In 2009, I had the chance to visitthe Abbey of Gethsemani, a still active Cistercian monastery in Kentucky. I was fortunate to have dinner with Brother Paul, a monk who’d been at the monastery for 52 years. He’s also a poet and a photographer, and so is a pretty fascinating man.
I recently encountered this eight-minute news piece about Brother Paul and the contemplative life. It’s rare, especially in the West, to hear from somebody who’s spent so much of his life seeking solitude and a life close to God:
There was a vaguely voyeuristic feeling to the proceedings, however. The public sits in a cordoned section at the back of the church, just past the narthex. We’re separated from the rest of the church by a railing (though those wanting blessings or take communion pass through a gate at the appropriate time). The monks, most of them clad in a kind of cowl (you can see a bunch of them here), amble in and take their places in pews. The ceremony begins–there’s no obvious officiant–and you watch.
Rituals aside, I was actually fascinated by the life the monks lead. It’s exactly what you’d expect. It’s also nothing like what you’d expect.
Every day (with no exceptions–monasteries apparently know no weekends), the monks rise at about 3:00am. They take their first prayer service at 3:15am–Vigils. Then, I gather, they go to work.
In terms of work, I kind of imagine the Abbey like a big, permanent summer camp. You need cooks, caretakers, gardeners, cleaners and so forth. Monks fill many of these roles, though they’re getting a bit long in the tooth and do hire laypeople for certain work.
The monks also make chesse, fudge (with bourbon–very tasty) and fruitcake on site, and apparently do brisk business through their online store. They also run a retreat centre with 45 beds. It’s very popular, and is booked ahead of time for months.
There are also scholars (many have advanced degrees) writers and artists among the monks. I spoke with a monk–a published photographer–who recently went into Louisville for a Photoshop course. Another was consulting on a movie script with a number of Hollywood names attached to it.
These monks are a cloistered, silent order. So while you might expect them to live in a kind of jovial brotherhood, I guess they actually choose to live solitary lives. I heard of one monk who, in twenty years of shared living, had only had one conversation with a fellow brother.
The Last Generation of Monks
There were 400 of them in the early fifties, but through attrition and departures it’s down to 50 mostly old men. Judging from what I saw in at Compline, I’d say the average age is north of 65. One brother, in his nineties, rolled into church in a motorized wheelchair. The abbey was founded on December 21, 1848. The next morning, forty-four monks said the seven prayer services. They’ve been said every day since. They probably won’t be said in 2048. This is almost certainly the last generation of monks at this abbey.
It’s an extraordinary lifestyle, and I’m glad to have glimpsed it. I feel about the abbey the same way I do about Cuba under Castro. I’m glad I could experience these places when I did. Before they change.
This week, Julie and I are in rural Kentucky, about an hour south of Louisville. Julie’s mom is Chair of the English Department at Trinity Western University, and a prominent authority on Thomas Merton. Merton was, by apparent consensus, the most significant American spiritual writer of the twentieth century. He was also a monk, and spent the latter half of his life at the Abbey at Gethsemani, a Cistercian monastery here in Kentucky. Julie’s mom spends time down here most summers, and this year we decided to join her.
We’re staying in a house near the Abbey that’s operated as a retreat centre. It’s commonly called ‘the Solar House’, as it was a kind of early green architecture effort. It used to have a translucent roof, to let in the heat. It’s built right into the hillside, on a gravel bed, which I gather helps moderate temperatures throughout the year. It’s got a peculiar, pyramid shape (here’s a photo), though it sits very pleasantly at one end of a huge meadow.
The surrounding countryside brims with life. I’ve seen deer, box turtles, snakes (larger than we grow them back in Canada) and all sorts of birds–blue jays, cardinals, herons, owls, turkey vultures, turtle doves and dozens of other species I don’t recognize.
Of all the places I’ve been, Kentucky reminds me most of Ireland. It’s extraordinarily green–it has rained here every afternoon, like it does in the tropics–and has charming rolling hills. Of course, in Ireland the fences are made of rock, not barbed wire, and there are very few pickup trucks, but there’s a lot of similarity. For no reason other than my own naivete, I expected Kentucky to be more like the country around Austin, Texas. Where Texas was dry and brown, Kentucky is humid and verdant.