Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Gethsemani Notes

Friday Afternoon

I am now at the monastery after enduring the morning rush hour in Louisville. While driving here I was joyful to be alone and to be alive. It was just one of those mornings when it seemed great to be alive. Perhaps it was the anticipation of spending a few days in the monastery. I love the monastery and I had not been here for an overnight retreat in far too long. It was a beautiful morning and I enjoyed my solitary drive along the country roads. On my way here I stopped to see my friend, Father Dennis, a retired priest now living as a hermit near the monastery. We went to breakfast in a small country restaurant where every man there looked like a farmer. Dennis and I fit right in. Over many cups of coffee we solved the problems of the world and shared our spiritual ups and downs. Dennis is a friend of 40+ years who is really more like an older brother.

When I arrived at the monastery my room wasn't quite ready so I sat in the guesthouse garden and quietly meditated. The air was cool and the sun was warm but not hot. I was full of gratitude for being able to spend some time in the silence and solitude of this Trappist monastery. Soon I was pulled into an awareness of the time as the Abbey bells announced the noon hour. It was time to leave the garden and head for church. The monks formally pray seven times a day and it was time for Sext, the prayer for the middle of the day. Afterwards I walked in procession with the other guests to the dining room for our lunch. When lunch was over I got settled in my room and soon was asleep and full of dreams.

I slept through the mid afternoon prayer and woke up feeling very refreshed. I headed back to the dining room for some afternoon coffee to give me some caffeine fueled motivation. I headed back outside with "The Big Book of Christian Mysticism" by Carl McColman. Sitting in the silence I tried my best to read but more often than not found myself distracted by the birds.

Friday Evening

I am sitting in my room in the south wing of the monastery. When I made my reservation over the phone Father Carlos said, "I'll have to put you in the south wing where there's no air conditioning". At the time it was hot as hell with high humidity. This weekend, however, God has smiled on me and the temperature is in the low 80's with little humidity. Earlier I attended a lecture by Father Damien, the former Abbot and now Guestmaster of the monastery. He also showed a short film of the monastery which I've seen before but always enjoy. I actually saw a glimpse of myself in the video from one of my previous visits. Tonight's Compline, the last prayer of the monk's day, was as beautiful as ever and seems to have never changed from the first time I heard it so many years ago. As I sit here the sun has set. It is cooler but still warm in my room. From my room, directly over the guest chapel, I can see St. Joseph's hill as well as the walkway into the Abbey church. Much of the day I was restless as I always am when I first arrive here. The monastic pace is much slower than my usual pace in the world. At this hour it is very quiet and peaceful. Each moment my mind becomes a little more quiet and the peace of this place enters my soul.

Saturday Morning

This is not the morning I planned. About 2:00 AM I awakened sensing that my blood sugar was too low. I am a diabetic. When this happens I feel faint and I need to eat something. My room was a long way from the dining room and I had not brought any snacks with me. Nervous that I might faint along the way and not be found until morning, I gingerly made my way to the dining room. When I arrived there I ate like a man who hasn't seen food in days. Feeling somewhat revived I made it back to my room and collapsed back into bed. If being diabetic is not difficult enough, I also have an intestinal system that is like a delicate eco-system that much be carefully maintained and controlled. It was doing flip flops and I prayed my weekend wouldn't revolve around my medical issues. All of this caused me to miss the night prayer called "Vigils" that happens at 3:15 AM. I know it seems crazy to voluntarily get up at this hour, on a weekend no less, but in a monastery these pre-dawn hours are the best. By the time the morning prayer called "Lauds" arrived at 5:45 AM my body started cooperating. "Lauds" was followed by mass and breakfast. As I always do when I am at the monastery, I thoroughly enjoyed a bowl of oatmeal with lots of brown sugar. Afterwards I sat in the garden, watched the birds, and reflected on my spiritual journey of the last 40+ years. The sky was overcast and rain seemed likely at any moment.

Another book that I brought with me was "Into The Silent Land" by Martin Laird. It is subtitled "A Guide to the Christian Practice of Contemplation". It is a great companion book to "The Big Book of Mysticism". My attempts to read and go into the silent land were ambushed by a woodpecker, some brightly colored finches, and a hummingbird. In this moment contemplation was to be found in nature, not in a book. I went back in the dining room for coffee and saw my friend, Brother Columban. He recently returned to Gethsemani after several months at St. Joseph Abbey in Spencer, Mass. He's a funny guy. We used to work together when I was a young novice monk in the early 70's.

There is still no rain.

Feeling the need to get up and move a little I walked to the monastery gift shop. I overcame the temptation to buy more books but I was seduced by a stoneware coffee mug and some chocolate chip cookies made by Trappistine nuns in another monastery. Being in the monastery and having time to sit and read made me think of two favorite quotes.

"Sometimes I sit and think. Sometimes I just sit".

"Me and a book is a party. Me and a book and a cup of coffee is an orgy".
-Robert Fripp

I'm slowing down but still feel restless. I need to be still...

Some thoughts after reading from "Into the Silent Land"...

When attempting to meditate with a prayer word or mantra, you must pass through three doors. At the first door you become aware of thoughts and are bothered by them. When you get through this door and arrive at the second door, you are aware you are having thoughts but it doesn't upset you. You let them go and continue meditating. When you arrive at the third door, you become aware of your awareness. Like a man sitting on a riverbank you see your thoughts go by like ships passing up and down the river. You see them but you are not distracted by them. When you arrive at this stage you feel a oneness and you become part of the flame. I sometimes call these Zen moments. Psychologists might call these "flow". Your thoughts are more like white noise than distractions.

It is once again the noon hour. I am joining the monks for their midday prayer.

Today's lunch is scrambled eggs, steak fries, cream of broccoli soup, and fruitcake for dessert. Only in a monastery would you get such a meal. I eat it like it's a great feast. Since my arrival here I've eaten Trappist cheese, Trappist fudge,and Trappist fruitcake.

Still no rain and now it looks like it will not happen today. The sun is bright and the heat has returned.

Saturday Afternoon

I avoided the afternoon heat but took too long of a nap. It could be a long night if I can't get to sleep later.

Today's "Vespers", or evening prayer, was followed by a lousy meal. The kind of meal that makes you wish there was a McDonald's at the monastery. Afterwards I sat in the garden with coffee as thunder rumbled in the distance. Soon a light rain began to fall. It turned into a lovely summer downpour. I watched and listened to it from the balcony of the guesthouse. While sitting there I met a nice fellow from Virginia. We talked until the bells announced Compline and we headed for church. One of the nice parts of Compline is the blessing that all the monks and guests receive from the Abbot. We march two by two, bow before him, and he blesses you with holy water. It's the official end of the day.

I am thinking of my granddaughter, Chloe, who is at my home while I am here. I look forward to returning home and seeing her.

Sunday after Vigils

Last night was a repeat of the previous night. I woke up at 1:30 AM feeling like I do when my blood sugar drops. Fortunately I had the small bag of chocolate chip cookies that I had bought earlier. Unfortunately my stomach was once again doing flip flops. I need to get back home to my regular diet.

Sunday Vigils are long. In spite of my physical problems I managed to attend. Afterwards I sat in the dark dining room with coffee and a bowl of Cherrios. I went back to my room anticipating the pre-dawn hours. After about an hour I felt very tired and I went back to sleep for a while. When I awoke I took a shower and attended the end of morning prayer with the monks. After breakfast I attended another lecture with Father Damien before joining the monastery's Lay Associates for a discussion. Shortly after that I packed my belongings, got my sheets and towels together for the cleaning people, and I headed home.


On the way home my wife called me and informed me that the gentle storm I encountered at the monastery was not so gentle at home. When I arrived home there was no power. However, when I stepped out of my car I heard the voice of my granddaughter yelling out the window. "Paw Paw"! When I saw her I didn't care that the power was out. There's no place like home and there's nothing like a granddaugher.

1 comment:

Stephen Taylor said...

Michael, I was having back issues this past weekend or I would have been there for Saturday mass and Sunday! I am so sorry I missed you. Soon it will be time for our once in a while breakfast.

This is one of the best pieces of writing you have done, ever! God Bless you, Michael Brown.