January 26, 2021

My Secret Place

Dear Chaplain Mike,

I am really excited for your sabbatical, though the thought of filling your shoes, even for a month, is rather daunting. I will do my best not to drive away too many readers in your absence. And I am really excited you can spend a week on retreat at once of my favorite places in the world, the Abbey of Gethsemani.

Michael Spencer once told me about a retreat he had taken at the monastery in Kentucky. He didn’t make it through the whole weekend because, he said, the silence became too loud for him. That alone sparked my interest. The first time I visited there was on my way from Ohio back to Oklahoma. I allowed myself an hour to just to walk around. After visiting the bookstore (and sampling some bourbon fudge the monks make there), I thought I’d go and pray in the church for a while. Ha! As if. I sat in an empty sanctuary, with stark white walls and black chairs for lay visitors to sit in, all alone, and felt the crushing weight of God’s presence like never before. I honestly thought it might kill me.

I stayed in there as long as I could–maybe three minutes. I have never felt the power and presence of God as I did there.

I immediately went to sign up for my own retreat, which would not be until several months later. I scheduled myself for Friday thru Sunday, but only made it until Saturday night. The silence just was too loud for me.

I went to each of the offices with the monks (ok, well, I didn’t go to the 3:15 a.m. Vigils…) as they prayed and sang. As I am not a Catholic (although Martha almost persuadest me to become one), there were many things I didn’t understand at first. When to sit, when to stand, when to bow. I knew I couldn’t partake of the Eucharist, but learned I could go forward with hands folded across my chest and receive a blessing from the priest. The monotony of the liturgy intrigued me. How did these brothers do this day in and day out without become bored? Or was this actually how we should all be—living in a regular rhythm of worship without the emotional highs and lows I knew from my experience?

I spent much of Saturday in the garden sitting in a large wooden chair under a Kentucky coffee tree. There was a ledge right in front of me that a chipmunk used as a highway, running back and forth with nuts in his mouth, no doubt hiding them away for winter. I read in that chair, with frequent breaks to just sit and take in God in his awe-fullness. The book I had chosen to read happened to be written by a monk who was buried not 100 feet away from me under another large shade tree.

I returned in the spring of this year for another weekend retreat, and this time I made it until Sunday. The silence was expected this time, and this time it was not quite as loud to me. I spent most of Saturday on this weekend in my room, the window open to hear and smell the rain that fell all day. I read the Gospel of John, and still took frequent breaks to take in God in his awe-fullness. And his presence was just as strong on this visit as it was on my first.

And I read from another book written by the monk buried under a shade tree. This monk put Gethsemani on the map with the books he wrote. You have been talking about him this week. He went by Father Louis at the Abbey, but most of the rest of the world knows him as Thomas Merton.

So as you seek God in your sabbatical, and as you spend a week yourself at Gethsemani, be prepared to be crushed by the weight of God’s glory. Be ready to be unable to think or pray, only able to take in God in all of his awe-fullness. Sample the bourbon fudge and homemade cheese. Say hi to my chipmunk friend if you see him.

And take time to stand over the grave of Father Louis and give thanks that God granted him the gift of a broken heart and the ability to write about it.


Your brother in our Lord














[All pictures taken by Jeff Dunn]


  1. “I sat in an empty sanctuary, with stark white walls and black chairs for lay visitors to sit in, all alone, and felt the crushing weight of God’s presence like never before. I honestly thought it might kill me.”

    From “The Ball and the Cross”, by G. K. Chesterton, where all you need to know is that MacIan (the Catholic) and Turnbull (the atheist) have been imprisioned in a lunatic asylum and after an unknown period each in solitary confinement, they manage to meet up again:

    “I know what you mean,” answered the other. “It has been awful. For a mortal month I have been alone with God.”

    Turnbull started, and it was on the tip of his tongue to answer: “Alone with God! Then you do not know what loneliness is.”

    But he answered, after all, in his old defiant style: “Alone with God, were you? And I suppose you found his Majesty’s society rather monotonous?”

    “Oh, no,” said MacIan, and his voice shuddered; “it was a great deal too exciting.”


  2. I’m not sure which is worse: the crushing presence of God on the outside or the crushing presence of God on the inside (pietism). Yet another “Both-and”, I guess.

  3. Randy Thompson says

    Silence and stillness are very powerful things.

    The first thing you discover about yourself is that much of the chaos, noise and confusion you’re trying to get away from is inside you.

    Once you get past that, the next thing you discover is that God is very, very big, and is very, very present.

  4. When the disciples (at the Mount of Transfiguration) said, “This is great! Let’s stay up here and bulid some chapels!”…Jesus said, “Nothin’ doing. We’re going back doen there, into the thick of things…into the thick of life…we’ve got work to do.”

    Monasteries are great…but…well…maybe they aren’t all that great.

    • I won’t be staying, Steve. This is the rhythm of life — gathering, scattering, withdrawing, engaging. To everything there is a season.

      • You are absolutely right, Chaplain Mike. A brief interlude there may be just what the doctor ordered…for many folks.

        I’d be thrown out for attempting to show the monks how Christ has freed them from the religious project :D.

        Enjoy your respite!

        • Hey Steve, even Jesus needed to get away once in a while. What was that place he used to go to? I forget. Was it spelled Gethsemane or Gethsemani? 😀

        • Steve, in my experience, these monks have been freed to experience God in a very real and deep way. I don’t really notice any “religion” among them.

        • Glenn A Bolas says

          I’d like to see that attempt. I have a feeling it might look similar to this:

          “You know all those things you do every Valentine’s Day- the flowers, the phonecalls throughout the day, the romantic dinners? You know you don’t have to do any of this stuff, right? Your wife loves you unconditionally. Nothing you do or don’t do can change that. You can be free of this whole romantic project.”

          “Yes, I know that my wife loves me unconditionally. In fact, I never cease to be amazed at it. But you misunderstand the reasons behind my actions. You see, it so happens that I love her.”

        • Steve, you should check out Henri Nouwen’s “The Way of the Heart: Desert Spirituality and Contemporary Ministry”. I’m re-reading this book for the third time…It discusses how solitude, silence, and prayer help prepare us to do ministry in the world. These monks, although they choose to live in community that is outside the realm of worldly ideals, still make a difference in the world with their prayers, and by demonstrating an extreme level of commitment and self-sacrifice. Nobody is conscripted or held there against their will. I don’t think they need to be set free…They are free.

          The website for the Abbey says…

          “We surrender Self:
          Bringing our best effort to prayers, whether we feel like it or not, can be costly. The relative lack of recognition for achievements that comes from being hidden in a community goes far to tone down excessive self-concern.”

          There is no recognition or fame for these folks…but who can measure the impact of their prayers?

          They also work at vocations to feed, clothe, and house themselves…more than I can say for a lot of evangelical missionaries and pastors I know!

        • They wouldn’t throw you out. They would smile at you and thank you and you’d end up feeling like they have something you don’t and that they are hiding it from you. That’s not to say they are supermen, they are as flawed as the rest of us but theological contention of the sort you might guess is generally not in the cards with those guys.

          • Very true. That’s why their Catholic faith can become so intriguing. A friend of mine converted after reading Merton’s Seven Storey Mountain. It didn’t have the same effect on me, but it did make me think once or twice.

  5. I spent a week in almost total silence at a Catholic retreat center. It was a life-changing experience. To be able to dedicate an entire day to prayer, wow. I was like a limp noodle when it was done. I have not felt that free of stress ever in my adult life. It took several days for the cares of the world to leave, but once they did I was not eager to have them back, vocation or no.

    • Like a wet noodle….. exactly – and i felt a pull and sadness as I drove away once it was done. But for a while after I saw with beter clarity and tended to put the importance on things that were truly important… and then life crept in again….

  6. “Sometimes you can hear the Spirit whispering to you,
    But if God stays silent, what else can you do
    Except listen to the silence? if you ever did you’d surely see
    That God won’t be reduced to an ideology”
    – Bruce Cockburn

  7. Silence at a place called Gethsemani . . . how appropriate that is.

    unable to keep the vigil in the middle of the night? it has happened before, long ago in another time and another land


    • I think people can’t know how it feels to live the ‘church year’, to pray the ‘hours’, and not be jarred by the silence of a quiet place of prayer, unless they experience it.
      And, if they do, they begin to feel themselves on the same journey taken by Christians over the centuries, walking with Our Lord through the year, holding close the moments and events of Our Lord’s life, keeping the vigils ‘waiting with Him for an hour’, and from time to time, ‘coming away and resting for a while’ as Our Lord advised, according to St. Mark’s Gospel.

      People can’t know . . . unless they experience it for themselves. You can’t tell them. Not even about the ‘silence’ or the ‘Presence’. It has to be lived.

  8. When my sister lived in Wheaton, she would sometimes go to a local monastery for a weekend retreat and she said those weekends were the most significant times in her life; she’s missed having them now that she’s back home in Virginia.

    Once again, CM — enjoy your time with the Father.

    • There’s a wonderful Trappist monastery in Berryville, VA, CJ. I went there some years ago and loved it. Your sister might, too.

  9. I find these retreats the ultimate way to reconnect and recharge. Jeff, your experience above brought back many memories. And there were those who felt I’d never make it on a silent retreat – just because I tend to seek conversation. But I loved it…. there is always noise at my house – blessed noise but commotion just the same. I loved the fact that I could sit in silence among the trees and flowers, sit in silence within the Church, and pray the Vespers.

    If I chose to read it was to really understand the meaning, if I chose to sit and think I could do so without distraction. And I found it easier to empty my mind and let God fill it if He chose.

    Now some would say it is an escape -maybe. I encourage my wife to go on one once a year as well so that she can recharge. And in the end it is a blessing. Those of you who have not experienced one (Catholic or not) I highly recommend it – sometimes you have to give up doing and just rest with God for a while…

  10. @Jeff: you’ll be fine JD , while the chappie is gone. Just stay away from creation/evo, gender issues, or women in leadership, and the place probably doesn’t get torched. Oh, and Cubs baseball…..almost forgot.


    • So you’re saying I should cancel my series on women evolving into leaders? No worries on the Cubs, though. My Reds were just as bad this year…

      • Do one about female pastors praying to creationist saints. You might break the Internet.

        • Jeff, women don’t evolve. God made them right the first time.

          Don’t worry about the Reds. At least you had a clue they weren’t going anywhere by September. My Braves blew a 9 1/2 lead, and missed the wild card! I’m beginning to wonder if the infant baby Jesus, in his golden fleece diapers, isn’t passing down some type of condemnation on them for the sins of the city of Atlanta…

          • thought about you, Lee, during the epic meltdown…… and lit a candle. Lit a second candle to get the stink of the Chiefs season out of my living room… need many more candles… Martha ?????

  11. wackypreacher says

    I am a frequent visitor to this blog, but am commenting for the first time. Was planning on going camping this weekend and was inspired to make it more of a retreat of sorts. Have done “silent” retreats before and have found them invigorating. But will make this a get away to read and pray.
    Times away from “life” can bring us back to life.

  12. textjunkie says

    It’s never been clear to me, can women go to that monastery, or would that just be too uncomfortable? I don’t know of any convents with a similar reputation.

    Have a great time, Chaplain Mike! Jeff, you’ll be fine. Keep it up with the Open Mics and Liturgical Gangstas and take it easy… 🙂

    • I’ve been there, textjunkie. There are times where the retreat times are specifically for women, and then there are mixed times, but different areas of the dorm are set apart for the different sexes. I went when there were both men and women (and I’m a woman, just to remind everyone) and didn’t feel uncomfortable at all. Since no one ever says anything, we didn’t impinge on each other very much at all.

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