December 4, 2020

Into the Silence

Gethsemani Journal 2011 (1)
During my days at Gethsemani, I kept a journal of my thoughts, observations, and reflections. This week, I will share excerpts from these daily notes.

• • •

Monday, October 10

Getting away from home is never easy. In addition to normal packing chores — simple for this trip — I had paperwork to turn in to my office, emails to write, some medical statements to get together for Gail, and a hundred little distractions that kept me from getting out the door. However, soon after she kissed me goodbye and went to work, I took one last look around, got in the car, and pulled out of the driveway.

The highway traffic was not bad, thankfully, though I had to stop myself a few times from entering into “commuter combat” mode as my fellow travelers did the equivalent of pushing and shoving their way down the line of cars and trucks. We all had to slow down through a few back-ups here and there caused by poor souls with car trouble or in construction zones. But I saw nothing as serious on our side of the road as the situation faced by those coming north. At one point they were backed up in a miles-long string of slowing and stopped vehicles that was being diverted off of I-65 because of a truck fire. I guarantee those drivers were not keeping vows of silence.

The morning was pleasant. Blue skies were breaking through the white swirly clouds more and more as I made my way south, until the Kentucky countryside fairly shimmered under a fully unveiled sun. The directions were exact, and I soon found myself pulling up to The Abbey of Our Lady of Gethsemani, south of Bardstown.

Following the signs, I found my way to the reception area at the retreat center. My kind host greeted me, made a small joke, chuckled to himself, then handed me my key. “Oh say, you’ll have to wait until 1 pm to get in your room,” he instructed. Thanking him, I took a couple of brochures that outlined the daily schedule and made my way over to the gift shop. I needed a rosary. After a bit of looking, I found a simple set of wooden beads with a plain cross and then went oacross the hallway where a film about the monastery plays on a continuous loop.

Ordinary. Obscure. Laborious. That is how one of the monks in the film described the life at Gethsemani. Yet he also said he would not do it if he were not convinced it was for the sake of others. The Trappists’ ministry of continual prayer is their way of loving others and making the world a better place. They bring Jesus to the world through prayer. Eight times a day, together, they pray. As individuals and co-workers in the spaces between, each one prays without ceasing while working and resting.

The first service I attended was Sext, the 12:15 pm service. Many of the seats in the visitor’s area were taken. I took a booklet of psalms and made my way to the front row. The monks were entering one by one from their various places of morning employment. Each one crossed himself, bowed, and took his place in the choir. The psalter explained that they pray through the Book of Psalms every two weeks, adding hymns and liturgical elements appropriate to the season. The monks stood, we joined them, and as the organ played, they chanted their way through some of the Pilgrim Psalms (121-134). A few of the visitors sang softly with them. I observed, to get a feel for how this was done. The prayers lasted only about fifteen minutes, and then the choir filed past us through the door. We made our way out onto the porch.

I was not sure about the protocol for meals, but I knew dinner was next at 12:30, so I went to the reception area once more. No one was at the desk, but I saw people eating at tables at the end of the hall, so I joined them, finding my way to the kitchen, where we served ourselves cafeteria-style. A delicious simple meal of meat, rice, salad, and fruit was ours for the taking. I carried it out into the dining room — this was the silent dining room. I understood there were others; one where speaking is allowed, and another where devotional talks are given while folks eat. At this point, I was hungry for quiet, so I took my place among the silent. After dinner, I walked to my room, unpacked, and recorded these words. The afternoon plan involved resting and reading (I was working through The Seven Storey Mountain). Then, Vespers at 5:30, followed by supper and the final service of the day, Compline, at 7:30.


A retreat here at the Abbey is mean to provide two important things:

1. A sharing in the monastic liturgy.

2. The elements of silence and solitude, so as to be open to God in a particular way that is not always available in the world today.

• Instructions for retreatants

At Vespers, I decided to sit in the balcony, where I could get a more panoramic view of the church and the monks at prayer. Again I sat in the front row. The railing blocked some of my sight, as did the rails on the kneelers, but I could hear better, and when standing I could see everything. A woman sat down the pew from me waiting for the service to begin. Her stomach growled and whined incessantly. She fidgeted with each rumble, until she finally arose and moved to an empty row near the back. This is why I don’t fast.

The monk choir sang a hymn with a lovely Celtic tune that brought a smile to my face and a warm feeling. Someone who had been to Gethsemani told me they loved the evening services, and I’m sure they will be my favorites as well. There is a sense of peace at the end of the workday, after having seen God at work and having participated with him in what he is doing. Thankfulness seems to flow effortlessly, leading to a quiet and serene heart.

I took supper in the same dining room, but during the meal they were playing a recorded message about Thomas Merton. Wanting to start my reading of The Sign of Jonas, I carried my tray of fish, potatoes, salad, and pudding to the next room of tables, where I ate in the silent company of but one other diner. When satisfied, I disposed of my dirty dishes and walked out and sat in a chair facing the sunset, which filtered through the trees. There I continued reading.

In the average monastery, Trappist silence is an all-pervading thing that seeps into the very stones of the place and saturates the men who live there.

…Meanwhile, for myself, I have only one desire and that is the desire for solitude — to disappear into God, to be submerged in His peace, to be lost in the secret of His face.

• From The Sign of Jonas

As the bells rang seven, the skies were darkening and pesky mosquitoes were emerging to feed on flesh, so I made my way back to the balcony to prepare for Compline. Not being Catholic, I use my rosary as prayer beads to pray Scripture in a kind of lectio divina, so I took the time before the service to meditate on passages that speak of blessing the Lord. Then I wrapped the beads around my wrist, grasped the Cross with my fingers, and listened as the monks sang a peaceful Compline. Afterwards we all processed through the nave between the stalls, received a sprinkling of holy water, turned, and filed out into the night.

Several of us made our way to the kitchen, where we filled cups of coffee, tea, and ice water to take back to our rooms or gathering places. In the quiet, I recorded a few more of these thoughts and then went outside to call Gail and report on my day. Then I climbed the steps once more, walked across the balcony of the darkened church, and back into my room to read and end the day in the Great Silence.


  1. “Now in the fading light of day,
    Creator of the world we pray,
    that with Your ever-watchful love,
    You guard and keep us from above.

    Defend Your people through the night,
    that we may put all fear to flight.
    May evil never have its way,
    preserve us for another day.

    Almighty Father hear our cry,
    through Jesus Christ, our Lord most high,
    and with the Spirit, Paraclete,
    whose reign the endless ages greet. Amen.”

    Hymn for Compline sung by the Trappist community of New Clairvaux in Vina, CA – and my nightly prayer
    before I go to sleep.

  2. So THAT’S what the compound looks like.

    • Orville, greetings! Welcome to Vern’s more sophisticated cousin – have a look around, take a seat, hope you find something interesting!

      Brother Thomas, my friend Dante makes mention of the “Te lucis ante terminum” in Canto VIII of his “Purgatorio”:

      It was now the hour that melts a sailor’s heart
      and saddens him with longing on the day
      he’s said farewell to his belovèd friends,
      and when a traveler, starting out,
      is pierced with love if far away he hears
      a bell that seems to mourn the dying light,
      and I began to listen less and fix my gaze,
      intent upon a soul who suddenly stood up
      and signaled for attention with his hand.
      He lifted his clasped palms and fixed his eyes
      upon the east as if he said to God:
      “For nothing else do I have any care.”
      ‘Te lucis ante’ came forth from his lips
      with such devotion and with notes so sweet
      it drew me out from all thoughts of myself.
      The others joined him then and sang
      the whole hymn through with sweet devotion,
      keeping their eyes upon the heavenly wheels.

      Revised (1974) version sung here in the Ambrosian version.

      And for All Saints’ Day a post by Rocco Palmo from “Whispers in the Loggia” quoting Pope Benedict XVI from his talk to Catholic students during his visit to Britain last year:

      “God wants your friendship. And once you enter into friendship with God, everything in your life begins to change. As you come to know him better, you find you want to reflect something of his infinite goodness in your own life. You are attracted to the practice of virtue. You begin to see greed and selfishness and all the other sins for what they really are, destructive and dangerous tendencies that cause deep suffering and do great damage, and you want to avoid falling into that trap yourselves. You begin to feel compassion for people in difficulties and you are eager to do something to help them. You want to come to the aid of the poor and the hungry, you want to comfort the sorrowful, you want to be kind and generous. And once these things begin to matter to you, you are well on the way to becoming saints.”

      • br. thomas says

        Thank you, Martha. I appreciated the link to the video as well.

      • “Whispers in the Loggia”… in a recent vicariate meeting, the priest in charge of our vicariate mentioned this blog, and seeing that you, Martha, also inhabit this bit of space I checked it out and low and behold there’s a picture of Pittsburgh’s beloved former Bishop now Cardinal Weurl who apparently has found favor with the pope. Having met him a dozen times in the past and also familiar with the story of having been one of only several priest to be at a picking of a pope in recent times (because Cardinal Wright had to use a wheelchair due to his severe arthritis in 1978, Wuerl, as Wright’s secretary, was one of three non-cardinals permitted inside the conclave, which selected Karol Wojtyla as Pope John Paul II). Definitely a theologian type, soft spoken and very direct. Just thought I’d share….

  3. Dan Crawford says

    Thanks, Chaplain Mike. You have done two things for me: Helped me recall a week in July nearly fifty years ago when as a 16 year old I made a week-long retreat with my father at Gethsemane – my most vivid memories of that experience center around getting up at 2 AM for Matins, and the Abbot’s blessing after Compline. When the week ended, I told my father I wished we could stay there “forever” – but God had other plans. The second thing you have done for me is to stimulate me again to go back there and relive that small experience of heaven.

  4. One thing of great value on the silent retreat I went on was a chance to meet with a spiritual director. It was the only time I spoke except to respond in the services. The priest was once the abbott at St.Vincent’s a Catholic seminary nearby where I was taking retreat. He was my spiritual director’s spiritual director and came highly recommended …. and he really helped me move forward on my spiritual journey those four days.

    I am really enjoying this journaling and look forward to further commentary.

  5. i have a question: does whistling spontaneously disrupt the silence? i do so without really thinking about it. the not speaking part i could manage okay, but when i am happy & enjoying myself in whatever surroundings i am at, the whistling just happens…

    wouldn’t want to be kicked out of a silent retreat for the heathen disruption of devilish whistling… 🙁

    • Didn’t Bob Larson write a book warning Christians about that? : )

      • oh-oh…especially after Halloween, i am worried i might be manifesting some eerie whistling demon or something…

        do exorcisms come at the usual rate for any silent retreat, or is it a special package deal you must purchase in advance…


    • Whistling… really? I could imagine that I’d be finding myself at the other end of the grounds from you “uh, oh – here comes the whistler again, time to move…” Actually just given you a hard time – i would just have to convince myself that the whistling was really just a bird with a speech impediment……

      • that’s “giving” instead of “given”… yes I am usually grammatically impaired….

  6. I spent a month at St Joseph’s Abbey in Spencer, Mass. and I can still hear the sweet silence. Nothin like it!

  7. You managed to avoid the bridge traffic at Louisville? Good for you! We’ve had the I-64 bridge out for about a month. Moving at a snail’s pace for 3 miles will definitely put one on edge, even the most saintly among us, though it can be a time for contemplation…