Diary of a Retreatant: Showing Up

*This is the first in a series of posts about my experience at the Abbey of Gethsemani in Trappist, Kentucky, on July 22-24. 

The idea to go to a monastery to write was not my own. Until a year and a half ago, I didn’t even know the place existed.

But like many scenarios in the last three years, while on my fiction-writing journey, random things fell into place. A random word was said that I needed to hear, a random hot air balloon floated over me, and in this case, two people who do not know each other, and who hardly know me, suggested I go to the Abbey of Gethsemani to write.

Of course, none of it is random. I know that to be true.

Annette and I left on Friday morning shortly after 7, but that’s not even where the story of the trip begins. Packing was its own thing. What does one wear around monks? How much leg is too much? What if the food is awful? Should I bring snacks? The place is silent. Should I leave the hair dryer at home? Will the air conditioning be freezing cold? Is there air conditioning?

Yes, packing was a thing. Annette and I exchanged several texts about it. This was one reason why I didn’t want to go alone the first time. This introvert needed a buddy.

The drive to Trappist, Kentucky, took about four hours, which gave Annette and I plenty of time to get our words out. Not knowing how silent “silent” was going to be, we talked the whole drive. (Though we both lean towards introversion, talking is not a problem for us.)

The closer we got to the monastery, the more nervous I got. I tried very hard to unpack those emotions – why be nervous? THEY ARE MONKS, for crying out loud. They are peaceful people! Plus, this trip came together so nicely, as if it were ordained by God himself (but more on that later).

I was nervous because it was all an unknown. It didn’t matter what I’d been told or what I’d read. The experience I was about to have was entirely unfamiliar. I felt ill-prepared and, as a result, nervous.

Abbey sign

Historical marker

Abbey of Gethsemani

We pulled up to the Abbey just before noon. We left our things in the car, gave each other a slight look of panic, and walked into the retreat center to find Father Seamus at the front desk. He welcomed us, speaking in a normal voice and cheerful disposition, and explained immediately that who we were, what we did, and why we chose to retreat at the Abbey was none of their business. All are welcome, he explained. Attend prayer, or don’t attend prayer, eat in the silent dining room or eat in the talking dining room, walk the property or stay in your room. We were invited to rest and retreat as we saw fit. No one would bother us.

Some advice, though – “If you go into the woods, beware of the ticks, because they will jump on you and crawl up into the warmest places,” he said, and then he gestured to the complementary bug spray.

Warmest places. Okay, Father Seamus.

Retreat Center

Sitting area

Statue on the hill

He gave us our room assignments and a small piece of paper with the daily printed schedule on it. There were seven or eight prayer services each day, plus Mass, plus Reconciliation (Confession) for retreatants on Saturdays and Tuesdays. There was plenty to do, if we so chose.

Before unloading our things and separating from one another, we took a brief walk around the retreat center, the chapel, and a bit around the grounds. At this point it was time for 12:15 prayer (Sext), so we sat in the balcony and waited. Slowly, one by one, monks filed in from various doorways and halls. They were coming from wherever they’d been working – the kitchen, the library, the grounds, the gardens, wherever.

Chapel

I studied their faces. These were not all old, white men. The youngest were at least in their early 20s, the oldest few in their 80s or 90s. White, black, Hispanic, Asian, everyone. Some who were limber and could bow fully, some who walked in a perpetual bow on account of a hunched back.

The entire space was quiet, minus the shuffling of feet and occasional cough. When the bell sounded, everyone stood. Annette and I followed the lead of other congregants and retreatants. They bowed towards the altar and made the sign of the cross over their chests, and then the monks began to sing a Psalm.

Stained glass

Immediately a calm washed over me and my shoulders, which were locked in tension, started to release. I don’t know if it was the sound of their voices, the echoing off the thick brick walls, the stained glass or the simplicity of it all, but suddenly I felt very calm, like all the unknowns were okay. Instead of being worried that I’d unknowingly offend someone (because I’m not Catholic) or make a noise or do something wrong, I felt that all would be well.

It was okay not to know. It was okay to just be. 

And then I started crying.

WHY WAS I CRYING? I berated myself. These were humans. We were all just a bunch of humans coming together. GET A GRIP! THERE IS NOTHING WRONG WITH YOU!

I wiped my eyes and focused on the singing, and in a matter a minutes it was over. That meant it was time for lunch.

A word about the food: It was not spectacular. I had to check my snobbery at the door.
Food was nourishment. This was my mantra all weekend.

Lunch was plain rice, fried egg rolls, broccoli and cheese soup, salad, and a selection of cheeses made by the monks. Bread slices, too, if you wanted one. Annette and I went through the line in silence, ate in silence, and nodded to one another when we were finished.

Meditation room

Room 311

Rules and prayer schedule

After bringing our suitcases in and locating the library (where there was WIFI, a necessity for me since I work in Google Drive), we whispered, “See you at dinner.” Then I went to my room, laid down on the twin bed, and fell asleep.

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