A few weeks ago Hamilton set out early in the morning to visit friends in Gravel Switch, Kentucky, to do whatever grown men do that is legal and moral. I find it usually involves metal objects that have letters and numbers instead of names and is in a language totally unrecognizable in my world. But that morning I decided tag along because the next stop on my sacred tour of rural America was just 45 minutes up the road in Trappist, Kentucky, just south of Bardstown. We met up with another couple outside of Danville, putting the men in one car and the ladies in another to go on our separate adventures. Barbara is a native of the area but hadn’t been to Trappist in many years. So we headed down the empty, winding roads through the beautiful back country of central Kentucky.
Tucked into a corner of the rolling country side is a Trappist monastery, Abbey of Gethemani, officially known as Cistercians. I don’t know about you but rural Kentucky is not the place I would go looking for monks; Pentecostals, tiny non-denominational churches, maybe even snake handlers but not Cistercian Monks who live in silence and prayer. Apparently Bardstown was settled by Catholics in 1808 in a very non-Catholic region of the world. Seeing as how the Catholics don’t have a ban on alcohol like the other local Protestant religions, Bardstown became the seat of the bourbon industry so the local landscape has enclaves of bourbon warehouses next to a half a dozen local distilleries. It is a strange but charming combination of religion, ‘demon rum’ and southern history with My Old Kentucky Home presiding over it all.
The Abbey of Gethsemani was established in 1848 and on a cold day in late December the monks began singing the Liturgy of the Hours seven times a day and haven’t stopped since, 168 years of devotion to prayers for the world without ceasing. The prayers start at 3:15 am with Vigils and continue at intervals throughout the day until Compline at 7:30 pm. In the morning between prayers the monks work. In the past there was farming but now they produce bourbon fudge and fruitcakes to support the monastery. In the afternoon, there is time for reading, prayer and contemplation. Although they are not vowed to silence, silence is part of their way of living.
I first heard of the Abbey of Gethsemani many years ago because there is a large guest house open to anyone of all faiths for silent retreats. The simple and tidy rooms are attached to the church. There is a library and extensive grounds for long walks. There are no classes or events, just time and space to go on an inner journey of silence and healing on this holy ground devoted to prayer.
I arrived about 10, on an overcast and very humid August day. I spent sometime in the welcome center where there is a movie that highlights the history and an average day at Gethsemani. Next door is a lovely gift store with local pottery, spiritual books, handicrafts from other monasteries and of course the bourbon fudge and bourbon fruitcake made on the grounds. I bought a sample of each to bring home. Nothing makes me happier the sugar blessed by monks.
The most important part of the visit was at 12:15, Sext, the prayers just before lunch. I sat outside under the trees waiting for the appointed time, the breeze helping with the humidity a bit. The peacefulness of the land and nearby cemetery gave me time and space to find my own inner quiet. Visitors are allowed at any of the services but must sit in the narthex under a small balcony. There is a barrier and then the long thin modern sanctuary stretches out to a distant altar. The bell tolled and about three dozen monks started to enter one by one from several doors and took their appointed places. They each wore a long white tunic with a brown scapular cinched at the waist with a brown belt except the three novices who had white scapulars. Under the narrow stained glass windows, they sat in the choir divided in two by the aisle facing each other with a small organ in the middle of the right wall.
The bell tolled again and the organ played and the monks began their prayers. Nothing was spoken only sung and the words of those noon prayers echoed that day as they had over 60,000 times since the monastery opened so long ago. About 20 minutes later, the prayers were finished and the bell tolled again and the monks filed out to their next duty. The other 20 or so visitors quietly left to go back to their own prayers and retreat. No one wanted to break the beautiful silence of that moment. As I walked back to my car in the heat of the noonday, I felt blessed by those beautiful prayers and so thankful that these men had devoted their lives to God and for the blessing of all the world.