This Extra Miler column is dedicated to a group of people who devote their lives to prayer and caring for others — the truest form of selfless dedication to improving the lives of others … our clergy.
I spent a day in April at the Abbey of Gethsemani with First Christian Church Associate Pastor Amanda Meade. Gethsemani, located just beyond Bardstown, Kentucky, is where approximately 20 Roman Catholic Trappist monks live, pray and work — predominately separated from the rest of the world.
Fascinated with the thought of spending a day in quiet solitude, I packed a backpack and drove the 56 miles with Amanda to visit the Abbey. Upon exiting the car, the sound of nature engulfed us, very likely because of the stillness and pure air. I felt in conflict and somewhat embarrassed as I automatically set my car alarm to protect the camera I temporarily left behind.
We walked toward the church, passing a “Silence is spoken here,” sign. The grounds are beautiful, but not in the way many typically think of the magnificently ornate Catholic churches. The building and grounds are actually rather plain. Yet, it is in that simplicity that the peacefulness is formed. We entered into the visitor's center and spoke with a lively and humorous monk, who provided guidance on meals and prayer schedules.
We headed to the library for time to read in silence. Ironically, someone in an office nearby was returning telephone calls that could be heard throughout the library. Initially a bit perturbed to have my gloriously silent moment fragmented, the frustration quickly gave way to humor since most who know me cannot even conceive of quiet moments existing in my life.
Soon the phone messages were returned, and I was once again immersed in silence. I casually picked up a magazine about the Catholic faith and began flipping through the pages. What caught my attention initially were the advertisements from the various Abbeys across the world; enticing men and women to consider their location for a life of commitment to their faith. The remaining time in the library was spent reading the fascinating material within the magazine. I pondered how one finds the strength and perseverance to make such a commitment.
Especially enthralled with the monk’s vow of silence, I looked for an article on just how this vow works. There it was and it made sense with all the other reading material. Trappists do not actually take an explicit vow of silence. There are three vows: A vow of Stability, promising to live the rest of their lives with one monastic community; a vow of Obedience to an abbot; and a vow of “Conversion of Manners” — the promise to live the monastic life in all its parts as described by the Rule of St. Benedict and the Constitutions of each Order.
According to the website for the Order of Cistercians of the Strict Observance, “The last vow of conversion takes in the practice of celibacy, fasting, manual labor, separation from the world and silence. It then remains for the monk or nun to apply themselves faithfully to the observance of silence characteristic of their own community. Relative to the way most people live, this is definitely a commitment to pretty radical silence. In a monastery, monks typically have three motivations to speak to one another: to get a particular work project carried out efficiently, to engage in a community discussion, or to discuss one's spiritual progress with a director or confessor.”
Next it was time for prayer. I discovered “sext” doesn't mean to the monks what it means to our cell-phone using population. Prayers are said by the monks throughout the day and night. Vigils, Lauds, Terce, Sext, None, Vespers and Compline are the seven “hours” of the liturgy or opus Dei (work of God). They are common prayer services, the prayer of the Church as well as the prayer of the community.
We entered the church, quietly took a prayer book, sat in the visitor section, and waited. One by one, the monks walked in, bowed, and took their seats. We were there for the Sext prayer. Sext, or Sixth Hour, is a fixed time of prayer. It consists mainly of psalms and is said at noon. Its name comes from Latin and refers to the sixth hour of the day after dawn. We followed along with the words and the harmonious voices of the monks.
Hospitality is an essential element of the monastic life and it is no different at Gethsemani. We were invited to have lunch and when asked whether seating would be in the “silent” or “talking” room, I asked for the “talking” room. I had countless questions and wanted the opportunity for answers before leaving. Amanda was patient and answered the questions tossed at her throughout lunch.
After lunch, a walk on the grounds included strolling up two hills where we could see the entire grounds of the Abbey. We then quietly wandered through the garden area and it was time for the None prayer. None refers to the ninth hour of the day after dawn. We took our seats in the church and I now felt somewhat acquainted with the monks as they filed into the pews. One monk ran late to prayer, another monk seemed to be in pain as he stood, and one of the older monks seemed somewhat engaged with the visitors as he exited. I wondered how they felt as we observed them in their sacred work of prayer.
After prayer, we headed to the gift shop. The monks have to make a living. At Gethsemani they make cheese, fruitcake, and bourbon fudge and trust me when I say they excel in at least two (never have been a fruitcake person).
No matter your religion, this place called Gethsemani is a place to discover love, peace, gentleness, quiet reflection, and deep intimacy with your faith. I heard my heartbeat and I liked the sound.
• TIP OF THE MONTH: The monks of The Abbey of the Gethsemani quote Saint Benedict when welcoming guests, “Let all guests that come to the monastery be received as Christ. For one day He will say: “I was a stranger and you welcomed me.” For more information on visiting Gethsemani, call 502-549-4406. There is also a Southern Indiana Abbey, Saint Meinrad Archabbey, located in St. Meinrad, Indiana (812-357-6611).
— Carol A. Dawson is a resident of Jeffersonville and owner of EEO GUIDANCE, Inc. If you have seen or been a part of an act of kindness or know an EXTRA MILER, please contact her. To submit an Extra Miler, a story, or act of kindness, contact Carol via email: Cdawson@eeoguidance.com, mail: THE EXTRA MILERS, The News-Tribune, 221 Spring Street Jeffersonville, IN 47130-3340.