chiming of the clock, dong, dong, dong, dong, dong at 5:25, which later in my stay there, I understand that this is how the monks keep up with their time. This series of dongs were the notice that service was to start in 5 minutes, giving the monks enough time to join in the sanctuary.

I watch, I observe, and I internalize what I’m witnessing.  I sense an atmosphere of solemn worship, submission, and calmness.  A posture of humility and focus is in the room thick.  They are intentional with every movement, word, and prayer. The service moves from one part to another without rush or hurriedness. They are simple in their worship, showing gratitude and awe in every thought. The monks lined into the sanctuary, one after another, each different in stature and race but all praising the One and only God who came to save them. I watch, I observe, and I internalize.

The schedule for these men who have given their life to God, rising early to begin their service and praise the Lord. As I sit and watch these men, do what some would call “routine” of task or ceremony, but I see their faces, not faces of routine or ceremony but faces of awe, raising their eyes to the heavens then bowing down in song, praising Him. This is anything but routine, this is honoring continually the God of All.

I return to my room as the clock chimes, dong, dong, dong, dong, dong, dong, dong, dong, indicating that it is 8pm and time for rest.  So, I rest.

Awakened by the sound of movement outside of my room, I set my alarm to wake me so I could go to early morning service. But others have already started their journey to the church. I hear the sound of the clock chimes again.  “It must be 5:25”, I think to myself.  Service will be starting in 5 minutes.  What I notice this morning during service is a stature that is common among the monks.  Regardless of how tall or short he is, the common theme is they all are a little hunched over.  Even I understand with repetitive movement the body tends to automatically form that way. It was apparent that the older he was, the more prominent the forward leaning was. I consider, “Just how much praying must these men do?”.  

Today, I’m doing some hiking.  The abbey has multiple places on the property that have monuments to see. Thankfully it was going to be a beautiful sunny fall day, with a slight breeze in the air, just enough to keep the body cooled down as it heats up from the activity it’s not used to getting.

I walk through the gravesites of the monks that have served there and have now passed to be with the Lord, simple, white, small crosses with their names and dates engraved. They were sons of parents here on earth, but they chose to give themselves over fully to be with the One and Only Father, their Father.  Their indebtedness to Jesus and His sacrifice was so heavy on their hearts and the awe of the full mystery of the faith kept them waiting and serving.

I walk the grounds, statue after statue of the image of Christ and his walk to the cross.  Step by step from the crown to the cross, showing his agony and suffering and the love that those who felt his pain wanted to help carry some of it.  After walking through His process of heading to the cross, I stop, the overwhelming thought of what He did for me was expressed in tears streaming and emotions flowing.  Just a short distance from where I was standing was a huge tree, leaves already fallen on the ground, mostly empty of foliage. A beautiful tree, bark peeling and falling off in sheets leaving the bare branches of stark white smooth skin, simply amazing and sitting underneath this tree was placed a seat meant for me to rest.  So, I rest.  The afternoon sun was shining perfectly on my back, warming me and helping settle my emotions.  Shining through the branches of other trees that sit behind me the sun shines bright and creates a stunning split, so rays break off in many directions with glimpses of many colors joining in the glory.  And then it happens just for me I think for that moment, the clock chimes, dong, dong, dong, dong. It’s 4 o’clock. It’s time for my next stop on this journey with God for the day.

Now, I’m not a hiker. Athletics isn’t my thing, but the Abbey owns property across the street where hikers can go and enjoy the majesty of God’s creation.  Along, part of their trails, there have been monuments in memory of others who were loved, statues of varied types and they have been strategically placed along the path with stones and benches for a time of reflection. So I took this opportunity to heart, with the fact that I am alone and no one can hear or see me except God himself, to release and let go of some pain that had been boiling up inside my soul.  Such a cleansing process, to just simply let it go, knowing that HE doesn’t want me to carry it. There is much beauty to be seen and experienced throughout that walk “To the Statues” as the sign continues to point me in the right direction.  I see a large tree that had fallen and just lay there waiting for me to enjoy what it still had to give me.  I sling my leg over it and lay back, so to view the things above. The sun shines through the branches of the many trees that are swaying from the breeze. Gratitude is abundant for the beauty that this tree gives me as a place to lie still and see. Pictures, many pictures I take as a reminder when my memory fails me of the vibrant colors that fall brings.  My ears and skin allow me to use my senses that my eyes can’t offer to feel and hear His handy work in real time. I make it to the last statue.  Some choose to go further in their hike on their journey to the statues but it’s my time to go back to the Abbey.  

As I return to the Abbey, it’s almost dinner time so I sit outside the dining hall next to the bird feeders, watching them jump and fly around, in playful motions.  Grabbing a bite here and there.  They too, I believe, are enjoying this beautiful day.  Dinner and Rest and now good night. 

It’s morning, I wake a little later than the morning before.  For that I am grateful. I sit at the desk beside my bed asking Him to show me what He wants me to reflect on today. So, I sit quietly, and several things come to mind.  The Holy Spirit needed me to let him lead me through awareness and understanding of events and experiences from my past. A way to do this is through timeline processes. I’m finding that there are several ways to do this process, and each brings their own unique awareness. So, I start………….  And then I head to breakfast.

Today is going to be a rainy day and with a fall chill in the air, inside will be where I can be found. After breakfast I sit at a table facing the outside so I can still marvel in His beauty while processing through a couple of timelines.  Rest is calling my name.  I think the Holy Spirit is saying, “It’s time for a break now”, “more to come later”.  So, I rest for a while.  My memories will not go anywhere, so for now it will wait. The clock chimes wake me with so many dong, dong, dongs, twelve to be exact.  It’s time for lunch. Have you ever just sat and ate alone without talking when there are people all around you? Comfortable would not be a verb that I would use for this experience.  But it is comforting to know that I don’t have to say anything, we all knew what the other was experiencing and it was okay. Once in a while, I would catch the eye of another guest and we just knew without words. The rest of this rainy day was spent listening, writing and discovering a new understanding of what He has been showing me all along. Awareness of my past and acceptance of the truths that lie within them brings a willingness to move closer to where HE is leading me.  Trusting! 

I contemplate now as I have watched the sincereness of the monks and total submission of their lives in obedience to our Lord.  And I ask myself, “If I am to give of myself in this kind of total submission through what He has called me to do, what should I look like to someone looking in?

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