© 2011 Mark Canter
Around a bend in the woodsy Kentucky knob country, the oldest and strictest Catholic monastery in North America swings suddenly into view. Cloaked in wooded hills, the Trappist Abbey of Our Lady of Gethsemani seems forgotten in medieval time. Self-sufficient. Silent. Humble as a night-blooming cactus, with its beautiful face in hiding.
Near the roadside, an iron historic marker reads: "Gethsemani Abbey, Founded 1848 by the Order of the Cistercians of the Strict Observance. Founded 1098 in France. The Trappists are noted for Prayer, Labor, and Silence."
I had read that the abbey offers silent retreats and had driven 800 miles to arrive at this old stone wall and wooden gate. I needed a getaway and Club Med wouldn't do: I wanted refreshment beyond what a wine cooler and poolside lounge chair could offer. So I arranged to spend five days here, to wander in the forest, in the deep stillness; clouds and creekbeds to lead my way: destination unknown.
I enter at dusk and the guestmaster leads me to my brick-walled room on the second floor of a large stone building. I pass a sign commanding "SILENCE. No talking or visiting in the halls or rooms." Inside, I slip my watch off and put it in the desk drawer, next to my truck keys, driver's license and three wrinkled green bills. None of these things are needed here.
Since there will be no talking, I won't need my name or my past. Where nothing refers to them, I won’t need my looks and fashions, strategies, opinions, or my best behavior. I imagine unbuttoning my worldly self, folding it like a starched shirt and putting it into the drawer beside the other stuff. The drawer shuts smoothly.
After a few days, silence strips away my more subtle holdings, and as the unessentials evaporate, something basic is clarified and distilled: The spirit. The ambrosia of aloneness.
The monks go to bed early in their compound behind a heavy wooden door in an ivy-draped stone wall. I wander out beneath the stars without a particle of learning in my head. Strolling for miles in star-flooded fields: fiery slash of meteors; crickets, cicada, and bullfrog choirs; aromas of cut hay, horse manure and moist clay; the tug of Earth that holds me and stones and trees to this place.
The sky starts at my feet and rushes up beyond my senses, far past the shores of the Milky Way. The moon is new and the night so dark I almost walk into a horse standing asleep under a sycamore. She nods and I offer soothing sounds and pat her forelock. We drift along in the same boat in the milk of stars. There is nothing we can do, mare or man, about any of it. I compose a haiku:
A vast, empty beach...
Who sees the lonely starfish
Back in my room, I stay up till dawn writing a letter to my wife. The monks have been in the stone cathedral since 3:15 a.m. observing Vigils, the first of seven daily offices of prayer. Their hushed bass and tenor voices seep through the mortar. I can't make out the Latin, but their chanting swells and falls as if the old church were breathing.
One afternoon, atop a steep bluff, I discover an abandoned fire tower and climb far up zigzagging stairs to a hawk's view of green horizons. The leaves of hardwoods exhale a smoky mist that shrouds the peaks and valleys.
On my final morning at the monastery, I jog a few miles up a rocky trail to my goal—a skinny-dip in the cold, clear water of the abbey's reservoir. "No Swimming Allowed." (Forgive me, brothers; the water was so deep and delicious.)
"Most people today take a dim view of the monk's desire for seclusion," writes Matthew Kelty, a Gethsemani monk, in a pamphlet for men considering the monastic calling. "They see it as flight and do not appreciate the monk for fleeing. Certainly, the monk does not escape anything. It was precisely because he was tired of running that he became a monk.
"If you don't like people, if you hate the world, this is no place to come. If you get moody and depressed, this will crush you for sure. Those who fear their own depths and the deep of night had better find something to occupy or divert them. People in flight should not come to monasteries."
The honesty of his confession touches me. He says that monks are lonely men and that this does not make them different, since most men are lonely. "It is what they do with their loneliness that makes them somewhat different. It is the experience of love that makes it possible for one to accept the huge experience of solitude."
Here is where Thomas Merton spent the last 27 years of his life. His grave does not stand out from the other small iron crosses of the hundred or so monks buried near the old stone church. Yet his death in 1968 was announced on the front page of the New York Times. Merton took his Cambridge and Columbia literary education into the desert of the monastery. His outpouring of books attracted readers and correspondents planetwide. He saw past the outer forms of his chosen religion and wrote about Zen and Taoism with great sympathy. In respect, I sit quietly on the grass where the body of an American wise man is returned to dust.
From the morning of my arrival, I search the faces of the few monks I meet on their way to fieldwork or prayer, looking for signs. I see a youthful monk pedal by on a woman’s bicycle, his white robe billowing, and he smiles at me with an openness that is not at all self-conscious, as if he has forgotten his own face.
And today, as I get ready to leave, a white-haired monk in overalls, bent almost in half, pushes a big laundry cart up the hallway. We don't speak, but with a simple glance he extends his heart to mine, as easily as one might shake hands. Silent blessings.