December 4, 2020

Why Have I Come Here?

Gethsemani Journal 2011 (2)
This is from a journal of my experiences on my second day (and first full day) at Gethsemani Abbey.

• • •

Tuesday, October 12

I did not sleep well. The bed was fine, but I am used to sleeping with two pillows and I could not find the right position. (In the morning I discovered a second pillow above the closet.) I had also forgotten to take my sinus medicine. Most of all, I am not accustomed to going to bed so early, especially after a restful day. This is all part of getting used to the rhythm. How this body affects my spirit!

The alarm went off at 5 am. I hit the snooze, but then got up anyway and headed to the shower. Upon my return, I heard the alarm going off. I had forgotten to disable it completely. What an annoying sound echoing through these silent halls. May my fellow retreatants forgive me.

In the 5:45 service (Lauds, and then Mass), I sat downstairs in the church so that I could move forward easily when we were invited forward for Mass. Not having had my coffee, my mind was dull and relatively insensible throughout the services, which I found nevertheless lovely in their simplicity. How do these monks push through their prayers — eight times a day! — with hearts and minds that get numb?

At breakfast I continued reading The Sign of Jonas, which is turning out to be a good companion for this experience, being Merton’s own journal of his life at Gethsemani.

You have made my soul for Your peace and Your silence, but it is lacerated by the noise of my activity and my desires. My mind is crucified all day by its own hunger for experience, for ideas, for satisfaction. And I do not possess my house in silence. But I was created for Your peace and You will not despise my longing for the holiness of Your deep silence, O my Lord. You will not leave me forever in this sorrow, because I have trusted in You, and I will wait upon Your good pleasure in peace and without complaining any more. This, for Your glory.

…Why have I come here?

The question occurred to me during the midday meal. I am reading Merton, who visited Gethsemani on a retreat during Holy Week in the 1940’s. Young Thomas Merton came here intentionally, seeking his vocation. Having been rejected by the Franciscans and wondering if he had a priestly, monastic vocation at all, he suffered with a heart that burned for the contemplative life. So he traveled from New York to witness the monks in action. His early impressions of the Abbey in certain ways reflect my own, but they sprang from a much different experience.

If I remember correctly, special “pilgrimages” I have taken over the years were focused, as Merton’s was, on seeking something from God. I have gone to conferences, camps, and retreats looking for an answer of one sort or another, or a particular experience in which I might “meet the Lord” in a new, transforming way. I went out of emptiness, longing to be filled. I went hungry and asked to be fed. I went sick and sought healing. In my tears and discouragement, I looked to God to be “my glory and the lifter of my head.” (Ps 3:4) At times I felt lost and went seeking guidance and direction for my own vocational path. On some occasions I recognized my ignorance and so went to find teaching to nourish my mind. I tried to overcome weaknesses and lack of skills in my work by going to events led by master practitioners for training and equipping, for a fresh vision of priorities, or for new approaches that might yield greater success. There were times when I was simply lonely and needed fellowship and encouragement.

For none of these reasons have I come to Gethsemani this week.

Of course, I am always needy. There is no moment in my life when I am not in desperate need of the Father’s grace, the Son’s advocacy, the Spirit’s renewal. This is certainly a wonderful place to open my mouth wide that he may fill it! And I do have personal questions about my life, my path, my vocation, my daily routine. If I wanted to, I could seek out a spiritual adviser to discuss certain matters. I am desperately in need of confession, a part of the Christian life that my evangelical tradition does not support, and which is sadly lacking in my life. I could learn more about that, and find a way to participate in penance. Unless I receive a strong compulsion from the Spirit to seek “help,” however, I won’t. I brought a few books with me, but if I don’t finish them I won’t lament. I hope my daily discipline and devotional life will be revived during my days here. But once again, I see this retreat more in terms of providing space for that to happen rather than as the reason for which I came.

As I write these words, I believe I came here solely for the quiet. I seek nothing at Gethsemani but the opportunity for rest, silence, and peace. I have no motive except to be without motive. I just want to find a place in the world where I can breathe. Alone. With God. To move about without words in rhythm with creation and new creation. To observe and greet each passing moment as it walks by at its own leisurely pace.

To simply be here, and nothing more, nothing else. To simply be.

• • •

…I talked to Gail before retiring tonight and we filled each other in on our days. One thing I realized is that no situation in our life that I left behind has changed, and my going away is not for the purpose of dealing with those situations in any way, shape, or form. As I said before, this is not a problem-solving, getting-answers, seeking-help kind of trip. There is too much “fixer” in me, and I have learned to distrust the kinds of pilgrimages that feed that impulse. I refuse to be that person at Gethsemani.

Call me silly if you want to for just closing the curtains, locking the door, turning off the phone, and unplugging from life for a few days. I know the whole mess will be there when I get back. And I accept that my ordinary callings require me to deal with it. Fine. And I will. But Eugene Peterson’s allusion to Moby Dick comes to mind. The harpooner strikes truest when acting from a place of inaction. I just hope I can find that still place, at least for a few moments.

A example from the Bible: God promised Israel three times as much yield in return for keeping the Sabbatical year.

You shall thus observe My statutes and keep My judgments, so as to carry them out, that you may live securely on the land. Then the land will yield its produce, so that you can eat your fill and live securely on it. But if you say, “What are we going to eat on the seventh year if we do not sow or gather in our crops?” then I will so order My blessing for you in the sixth year that it will bring forth the crop for three years. When you are sowing the eighth year, you can still eat old things from the crop, eating the old until the ninth year when its crop comes in.

• Leviticus 25:18-22

Israel was granted a whole year sabbatical. I am here for five days, made possible by God’s grace and mercy, my wife’s understanding, and the Trappists’ hospitality. Who knows what kind of harvest this may bring?


  1. Chaplain Mike ~ I have so many mixed emotions reading your journal today. The first one is FEAR! I had to really examine that one. But it wasn’t hard to figure out. It scares me how shallow my American Evangelical years have been. You entered into a spirituality that is so foreign to me – even with my Catholic upbringing.

    The questions that you wrote, would you have been permitted to ask the Monks those questions? Was there ever a time of interaction offered to you? Would you have liked to have questioned them? As I ask you I see my “training” showing through. I want answers, I deserve answers. No room for mystery. You even stated that you weren’t there for answers or to solve problems or to seek help. Yet my Evangelical mind says, “well then what’s this all about?? Why aren’t you redeeming the time?? You should come back with a tote bag full of notes, CD’s, books etc. With a 40 Day Plan to change my life and/or the world. This is making me laugh. I am detoxing through you. Stop scaring me Chaplain Mike!

    • Adrienne,

      On the silent retreat I went on there was a spiritual director there to help guide through the questions if one chose to. I approached it like an open book, and opened myself during contempative time and worked on pushing any random thoughts away while I sat in the quiet. In those times sometimes there is a flash of an image or a thought or a small revelation that may or may not be in connection to your faith journey – these I shared with the spiritual director and received some excellent direction.

    • Adrienne, I’m in the next room, still detoxing too.

    • I remember the first time I read — back in college– the “Way of the Pilgrim,” in which the anonymous pilgrim wanders around Russia reciting the Jesus Prayer. My first reservation was, “But he’s not *doing* anything.”

      I still harbor that prejudice a little bit, in that it is hard for me to quite buy that it would be a good idea to be a cloistered monastic in which one spent one’s whole life only in contemplation. It is easier for me to imagine a regime of contemplation mixed with service in the outside world.

      But either pattern is an interesting correction to a form of activistic Christianity we are familiar with in the US, in which one begins to equate spiritual growth with retreats (complete, of course, with lots of music and PROGRAMMING), workbooks, organized “ministry opportunities,” and other sorts of well-intentioned busywork. The idealism and pragmatism underlying the workbookishness is evangelicalism’s greatest strength, but it is our weakness as well.

  2. This post resonates so much with me. When I went on my silent retreat I was in the second half of Seven Storey Mountain and found the book to be a perfect fit. I had also brought along Saint John of the Cross’s Ascent of Mount Carmel, but found it too heavy for the simplicity I was experiencing (becoming a distraction, I later finished it and others of John’s works after the retreat). I also brought along Francis DeSales Introduction to the Devout lLife which I found much more palatable for the experience.

    What really resonated with me about this post is your past experience of retreats and having an agenda, something to do or fix, yet on this retreat you had no conscious expectation, and rather just wanted to be. I will wait and see if unintended things/issues/thoughts/revelations were found on this journey.

    Very cool Chaplain Mike….

  3. Very good connecting in the Sabbatical year from Leviticus. There is something powerful there for us to meditate on.

  4. “I have no motive except to be without motive. I just want to find a place in the world where I can breathe. Alone. With God. To move about without words in rhythm with creation and new creation. To observe and greet each passing moment as it walks by at its own leisurely pace.
    To simply be here, and nothing more, nothing else. To simply be.”

    Chaplain Mike, these words of yours how they speak so well of the Carmelite monastic spirituality – how they remind me so well of what I once was immersed in. There is so much in these words I wonder if you came to realize it. To put aside all that is not God to be totally present to His presence all around you and within you. I so hope you experienced the loving embrace of His Presence. Such prayer can be had even in the midst of the world. It is a way of walking in the world that only God can bring about. We need to but give Him alone periods of time with the same sentiments of your words above. St. Teresa of Avila who reformed the Carmelite Order wrote the following prayer. It is possible to walk in the world busy with many tasks and yet live from within one’s interior Castle where the King Dwells, as she loved to phrase it.

    “Let nothing disturb you,
    Nothing affright you.
    All things pass,
    God is unchanging.
    Patience obtains all:
    Whoever has God
    Needs nothing else.
    God alone suffices.
    God alone suffices.” Teresa of Avila

  5. I am reminded of two verses from Isaiah:
    In quietness and confidence shall be you strength 30:15
    The fruit of righteousness will be peace. The effect of righteousness will be quietness and confidence forever. 32:17

  6. One more Mike says

    I am reading your commentary with enthusiasm and great benefit, and am fighting back envy! Thank you for sharing this with the iMonk community, and I look forward to the rest of this series.

  7. Two thoughts CM…

    1. All too often there is this “fix it” mentality in fundagelicalism. Many times this plays into retreats where people go into a retreat with this mindset that something needs to be fixed, immediately addressed, etc.. You then combine that with mega sleep deprevation and a million new friends and at the end of the experience it has reinforced that “fix it” experience. I think many people get addicated to the retreats and the spiritual highs, just as many do mission trips for the same reason.

    2. I bet its weird to have so much quiet. I mean evangelicalism as a movement is so loud. Praise and worship that makes people deaf by 25, endless conferences, hyper evangelism that gives a person an impression that they are on steroids, loud retreats, etc..