This last week, I took my first monastic retreat of the summer. In planning out what my sabbatical would look like, it made sense (to me) to take the first week at home for rest and then spend the second week in the solitude of retreat, focusing on reading and prayer, which would hopefully shape the spiritual plane of the weeks to come.
Now, I have never been to an operating monastery, but I was extremely excited for the opportunity. As a church history aficionado, I have a great respect for the monastic movement and their alternative brand of spirituality that, in many senses, served as the backbone of the church when it was in the midst of its doctrinal and dogmatic infighting.
Beyond that I am, by nature, an introvert, who also happens to love people. So while a perfect day might include coffee with my wife at Coffee Matters or a campfire with good friends, I ultimately get my energy for those activities by spending time alone. The opportunity to spend a week in relative solitude, keeping company with nature and my books, sounded fantastic.
I had decided a long time ago that my first monastic retreat had to be at the Abbey of Gethsemani, located about an hour west of Lexington, Ky. One of my favorite authors in Christian Spirituality is Thomas Merton, and Gethsemani was the monastery that he committed himself to as a Benedictine monk as well as the place where he composed some of the most important writings in the 20th century. For a good start, check out his book "New Seeds of Contemplation," and be prepared for your mind to be blown.
For the uninitiated, there are many different types of monastic orders, and within those orders there are various degrees of severity in their spiritual practices. Gethsemani is a Benedictine monastery, in particular part of the Cistercian order, and would be considered one of the more austere groups. This meant that those who would join the order were committing themselves to prayer, manual labor, and silence. Yes that’s right, silence. Complete silence.
My week at Gethsemani would be completely silent, except for the community prayers that happened 7 times a day (the first being at 3:15 AM…I didn’t go to those…) And though it might seems strange, this was an aspect of the retreat that I was looking forward to. Even though I talk for a living, I also enjoy my times of silence.
For me, this wasn't an awkward practice at all because it was expected of everyone there. And because we weren't allowed to talk, this kept us focused on the purposes at hand, namely prayer and spiritual reading, rather than getting caught up in small talk. Of course, we couldn't have possibly forgotten this rule, since there were signs every several feet that read something like “Silence is Spoken Here.”
Lest it seem, though, that I am the perfect Benedictine candidate and had zero struggles with the abrupt transition into this silent bubble, I want to share the first thing that I wrote only several hours into my week (I am human too.)
“No television. No air conditioning, no internet access. Complete silence. What have I gotten myself into? Already I've had the thought of, “Well, this is quaint and has been fun, now where’s the hotel with the pool and the cable and the pizza place on speed dial?” God has brought me here for a reason; maybe the instigating factor was the romantic notion of monastic life like Thomas Merton. In any case, I have three complete days of solitude and silence and seeking.”
God definitely brought me there for a reason; He revealed some important aspects of my personality that need addressed, questions about my vocation that need to be explored, and several practices that I would like to implement into my Sabbatical time.
And so, if you’re interested in hearing more about this, check back as I will be sharing more of my experiences, thoughts and musings. This could take a while, and I want to make this blog digestible for those reading.