Ben and I were making a road trip to Kentucky for a weekend at the Abbey of Gethsemani. It’s always an exquisite privilege to stay there; a whole weekend there in the company of my teenaged son made it an unprecedented gift.
Ben is short for Benedict, and perhaps that’s why I took so much for granted as we prepared to go. Maybe I should’ve warned him about the silence and the absence of electronic distraction. Maybe I should’ve advised him to Facebook and text all his friends before we went off the grid.
No matter—he survived. And I suspect he internalized a lot more of the monastery than he might realize.
Take just our arrival. To get from the parking lot to the entrance of the church, visitors have to trod a long pathway—more of a plaza really. It’s expansive, and it first runs down and then up to stairs that lead even further up.
Stepping onto this plaza, the quiet engulfs us—it’s almost palpable, and not just because of the signs requesting “Silence On This Walkway.” Having already passed through a small cemetery with weathered headstones, we can’t help but feel the need for quiet. It’s practically a given.
Quietly then, we walk down the plaza between two walls—on the left, the retreat house; on the right, the monastic enclosure. In bold, capital letters above the retreat house entrance, a single word: PAX, “peace” in Latin, a traditional Benedictine greeting, and certainly a core monastic value. Across from the retreat house and above a gate leading into a garden is another motto—two words this time, and in English: GOD ALONE.
With those two solemn epigraphs flanking us, our progression angles upward, and we reach the steps that lead to the doors of the church. It’s a relatively steep climb, but it’s as if the plaza’s very design had been preparing us for this final ascent. Like a runway, the Abbey’s courtyard serves as a touching off point where visitors gain velocity and liftoff before joining the monks in their flights of prayer within.
Oh, I’m sure that sounds terribly trite, and perhaps even a bit contrived. And there’s no doubt the monks would be the first to demur—that they’re hardly master pilots when it comes to the aeronautics of prayer and contemplation. Even so, the interior transformation effected by physically traversing that courtyard is indeed profound: One leaves behind cares and concerns (and smartphones and tablets and noise), and is suddenly unencumbered—released, in a sense, to be swept up into the freedom and liberality of the Abbey. Tired and weary, arriving guests are prepped by the very composition of the entryway to “renew their strength,” as Isaiah wrote, and to “soar as with eagles’ wings.”
So,…did we soar? In the end, did we fly? Perhaps. A couple brief hops off the ground maybe, and possibly even a hint of more contemplative flight during one of the night vigils. I can only speak for myself, of course; I’m not sure about Ben, who was (unlike his father) reticent.
Regardless. We were there, and that’s key. “Pray to your Father in secret,” the Lord taught us, but first you have to get secret. The monastery—the physical environment itself—helps us cultivate an appreciation of prayerful isolation and acclimates us to it. Longtime Gethsemani resident Thomas Merton said as much:
There, even when they do not know how to pray, at least they can be still and breathe easily. A place where your mind can be idle, forget its concerns, descend into silence, and worship.
Kids who want to learn to swim have to get in the water. Similarly, the monastery is like a flight school’s airspace—not just for experts and mentors, but especially for those who want to learn to fly. False starts and tumbles are expected. It’s a controlled, safe environment for faltering attempts to rise.
Our weekend complete, Ben and I return back down those stairs, land on the plaza, and then make our way (plodding this time, no anticipation) back to the car and the road. “Once you have found such a place, be content with it,” Merton commented, “and do not be disturbed if a good reason takes you out of it. Love it, and return to it as soon as you can.”
God willing, we’ll be back.