October 25, 2020

Emerging from Gethsemani: What I did and what I read

Emerging Geth

I spent Monday through Friday last week at one of my favorite places in the world: The Abbey of Our Lady of Gethsemani, near Bardstown, Kentucky. This was my third retreat at Gethsemani, and each of them has had a different purpose.

I went in November 2011 in a state of exhaustion from a heavy workload, both in terms of hours logged and the intensity of the work itself. This trip was my first to a monastery and it was pure refreshment. After sleeping much of the first two days and doing little other than attending the daily prayer services and eating meals in the dining hall, I found myself absorbing the silence of the place. I began walking and taking pictures, and the burdens came drifting off my shoulders as I took in the quiet and the words of the psalms being chanted. You can read about this experience in the archives: how I learned the value of places like this and came to appreciate people like the Trappist monks, who seem to embrace the calling of upholding the world in prayer. My first retreat was just that, and I was refreshed.

13384886444_3f0453cc49_zLast March (2014) I went back to Gethsemani for a time of discernment. As I wrote about here on Internet Monk, I was in a “fog” about some vocational decisions related to ordination and returning to parish ministry or remaining in chaplaincy. It was a different time of year; spring was just beginning to emerge, and I was hoping that a clear path would appear before me. I spent a lot of time walking and taking pictures of birds around the property, trying to absorb the truth of Matthew 6:26 — “Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they?” I did not attend as many of the services but spent more time reading and journaling, trying to hear what God was saying. Whereas the first retreat was about rest, this one was about listening, and I believe I received good direction during my long weekend there.

A third and entirely different purpose lay behind last week’s sojourn to Gethsemani. I am currently engaged in a writing project. I’ll share more about it in the future, but suffice to say at this point it is difficult to fit something like this into my schedule of hospice work and blogging. It’s not so much about the time required as it is the mental and emotional energy (at least for me). Believe me, my tank was running low. So I needed a quiet place with no interruptions where I could think and read and write. No better place for that than Gethsemani. So I carefully planned where my time and attention would be. I focused on going to two services each day: Eucharist in the morning and Compline (my favorite) at night. The Great Meteorologist helped too: the weather was mostly cool and rainy so I was not tempted to ramble or spend a lot of time taking photographs. I staked a claim on a table in the back corner of the dining room where I could plug in my laptop and write away, and that’s mostly what I did. Thanks be to God, I made great progress and then came home this weekend and completed my first major draft of the project. This was a working retreat, and I can’t say it was about rejuvenation, except for the good feeling of having accomplished something that would otherwise have been impossible. Nevertheless, the quiet and freedom from other responsibilities and mental/emotional burdens did bring a measure of rest and refreshment, for which I’m thankful.

I did also decide to read one book for my own personal devotion, and I chose Ronald Rolheiser’s sweet and insightful Our One Great Act of Fidelity: Waiting for Christ in the Eucharist.

In the Christian scriptures, the term the body of Christ is used to refer equally to three things: the historical body of Jesus, the body of believers, and the Eucharist. Each of these is referred to as the body of Christ. Each is the body of Christ. For instance, when Saint Paul refers to either the community of believers or the Eucharist, he never intimates that they are like Jesus, that they replace Jesus, that they are symbolic representations of Jesus, or even that they are a mystical presence of Jesus. Each is equally called the body of Christ, each is that place in our world where God takes on concrete flesh. God still has skin in this world, in the Eucharist and in the community of believers. The incarnation is still going on. The word is still becoming flesh and living among us. (p. 17)

Rolheiser is obviously Roman Catholic, but I find that he states his views in ways that are generous and ecumenical, suggesting that divisions such as those between Catholics and Protestants about the relative prominence of Word vs. Table go back to the earliest days of the Church. I wish we could all be more ecumenical when it comes to the sacrament. It is hard to be at a place like Gethsemani and be unable to fully partake. In my own understanding, I would put it like this: in Christian worship we are called to gather at the Table, where Jesus feeds us with his Word and himself. The Table should be front and center in our church buildings because it is the symbol of what we are doing when we come together: worship is a sacred family meal. We come together, we share words, we enjoy a meal, we depart renewed. A family meal gathering is about more than the food alone and more than the conversation alone. The whole is more than the sum of its parts. Both “Word” and “Table” as sacramental actions (preaching, Eucharist) are enfolded within the concept of coming to the family meal together and being strengthened in the spirit of the family, the bonds of love. In this, I rejoice with all who confess Jesus as Lord.

Certainly, however, the family meal would not be what it is without the food, nor is a gathering fully Christian worship without the Eucharist. Rolheiser likens it to God’s physical embrace. It is the tangible evidence of his presence and love. He observes how it intensifies our unity as the body of Christ. He also likens it to the new manna that becomes our daily bread. Like most Catholics, Rolheiser thinks John’s Gospel has a slightly different take than what the Synoptics teach on the Eucharist. Whereas Matthew, Mark, and Luke set it squarely in the context of the Last Supper, John’s Gospel doesn’t (though the Upper Room Discourse is clearly set at the Passover meal). John instead speaks more mystically about it in passages like John 6, where Jesus presents himself as the bread of life (I happen to agree with him here.)

That is why, too, in Roman Catholic spirituality, unlike much of Protestantism, the Eucharist has not generally been called “the Lord’s Supper,” since it was understood not as an extraordinary ritual to commemorate the Last Supper, but as an ordinary, ideally daily, ritual to give us sustenance from God. (p. 42f)

In another chapter, I love his take on the Eucharist as a family meal, both ordinary and special. He also shares some good nuances that even Protestants will appreciate when speaking of the Eucharist as a “sacrifice.” And there is a wonderful section that adds richness (and, I might add, ecumenical possibilities) to the idea of what “real presence” means in the light of the Passover term “remembrance.” I am still working through this book, but I recommend it to anyone who wants a thoughtful yet thoroughly devotional study of the Eucharist.

Both in what I did and in what I read, it was a good week at Gethsemani.


  1. Michelle Wardlow says

    This is a daily thing with many Catholic believers, yet you make it feel like it can be new again. God knows what we crave. His mercies are new every morning.

  2. All I can hear from your experiences of late is that you are being called and spoken to, but, of course, only you can respond to what you hear from our Father.

    For me, receiving the complete and very real Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity of Jesus Christ at least weekly is the essence of my Christian life. Like the Apostles were reminded when He ate that bit of baked fish in the locked room, He was neither a ghost nor a vision or apparition then. He is as present in the Eucharist as He was then…..

    What He is NOT is a symbol.

    • Pattie, Lutherans also believe in the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist. The yheological underpinnings are a bit different, but I am not sure that really matters. (Fwiw, i am Lutheran, from the same synod as CM, so i am speaking of something that is familiar, as well as a very real thing for me.)

  3. If we are all one in Christ, then whenever another Christian is truly fed, then I too am fed; and whenever I am fed, so too are they. When they receive, I receive; when I receive, they receive.

    • I believe this to be true, Robert. I felt it when I was a catechumen, too, in a way that I can’t explain, and it caused me to pray the prayers before communion even before I was physically partaking myself.

      This isn’t a crazy thought in my own tradition, though, where we also believe that the Body of Christ is so real as to mean that our positive or negative private thoughts enlighten or toxify the lives of our brethren that we will never meet in this life.

      • Rupert Sheldrake wrote a book called Morphic Resonance: The Nature of Formative Causation. It describes a natural phenomenon where let’s say a rat learns a skill in New York and then rats in London learn the same skill with greater ease. Very interesting book. I am a firm believer that it is built into the universal DNA, both natural and spiritual, that what I do for good or ill affects the whole body. That is why the monks are doing a valuable service. This is foolishness to some ways of thinking but when the physicists get on board you at least have to take note.

        • P.s. Sheldrake is not a physicist. I was referring additionally to them and all the strange interconnections being explored in quantum mechanics. Sheldrake is not widely accepted at this point in the biological community but I think he is really on to something that will be confirmed later, perhaps by the physicists or one of the other scientific fields.

      • I think the nature of body is far more mysterious than we habitually think, even aside from our incorporation together as Christians in Christ’s body.

  4. I decided I wouldn’t take communion in my church a few weeks ago. At least some of the reason was rebelliousness, and frustration with my tradition in general, but I’d also realised that the lord’s supper meant nothing to me. It was a ritual we engaged in once a month that did not help me to contemplate Jesus’ sacrifice, or his incarnation in the world. I found that what did matter to me was the meal we would share after the service, where everyone that wanted to come was welcome. Alongside this, I’ve found recently that eating with some of my peers has been a wonderful, meaningful, community-building experience, that makes me seek out their company. This does mean something to me, and is a ritual I hope to continue.

    I would like communion to give the same kind of meaning. Or I would like to find that meaning, wherever it is.

  5. Roman Catholic practice now involves frequent Communion for all Catholics, and the stress on the ordinariness of the ritual as an ideally everyday practice for as many as possible, both clergy and laity. But through the Middle Ages and into the modern period, most laity received Holy Communion only once a year, during the Easter season as their Easter duty, even though the Holy Mass was celebrated and the Eucharist received on a daily basis by the clergy.

    It was the Protestant Reformers who tried to move their churches toward regular weekly Communion for all Christians. Though they were not completely successful in this effort, it was in the Protestant churches that more frequent Communion for all the laity first became more common, and this happened before weekly and even daily reception of the Eucharist became usual among Roman Catholic laity.

    It’s a wonderful thing that Roman Catholic Church now practices frequent Communion for clergy and laity alike, and I wish all Protestants would follow that example; but this hasn’t always been the case in the Roman Catholic Church, and I think that means that the Roman Catholic practice of Holy Communion hasn’t always been characterized by an understanding of it as an ordinary, everyday practice. In fact, infrequent Communion was practiced by the laity through much of Roman Catholic history because of a supernatural awe and fear that surrounded the Eucharist, as if it were a practice suitable only for specially holy people, priests, and dangerous for laity to participate in frequently. It was the Reformers who first tried to dispel this aura of supernatural dread that surrounded the practice of Holy Communion, and make it a more regular and ordinary practice for all Christians.

    • Robert, are you aware of when this changed? Is this mainly since Vatican II or was it coming into practice earlier? I remember Merton reading about feeling the need to go for daily communion and that would have been before the 60’s. Perhaps the rise of Catholic Biblical scholarship in the 20th century had something to do with it?

      • This would be addressed at multiple times. The Council of Trent noted “at each Mass the faithful who are present should communicate, not only in spiritual desire, but sacramentally, by the actual reception of the Eucharist.” Pope Innocent XI noted on February 12, 1679, “that all faithful could be admitted to frequent Communion….”. An issuance by Pope Pius X on December 20, 1905 also proclaimed “frequent and daily Communion….”.

        But as Robert noted, many continued to participate infrequently until the more modern period. Most older Catholics I know who herald from the pre Vatican II days were frequenting Communion so I’d venture to guess the practice came into play probably as a result of the Pope Pius X decree.

        • CM, sorry I couldn’t respond sooner, but I think Don Ski got it right. By the time Vatican II occurred, the Catholic laity was already routinely receiving weekly Communion. I think the change was a gradual one over centuries, but attained critical mass in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

  6. Mike, is the Eucharist offered to non-Catholics at Gethsemani? How does that work with the RC practice of closed communion? Or am I misinformed?

    And welcome back.

    • No Ted, as I said in the post, that is one thing that makes going to Gethsemani incomplete for me. When I attend Eucharist there, I still go forward to receive a blessing, and participating reminds me to pray for the unity of the Church.

      • Sorry, I overlooked that part. Glad you could participate in a blessing at least.

        Do you or anyone else know anything about the Campion Renewal Center (Jesuit) in Massachusetts?

  7. May I ask about the logistics of your retreat?

    How far in advance did you have to schedule? Years? Months?

    I used to live in Kentucky so from the weather I can guess the times of the year that will be most desirable but do they have a “season” (so to speak) for visitors?

    What contact did you have with the Brothers outside of services?


    • Stephen, if you click the link in the post for Gethsemani, you can find out all the information about retreats. For the Retreat Center they recommend scheduling several months in advance, but if you go as a single male you almost always have an option to stay in the monastery wing, which is what I always do. There is no cost, but they have a way of giving donations for retreats. There are Brothers available in different capacities with whom you can have contact, but since I went there mainly for the silence, I did not seek any of them out. If you are interested in something specific, I’m sure you can ask when you call for reservations.

  8. Mike, I envy you your time there. It’s a place I’ve always wanted to go since I read The Seven Mountains of Thomas Merton many years ago. I’m glad you got some time away … and I’ll put that book on my list to read.

  9. As always, thanks for sharing your experience and your journey.

  10. Christiane says

    for the sake of those who are non-Catholics, it is good to know that if you visit a Catholic retreat house, or a monastery, you will not be proselytized . . .

    many of these monasteries have a ‘rule’ (a tradition) that all who come to the door be received as if they were Christ Himself . . .

    what will you find there? well, food, and a place to sleep, and quiet places to pray, sometimes gardens to walk in

    but most of all, it is an opportunity to ‘come away and rest for a while’ because in our modern world, we know so well that ‘the world is too much with us’ and we grow weary and wish for silence and peace

    if you seek spiritual renewal, a monastery can be a place to gather up all your scattered pieces and to begin again

    • Well said. Grace-filled places.

    • Yes, all this is true.

      Unfortunately, both in Catholic and Episcopal monastery guest-houses, there is a suggested donation that may not be affordable to less affluent folks, or those in financial difficulties. And while this is a donation and also is negotiable, it can be difficult to impossible for people to negotiate such a passage, involving as it does an embarrassing admission of inability. My wife and I no longer go on monastic retreat for this reason; in the beginning we did, even though we were unable to give the donation, but it just got too painful for us, and we felt like moochers.

    • I think it’s safe to say that you won’t find many poor people at monasteries in the U.S. these days, which, I think, is ironic and amiss.

      • Christiane says

        Hi ROBERT,
        the thing is that the monks own nothing . . . they have taken vows of poverty

        in our world right now, some celebrities are attempting to gain attention by ‘living poor’ for a time to experience what genuine poverty is like . . . but I can tell you, they will never be like the little foster child in my sixth grade class in the inner city who smelled of urine, wore filthy clothing, and was so very thin . . . I remember she came to my desk one day, and looked at an apple I had there for my lunch and said very humbly, ‘I like fruit, Mrs. Smith’ . . . I brought fruit to school in abundance after that, and invited her to partake of what she wanted. (I also reported her foster parent to the authorities who made a home visit . . . but nothing changed, which broke my heart)

        Living ‘as the poor’ . . . even the monks live better than that child. Even the monks. God have mercy on us all. And on the children especially. There is a ‘poverty’ we wealthy have: it is a dearth of compassion for the suffering of this world, because we neither know what it is like, or see its pain, or hear it’s voice, nor can we imagine its depth . . . I will always think of that little girl when I think of ‘the poor’. I have to. Her memory is seared into my conscience and I cannot abandon her even if I wanted to.

      • Each time i have visited the Palisades Retreat Ctr near Seattle tells guests about the availability of “scholarship” funding for those who cannot afford the fee. I’m sorry you have run into a wall at some venues, but I strongly recommend this center and its wonderful group and private retreats for your consideration.

        Another is the Benedictine Monastery at Richardton, ND. I don’t know about its fee scale but this one is located in a lovely, quiet place, and has one of the most beautiful churches I’ve visited in the US.

  11. Hi Ben,

    Everybody goes through dry periods in their Christian lives. I’m glad that in the fellowship amongst believers you experienced some of that mystical unity with His body.

    I would suggest though, that you grab a copy of Thomas a Kempis’, “Imitation of Christ”, and have a read of the chapters where he prepares for communion. That had a pretty big impact on me. As CM noted above, John 6 notes that there is REAL sustenance in our participation of the Eucharist. We need to open the eyes of our heart. That’s sort of what Jesus led his friends to do on the road to Emmaus as well. Once they confessed (on the road) their blindness became apparent when Jesus broke bread with them. Another thing to note from this is that Jesus is present in the Eucharist whether we realise it or not.