(Or, "Lessons Learned from spending a few days with the Monks in the Abbey of Gethsemani.")
I've never had a desire to be a monk.
There. I said it.
I'm not really into liturgical worship; I can't chant; I enjoy speaking (at least on a limited basis); I'm not sure the robe thing would be all that flattering to my figure; and the whole celibacy thing... well...um...yeah.
But this week I did a retreat at the Abby of Gethsemani. The Abby of Gethsemani is a community of Trappist Monks located just south of Bardstown, Kentucky. They are probably most known for being the monastery of Thomas Merton, a famous author and mystic. I always thought the monk thing was kind of retreatist (I mean, it is) and therefore I've held a theological bias against the whole idea. But I walked away with deeper understanding of and incredible respect for this community of people who have felt God calling them to set their lives apart in this unique way. Here you have these people who have given their lives, many of them spending 20, 30, 40 years in this place. Living this life. Doing this work.
So let me begin by laying out the typical monk day. And when I say "typical," what I mean is EVERY. SINGLE. DAY. For monks, there is something spiritual about the discipline of repetition and of meeting God in the plain. The ordinary. The routine.
The day is built around what is called, "The Divine Office" - in this case, a series of readings spaced throughout the day. The idea of the Divine Office is pretty simple -- this is a very practical way to practice the scriptural mandate to "pray without ceasing." And let me say, it's pretty darn effective. More on that later.
It begins by waking up at 3 a.m.
Yep. That's a.m. Morning. The one without the sun.
Vigils - The bells ring, they gather in the sanctuary and begin their first worship at 3:15. a.m.
"Vigil" is from a Latin word meaning "wakefulness" -- but it is actually supposed to be a period of time when you are sleepy. I've heard it defined before as a kind of "purposeful sleepiness." (So having it at 3 a.m. works well.) They gather, sing, chant and pray. It's often done in darkness. Different scriptures. Mostly the Psalms. The monks pray through the entire books of Psalms every month. For their entire lives.
Now, obviously, it's early. But this was, by FAR, my favorite service. There was something really holy about gathering at 3 a.m. to pray. More on this later in my next post.
After Vigils, they returned to their rooms to read scripture or study. I would hope they occasionally nap, but we weren't told that.
Then they gather again at 5:45 am for "Lauds" (the name is based on a particular kind of psalm). Again, more scripture, some songs. Mostly, they do a back and forth chant from one side to another: one side sings a line of scripture, the other side sings they next.
Then they celebrate Mass at 6:15. (more on that later, but I've never appreciated United Methodist's insistence on an "Open Table" for communion more than I did this week.)
Then at 7 a.m. they eat breakfast. Breakfast every morning was oatmeal and some fruit. They also had cereal, bread and cheese available. Breakfast is taken in silence (a recurring theme in this post) and is to be eaten fairly quickly. There is only a half hour for all meals. Apparently monks don't want to waste time on things like chewing.
After breakfast, at 7:30 a.m., they return to the sanctuary for Terce. Now, as I learned in seminary, Terce is the third hour prayer after sunrise (which is considered 6 a.m.). So Terce usually is said at 9 a.m. I have NO IDEA why these monks say it at 7:30. I was going to ask but... well... there was this vow of silence thing so there weren't a lot of opportunities for Q and A.
After Terce, they went to work. Work varied from monk to monk, but it was anything from landscaping, to farming, to making cheese or fudge, to cleaning, to administration, to counseling, etc. But it was all done in the abbey. And they did basically the same kind of work every day. So it's not like you make fudge one day and farm the next. You do the same job, year after year. Again, it's this idea of discovering God in the mundane. The ordinary.
Sext - At noon the bell rang again and at 12:15 they gathered in the sanctuary for Sext. Sext is the 6th hour and is usually done at noon. Again, more psalms, hymns, prayers. Same seats. Same routine.
At 12:30 we went to the dining room for Dinner. Yes, they call lunch, dinner. It's an age-old argument. In reality, "dinner" just means the largest meal of the day. For many of us, that is our evening meal, but for the monks (and much of the rest of the world), it's the noon meal. Again, it was a simple meal. Salad. Beans and rice. Spaghetti. Bread and cheese. There was always plenty, but it was nothing fancy.
After dinner they would return to work until 2:15 p.m. when they gathered again in the sanctuary for None.
None is the 9th hour prayer (usually at 3 p.m.). Our abbey of monks were rebels and prayed it 45 minutes early. Those wild and crazy monks. Pretty standard service as before. Each of these services lasts somewhere around 20 minutes.
After None there was "free time" until the 5:30 Vespers service. I really don't know what they did during free time. Some, I was told, took a short nap. Or read. But even during free time, there was still a vow of silence on the property. And it's not like they leave the property much. Although occasionally I caught a monk or two talking. (more on that later).
Vespers is the "end of day" service or "Evening song" service. It happened at 5:30 p.m. Again, it was structured basically the same every day and consists of psalms and readings. I'm betting if you google these terms you can catch some of the nuances. And the service will probably vary a bit from community to community. But each service had a standard opening and kind of theme.
Supper was at 6. A smaller meal and usually eaten in silence. Sometimes during Dinner or Supper they would play a tape with a lecture or sermon about the contemplative life. Honestly, I could have done without it. They also offered two other rooms: one with silence and one were you were permitted (but certainly not encouraged) to talk. They don't talk a lot around here. In fact, this is the first retreat I've EVER done where I could not tell you a single person's name or anything about them.
Compline was the final gathering of the day at 7:30 p.m. Next to vigils, this was my second favorite service. Compline means "complete" and the idea is that we all gather and say, "Now the day is complete. It has ended." (The literal phrase used is: "All having assembled in one place, let them say Compline.") I LOVED this service. It wasn't that much different from the others, but there were always these prayers and psalms that talk about God's mercy and power and protection. They would sing this hymn about God watching over us while we slept and how God never sleeps or slumbers. It closed with us being invited into the main area to line up behind the monks for a blessing from the Abbot. I'm not into liturgy much, but I love the concept of the blessing.
Compline begins a period called "The Great Silence." While everyone is basically silent during the day, there are exceptions. There are rooms where people can talk if they need to. Some monks occasionally leave the monastery building during free time. (I was out walking and I head this talking and laughing. I looked up, and there, at the top of the hill were these two monks sitting in a golf cart, just looking over the fields, talking.) But the "Great Silence" is a deal breaker. You don't talk at all after Compline. And it's pretty magical.
So what did I do all day between all that praying?
Well, for one I didn't watch TV. Or listen to any media. No computer. No internet. No Facebook. No phone. No texts. It was wonderful and, honestly, really odd.
A good deal of time I sat in my room, pulled a chair up to the window. The room was very nice and comfortable, but small and sparse. A bed, a desk and a chair. I read a lot of scripture. I prayed and journaled about my thoughts and experiences. I spent a lot of time praying for my family, Central, my staff, people in the congregation, other pastors. I took very long walks. They had statues spaced out along miles and miles of walking trails. I'm not a big statue person but I enjoyed long leisurely walks in silence every morning and evening, sometimes for hours. I confess I napped a couple of times. And I tried not to seem like I had to be "spiritual," but honestly, it's hard not to be. Sometimes I just looked at the beauty around me.
So I know this has been a really long post, so I will post my observations about the experience later. It was a great experience. And I really walked away from it thinking there is a lot we can learn from these people. If nothing else, you have to admire their discipline and devotion. It was REALLY HARD work being that attentive to God. And I once again questioned if we don't REALLY cheapen what it means to be a disciple of Christ. How many people claim to be followers of Jesus yet struggle with a daily devotional time. How easy it is in our world to go hours and even days and not really give much thought to God. The monks got it right on this one.
Stayed tuned for part 2, but does this day sound inviting to you? Why or why not? Anything surprise you?