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Abbey of Gethsemani - A Pilgrimage


A visit and a retreat to the Abbey of Gethsemani in Trappist, Kentucky,
by the editor of the Thomas Merton Site, Rev. Dan K. Phillips.

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NEW PHOTOGRAPHS:--Lots of Photographs made on my last trip to the Abbey of Gethsemani-ENJOY !!! plus more photographs

Abbey of Gethsemani

"One comes apart to let God teach us."

In July, 1952, Thomas Merton spent the night at the Abbey of Gethsemani
on a Firewatch. In July, 1854, Henry David Thoreau ventured to Walden Pond.
In July, 1998, I made my first pilgrimage and retreat at a trappist monastery in
Trappist, Kentucky.

I had been looking forward to this day for over 15 years, a retreat at a

My friend, the Reverend Wayne Burns - fellow Merton confidente - arrived
on Sunday afternoon from his home in Phenix City, Alabama. He spent the
night with his daughter who lives near us. On Monday, July 13, 1998, we left
together for Trappist, Kentucky shortly before noon.

We arrived at 3:40 p.m. Over the entrance was a sign that said, "Let all
guests that come be received like Christ."
Across the pathway above the
entrance to the monk's private area was another sign that said, "God Alone."

We were greeted by Brother Raphael Prendergrass,
whom we had previously met. He gave instructions
regarding our room, where to find information about
special programs (always noted in the elevator), and
gave specific directions to the dining hall and library.

Rev. Burns and Brother Raphael

I must admit that for two Baptists to be let loose at a Trappist Monastery
has its hazards. We did have difficulty keeping quiet at times, although
we tried to keep things to a dull roar. I was mindful of a quote of Merton's
one time when he was speaking of students coming from the Southern
Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky, to visit him: "Oh no!
The Baptist are Coming! I talk too much when they are here!"

Please forgive us!



"One's cell is an area for complete silence. The cell is sacred space,
more holy even than the chapel. For it is there that you are utterly
alone with God; it is for the two of you alone, and should not be

The room contained a single bed, shower, soap, lamp, a table, some
pictures of icons on the walls, and a note on the table that read:
SILENCE: To foster and preserve the atmosphere of prayer,
retreatant rooms, corridors, library and dining room are places of
silence at all times. This practice is fundamental to the Gethsemani
retreat experience and a courtesy to others.

After unpacking, my next stop was the library. Again a reminder perched
on top of a bookshelf said, "SILENCE IS SPOKEN HERE." A nearby
pamphlet gave further warning of the purpose of this monastery.

"This place Gethsemani is the house of the Lord, built
on a rock which is Christ, the Cornerstone and Life of
the monastic family. Founded from Melleray, an ancient
abbey in France, this Trappist community has prayed
and worked here since 1848. Thus, as sign and witness,
Gethsemani is a place to live the Christian life, to grow
in the Pentecost Spirit, and to proclaim the Good News
of the Kingdom."

Beside me, I find several volumes of Butler's Lives of the Saints. I looked up
St. Columba, the most famous of Scottish saints, who has recently found
entrance into my life via rather unusual circumstances. Columba was exiled
to Iona after a war in which 3000 were killed. He founded a monastery there.

The portrait left by Adamnan says: "He (Columba) had the face of an angel;
he was of an excellent nature, polished in speech, holy in deed, great in counsel.
He never let a single hour pass without engaging in prayer or reading or writing
or some other occupations. He endured the hardships of fasting and vigils
without intermission by day and night, the burden of a single one of his labours
would seem beyond the powers of man. And, in the midst of all his toils, he
appeared loving unto all, serene and holy, rejoicing in the joy of the Holy Spirit
in his inmost heart." Columba's example became an immediate challenge
that has continued meaningful for my life.


Supper was at 6 p.m. With classical music playing in the background, I ate corn
on the cob, a delicious soup, fruit, salad with trappist cheese, and milk. The
music so simplifies the experience. It creates a longing of hope in my life. On
a table nearby are fresh flowers and a small figurine with Mary and the baby
Jesus beside it.

Monks eat in a separate area. The refectory, as it is called, has a designated
place for each monk "according to his date of entering the community." And
the note says, "The fare is well-presented, sustaining, and (except for those
who are infirm) meatless.

The dining area became a favorite place of mine. Since it rained the entire
time we were there, I enjoyed sitting looking westward out of the window. I
watched rain drops bounce, a chipmunk or two dash between rocks, cars
pass in the distance, and listened to the music and cassettes played while
we ate in silence.

But there was something more there. I felt the presence of others in the room.
Others praying and thinking and listening. A fork clicking was as meaningful
as a prayer in the chapel area. There was HIS PRESENCE!

At 7:00 p.m. we met in a small room for information from Brother Carlos,
the replacement guestmaster in charge in the absence of the real
guestmaster who was out of town. Father Carlos is from the Philipines.
He is the tailor for the monastery and proud of the habits he made for
everyone. He is also outgoing, friendly, and provided wise counsel while
we were there. Several of us watched a short video of Gethsemani. and
were given directions of how to get around and this word of wisdom,
"Keep up with the monks."

After Compline, several of us went to a small chapel and listened to Father
Matthew's brief homily on poetry and living life. Father Matthew Kelty, one
of Merton's students, is in his eighties. He speaks each night after
Compline to the retreatants and at 4 a.m. each morning gives Mass
to those desiring it.

"Teach a child to pray," he says and they can make it in this world.
Start when they are young. "Life can be weird at times," he continues,
but in spite of everything, Christ says, "Trust Me. Trust Me." His words
rang in my ears. "Trust Me. Trust Me!" A message from Christ to me
this night.

But there was something more there. I felt the presence
of others in the room. Others praying and thinking and
listening. A fork clicking was as meaningful as a prayer
in the chapel area. There was HIS PRESENCE!



This was the only morning I made Vigils at 3:15 a.m. There were only 3-4
other retreatants there. In the darkness with only one candle lighted and the
monks praying on their knees, I felt quieted and almost fell asleep.

After breakfast, Brother Burns and I began a hike in the rain to find Thomas
Merton's Hermitage. A fellow inmate had given helpful directions and, after
a thirty minute walk in pouring rain, we found the hermitage and 3-4 deer
playing in the front yard. Over the door to the hermitage was one word,
"Shalom." An empty chair on the porch, under the shadow of the wheel
and cross so often associated with the hermitage, had a small sign
attached which said, "Bench of Dreams."

I thought for a moment of Merton's dreams. There were times he felt
perplexed by this place. He wanted to go somewhere else. To Mexico,
a Caribbean Island, or elsewhere to be a part of another environment.
But, the message from his superiors was always the same: "NO!" And
this is where he ended. There was some peace after all in this hermitage.
This was his "bench of dreams."

Father Louis (Thomas Merton) is buried west of
the chapel, along with approximately 270 other monks.

When I returned to the monastery I was in a reflectory mood and wrote the
following in my journal:

I have come to a conclusion that we have missed the truth of the gospels.

We have made their message to easy. We have clothed it in a magical
secularism. We have claimed a God without sacrifice. We have blaimed
others for our own infidelities. Our patience has grown dim and we have
cast out the fallen brother.

We have not seen the hurt in our neighbors eye, yet still call ourselves


Another pleasant surprise on Tuesday was meeting Sister Helen Prejean.
Sister Helen was on a week long retreat. She is the author of the best-selling
book Dead Man Walking. She is portrayed in the film by Susan Sarandon,
who won an academy award for her performance.

I found Sister Helen to be more outgoing than Saradon's portrail. She was
kind enough to give us a autographed copy of Dead Man Walking. I had
seen the movie, coming away from it with a feeling of lifelessness and futility.
Taking Sister Helen's book, I spent considerable time over the next two days
reading it. I found myself, again and again, confronted by its awesomeness.
Not the least was how Sister Helen found herself in this situation.

It was a reminder to me that all of us sometimes are surprised by God's
leading in our lives. We can only move forward in such a situation, ready at
every turn to do his bidding. In the pages of Dead Man Walking I kept
sensing Sister Helen. (Meeting an author can make a difference in our
interpretation.) For me there was a confrontation within myself. The
reading of the book set the character of the rest of my days at the

I was forced to react in a different way than I imagined. I got caught up in
the story, but it provided something else. The "framework of possibilities"
for my own life seemed to open up. Perhaps I have been too stale in my
approach to God. Maybe this "monastic experience" is to provide guidelines
for a new way of seeing life. Even the prisoners on death row have their

I was reminded that Moses was on "the backside of the desert" (Exodus 3:1)
when God told him he was on holy ground and that there was to be a renewed
purpose in his life, to lead the Israelites to freedom. My prayers shifted to that
of "awareness and awakening!" If God could find a nun in southwest Louisiana
to change a nations concept of capital punishment, is there not something he
can find to do with me? That became the character of the debate within myself
during the rest of the retreat.

All of us sometimes are surprised by God's leading in
our lives.

Much of the rest of the second day is froth in the deepening process of
meditation and silence. A quote from Thomas Green touched me. "Prayer
is what God does in us, not what we do." I found myself longing for the
moments to go to the chapel and see the monks march in, bow, and lean
against the arm rests provided them. The organ's music set the drama in
its purest form. The silence and the psalms conveyed their full meaning.


At mass this morning the priest said, "What we need is a listening heart."
Or stated another way, everyone we meet
may be the one who is "the Christ" or the Christ messenger for you. It was a
good thought to begin the day.

I wrote in my journal early this morning, "Dan, what is the sign you seek?"
Maybe a better word would be guidance for my own life. I have discovered
in the past that every retreat has at least one message that predominates.
I search for that! Early this morning a few of us met with Father Carlos. He
shared of his own personal life and his becoming a monk! Of his early
days in the Philipines, his family situation, and his pilgrimage.

He was particularly helpful in sharing with us the importance of "letting go!"
"The Chrisitan life is an experience open to what is happening around you.
There are no accidents," he said. "God sends to you the person you need,"
he added. And then he smiled and said, "Quit looking for it - let it happen!"

He then gave his definition of prayer: "Allow God to intrude in my life in
certain moments!" He concluded with this thought: "Don't be hard on yourself
or you
will burn out!"

After the conference with Father Carlos, several of us walked, ran, danced,
and laughed in the pouring rain as we ran across the street toward the path
leading to the statues in the Gethsemani Garden across from the monastery.
The rain was pouring. Some had umbrellas, some didn't. We ran, we read
the journals in the small hermitages along the way, we laughed, we stood silent
above the lakes near the monastery. It was a moment of spiritual childlessness.
We were children again. Five years old. Seeing life for the first time. Realizing
the joy of Christ in our lives.

Later that afternoon I spent time with Brother Paul Quenon. I had first met
Brother Paul at Bellarmine College a year ago at the dedication of the
Merton Center. He is an energetic poet, writer, excellent photographer, and
often is the lead singer for the prayer sessions. He did me a big favor by
borrowing a copy of Brother Antonious poems for me to read. I had searched
all over San Francisco searching for these poems with no luck. I enjoyed reading
some of them during the evening and returned them before leaving.

For the three days we were there it rained. That made the
Rain and the Rhinoceros essay
of Mertons come to mind several times. It
became sort of a joke. The last time I had a retreat about Merton and talked
of the Rain and the Rhinoceros, it rained the entire time. This familiar retreat
made me laughing. It was as if it was Mertons way of joking with me.

On Wednesday night, Wayne and I skipped Father
Matthew's homily and walked to the top of the knob with
the cross on it. It was sprinkling as we walked up the hill.
I carried an open umbrella. At the top of the hill the western
sky began to lightened. A brief hint of sun began to surface.
After talking for a few moments we looked eastward above
the darkness beginning to cover the monastery and saw for the first time a hint
of a rainbow.

A few moments later, I followed the rainbow down the stairway of the knob and
walked into the darkness of the silent monastery. It was time to begin! Shalom!


Looking back from a perch of two months, I realized that I didn't make all of
the services. Sometimes I was too tired, or sleepy (a real problem with Vigils),
or just felt overwhelmed. The rituals of the services were often confusing to this
protestant. I couldn't quite figure out why the monks sometimes changed
direction in unison, or bowed at certain times, or what the hymn was they were

I tried to follow the Psalms as they were read, but as the week progressed that
was too much of an effort, and I often just closed my eyes and prayed as the
rituals continued.

To sum up my experience:

An incredible peace comes with the silence.

The symbols are the most important elements of the Abbey of Gethsemani:
bells ringing, the rain, silence while eating, the liturgy, mosiac pictures on the
wall, and the monks praying.

The importance of the prayers and the psalms have reverberated each day
in my life, sometimes more loudly than when I was at the monastery.

The monastery was a witness to me of the greatness of God.

My most important memory is that "there was always a hot cup of coffee
available "
at the monastery. And sometimes I wake up in the morning, look
at my watch and realize that vigils is beginning. In my slumbering stanze, half
dossed by a dim-witted sleep, I begin praying, again dreaming I am with the
monks, and believing, "This is the most important thing in the work being done
right now." I still feel a part of the dream.

I followed the rainbow down the stairway of the knob
and walked into the darkness of the silent monastery.
It was time to begin! Shalom!

Brother Luke's Trappist Christmas at Gethsemani 2005-- pictures of all the monks ! EXCELLENT


(Editor's Note: Dan Phillips is in no way associated with the Abbey
of Gethsemani.
He just goes there at times to pray. If you desire getting in
touch with the Abbey for a retreat you may call the retreat number
502-549-4133. For a group day visit call 502-549-4129. Or you may visit
the Abbey of Gethsemani Website. or the retreat website.

E-mail the author


A brand new book, The Abbey of Gethsemani- Place of Peace and Paradox ,
by Dianne Aprile is now available. This book celebrates the 150 years of the
Abbey's existence. An excellent read! Of great historical interest to those who
love the Abbey of Gethsemani. Cost is $39.95 from Amazon or you may buy it
from the Abbey of Gethsemani at Trappist, KY 40051.

The book, the Springs of Contemplation - A Retreat at the Abbey of Gethsemani
by Thomas Merton, Jane Marie Richardson, and Kathleen Norris is available
from Amazon Books.


Retreat to the Abbey of Gethsemane by John Barich.

More Thoughts in Solitude - A Thomas Merton Journal

Thomas Merton Site by Dan K. Phillips

Brother Dan is the author of internet travel book,
Four Corners - A Literary Excursion Across America
, and is the editor
of The Web Surfer Travel Journal, a monthly travel e-zine.

E-Mail Dan Phillips.


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