Emerging from a misty morning veil of dew, a mystical medieval-looking fortress known as the Abbey of Gethsemani, along with its more than 2,000 acres of rambling central Kentucky fields, unfolds in a setting simply perfect for solitude. Making it all the more solemn, nearly 50 Trappist monks live there, chanting seven times a day around the clock, making and selling a variety of cheeses and fruitcakes, and living a contemplative and isolated life of prayer, reflection, and meditation.
The monks have been on to something for a long time. If a questioner were to ask exactly what, they likely would get no concise answer. It’s more the idea of embracing for a while a lifestyle that seems so peacefully attractive, like the romantic but oft-misunderstood seclusion of the old lighthouse keepers. In response to this yearning, the monks open up the Abbey to outsiders. This is no freak show. The monks’ lifestyle, though perhaps radical to much of the contemporary world, has a fascinatingly irresistible pull, offering the gifts of introspection and reflection beneficially conducted in an atmosphere of silence. It’s quite an experience to enter this vacuum, a safely controlled environment where you can completely divest yourself of whatever it was you came in with, mostly the things on your mind.
You learn how to breathe in a place like Gethsemani.
But before you can breathe, you’ve got to book it; preferably five or six months in advance, when people’s calendars often show a blank slate.
Making our mark in New Haven
An old boyhood friend and I had recently reconnected and within a short span began sharing our respective wonder at the mysteries of life, faith, and beyond. Our inward search seems all the more earnest as we increasingly age. At some point, the discussion of taking a retreat at the Trappist monastery just outside New Haven, Kentucky, came up, and a quick, mutual agreement to check into it was made on the spot.
Last fall we made reservations for the following springtime at the world-renowned Abbey. Gethsemani also maintains a year-round retreat house, and as overflows occur often, opens up an additional section of the monastery’s South Wing for what they term retreatants.
So it was that on April 20, 2009, my friend Bill and I set out from Nashville International Airport for the blue-green hills of Kentucky. The trip was not without its maddening and frequent rest-stop ritual typical of two male sexagenarians. On those occasions, without fail, the old Wilson official NFL football was broken out from the backseat for an impromptu toss, harkening back to the glory days for a onetime fullback and a 120-pound quarterback, whose once tight spirals now wobbled woefully. Such child-like reverie could not be undertaken with abandon without one eye keenly scouring for unsoiled spots of grass that dogs hadn’t yet christened.
In no time it seemed—but actually less than three hours later—we had eased off the interstate and onto a state highway that wound through scenic country. We passed Hodgenville, and my friend Bill, sensing that our time of entering the monastery, with its attendant automatic withdrawal from society, was drawing near, said perhaps he’d better steel himself for the contemplative journey ahead by smuggling in some fine red wine into the monks’ haven. As fate would have it, we came upon the little oasis of New Haven and right across the county line bridge stood a bar/beer/liquor joint.
As we made our way in, all eight heads inside the place turned to witness our arrival. A situation like that evokes hesitation from me. Bill on the other hand sees an audience. I give the establishment the renowned “Monteagle wave,” of Tracy City, Tenn., fame—the classic rural acknowledgment that features a quick but slight upward movement of the whole head that barely registers on the motion detector. Bill, no stranger to any man or town, sizes up the room and the faces before him. His demeanor is at once charming and fearless, a man relentless in the face of new, potential friends.
“Hello, everyone, I’m a stranger in your town!”
Bill’s open-armed hello melts the place, and quicker than you can say Do you have any Rodney Strong? Everyone is chatting up Bill like the long-lost cousin archetype.
I excuse myself and look for a men’s room. When I come out, Bill has cornered a woman working there who seems to have the skinny on the wine list. She is quick and to the point:
“We got us the Boone’s Farm over there. ’Course we have the levels below that, too.”
It wasn’t the answer Bill was looking for. Sensing the pointlessness in asking if any Côte de Rhône were in stock, Bill smoothly exits the no-sale situation by bidding farewell to his new flock lining the bar.
In response, one man turns and says, “You guys gotta visit where they make Maker’s Mark. They make that up here, you know.”
Bill files it away and finally, from behind a shield of promises to visit to all the area distilleries, we get out the door. Empty-handed.
Silence spoken here
Bill, as hinted at above, is a loquacious sort; a consummate raconteur and exquisite conversationalist whose skill at regaling is rivaled by few. He actually likes to talk, finding a comfort level there that seems to anchor his station wherever he is. But Bill was about to meet head on a formidable challenge for even a moderate interlocutor: the pervasive silence of Gethsemani. For three days, chatty talk and incidental conversation would be harnessed for all, the cacophony of life’s incessant noise soon to be engulfed by stillness.
Naturally, the monks built a loophole for those less dedicated to the internal mission of a retreat. Talking rooms are available in vicinities adjacent to the dining and conference room areas, a splendid “breakout” which Bill and I took advantage of during mealtimes.
Everything at Gethsemani is optional. No obligatory attendance at religious services, informative lectures, not even meals. Retreatants are, however, encouraged to spend the bulk of their time alone in their rooms or pacing the vast pastoral acreage outdoors, the better to gain the Gethsemani experience.
It’s difficult to actually put that experience into words. At some point during the three-day stay you begin to think, When I get back, people will ask, ‘How was it?’ But as former Abbot (now Abbey Guestmaster) Fr. Damien Thompson, 75, will appropriately point out, if you’ve used your time well, you’ll “leave here feeling nothing.” An empty slate in this instance is good. Successful meditators seek a void, a vacuum free of whirling thought and internal restlessness, even blocking out sensations from all five senses, to reach this level of nothingness. Trust me. It isn’t easy. Just try shutting down the ceaseless onslaught of your ever-active mind for more than a full minute and you’ll have a clue.
Learning how to meditate was one of my personal goals going into the retreat, and thanks to an excellent how-to book from the monastery’s extensive theological library (Light Within, Laurence Freeman), I gave it—and continue to give it—a decent go.
The other draw for me was the hypnotically elevating chanting of the monks.
Tutankhamun is not uncommon
This most recent excursion was actually my third trip to Gethsemani, my first dating back to 1981. But it had been 21 years since my last visit, and the old maxim “some things never change,” in this instance, is unmistakably a good thing. For me, it all begins with the monks’ chanting.
These rhythmic, mesmerizing incantations exude a powerful calm, and retreatants get a rare opportunity to sit in on seven round-the-clock occasions to sample the monks’ vocal wares, among them "Sext," None (pronounced no-nay), Vespers, Lauds, and an out-of-body session at 3:15 a.m. called Vigils. During my initial trek to the Abbey 28 years before, the totality of this sonic soothing kick started an unplanned musical expression based on the inspiration of the chants.
It occurred to me sometime during the reverie of the chanting heard that first time that the monks could be saying almost anything lyrically. Four long rows of facing chanters, two rows to a side, execute their material in a natural ultra-reverb audio chamber, their collective sound bouncing back and forth off the Abbey’s resonant brick walls. To the carried-away ear of the listener, the excessive reverberation stills the soul but confounds the brain. The repetitive chanting, rendered somewhat loosely, disguises any attempt to hear with clarity the words being sung. I admit to some high hilarity when I first realized that, should they desire, the monks could be saying absolutely anything at all. Pure gibberish, if they wished! Under the solemn tone of the rendering, words seem to take on a different character of their own.
Thus "Sext" was penned, a respectful, well-intended tribute to the allure of the chant, replete with lyrics bound to confound—a consecutive series of non sequiturs à la the above-mentioned gibberish. Six years after writing "Sext," an improbable recording opportunity surfaced for the piece. At the time, I was a member of S P A C E, an acoustic trio that moved comfortably between different musical genres. Our innovative musical director, Scott Jarrett—a brilliant all-around writer, singer, musician, arranger, teacher—was floored upon hearing my rough demo of the tune laid down following my first visit to the Abbey. The trio, along with Nashville sound engineer Bob Krusen, reserved the old-timey Cumberland Presbyterian Historic Chapel out in Dickson, Tennessee’s Montgomery Bell State Park to record the tune for posterity. Scott, after sizing up the sound logistics within the live little room, suggested we split off into three separate physical locations inside the chapel, the better to maximize the audio potential of the place with just three voices. Ingeniously, our leader directed the entrance and exit points of the lines via hand signals, since Garrett Randolph, myself, and Scott were all stationed about 50 feet apart, facing each other like the points of a large triangle. We over-dubbed a second track. In all, six voices attempt to approximate the sound of 50 monks. Thanks to Krusen’s technical prowess and Scott’s outside-the-box thinking, I believe we pulled it off. (listen to Sext).
Each time I reconnect with Gethsemani, not unsurprisingly, I rediscover Sext anew. It even subtly influenced fellow S P A C E mate Garrett Randolph enough to accompany me on my second visit to Gethsemani in late ’87.
This is home
It’s not true that I parted from Gethsemani “feeling nothing.”
I came away with so much more than what I went there with. I left the Abbey with a feeling of rejuvenation, of renewal, batteries recharged. A lot of that had to do with shutting down the massive complex operating system that few of us, short of doctors, know anything about: the human machine. We may know a bit about cells, corpuscles, the aorta, tendons, the circulatory system, but we really don’t know much intrinsically of the spirit side of our lives. I don’t think anyone really does. We pray as we believe, faith being the operative element. I came to Gethsemani to reconnect with this omnipotent God Force, this All-in-All, the One. But the experience of that is such a personal, individualized thing, in some ways it almost desecrates the event to talk about it. Some leave the hallowed premises feeling closer to their particular religious denomination, others move deeper into the mystery of it all, comfortable in the absence of any churchly affiliation. The language of silence “spoken here,” as one sign reminds, is a language beyond the known dialect communicated in everyday life. Changing to a more personal tone, you relate to Gethsemani in your own way. You experience it in your own way. You come away only with what is important to you, and ironically in that, it’s something so much greater than you. You leave with a capacity to be so much better for other people. Something dormant too long, that’s been asleep, reawakens in you. It’s a process I would invite everyone to experience. You get to know yourself on a level that will welcome you, on a level that has yearned for you and yearned to be discovered by you again.
And then comes sort of a tricky part. You eventually have to vacate its safe sanctum and reenter the familiar world of chaos and madness and anxiety and fear that you bolted from just four days previous. I remember that I used to feel sorry for people of isolation. Gee, they don’t get to have sex, they don’t get to watch CNN; they don’t get to eat at Wendy’s. But some amazing people have walked through those doors of silence, not the least of whom was the renowned social activist, author, and promoter of inter-religious understanding, Thomas Merton, a Trappist at Gethsemani for 27 years. The isolationist monk occupied several hermitages on Gethsemani’s grounds, from which he produced a massive body of written work, including volumes of essays and poems. I now view people like Merton, who willfully choose such a lifestyle, as courageous adventurers, exploring the vast lands that lie inward rather than outward; people who might well say to themselves, “This is home.”
Merton. What a monk. Repeatedly he would petition the Abbot to allow him to live alone on the remote monastery lands, away from the Trappist community, that he might go deeper into the contemplative life. It was not common for a monk to seek removal from the populace, but Merton prospered in isolation, turning out his impressive collection of work. He lived in several hermitages on the grounds, well out from the Abbey itself. On several walks, Bill and I passed this rusted out, bombed-out-looking old red trailer with faded white lettering on the side that read “Agents for North American Van Lines Inc.” It wasn’t much larger than a horse trailer. Bill said he believed it might be one of Merton’s early hermitages, and it turned out he was right. The following day, Bill spied yet another of Merton’s hermitages, likely his first one and only a third the size of the red trailer, with “St. Anne’s” crudely spray-painted on one side of the miniscule dwelling. Bill had been at the library the evening before and thumbed through a beautifully photographed coffee table book on Gethsemani. In a section on Merton, pictures of Merton’s hermitages confirmed Bill’s sightings. Merton’s third and final hermitage, now gone, was something out of a dreamscape, a cottage nestled at the edge of the woods facing a meadow that Bill called a four-star hotel compared to the hermit’s two earlier huts. Merton’s desire to live in isolation put in perspective our little three days of retreat silence. And the celebrity! In 1948, after his critically acclaimed The Seven Storey Mountain was released, Merton began receiving fan mail in bags. One of the monks told Bill that Merton was reputedly clumsy, a bumble-thumbs, and offered that possibility as the reason behind his premature death by accidental self-electrocution in 1968, at age 53.
In retrospect, you’ve got to love a place that the world has come to know “for its cheese and fruitcake products,” as the opening to a film on the Abbey notes. “But it’s worse than that,” the film’s narrator, a monk, continues. “We sing…and often badly.” The Trappists do it all with humility, prayer, work, even humor. And as I’ve long felt, it took someone with a great sense of humor to put us here in the first place.
I hope this isn’t the last time I visit the holy halls of the Abbey of Gethsemani. For something beyond conventional description eternally dwells there. Something simply good. New Mexico may answer to Land of Enchantment, but those fortunate enough to spend some down time at Gethsemani know wherein a different kind of enchantment lies. But unlike the mythical hamlet of Brigadoon, it doesn’t come alive just once every 100 years.
Rather you’ll hear it, in the soft reverberation off the abbey walls at 3:15 in the morning.