by Elizabeth Ficocelli
“Shush!” For the fifth time in one afternoon, a great exhalation of air hisses through my tightly clenched teeth. “Can’t you guys please be a little quieter?”
My four sons take a momentary break from their animated debate over which Lego Bionicle® has the most awesome power. They look at me with quizzical and somewhat worried expressions. I know what they’re thinking: Mom hasn’t been quite the same since she’s returned from her retreat to the Trappist monastery.
Quest for Quiet
I’ll admit, it has been taking me some time to adjust. Going from busy, bustling, boisterousness to silence, solitude, and sanity — and then back again — has not left me unaffected. It was the promise of four peaceful days of prayer and contemplation that lured me to the Abbey of Gethsemani in the first place.
Intrigued, I packed my journal, Bible, and prayer book, kissed my family, and drove south to Kentucky to join several other women retreatants. I suppose they were there for the very same reason.
Of course, I’ll never know for certain what brought these women to Gethsemani that week because I never actually spoke to any of them. There’s no talking on this type of retreat, except in a few designated areas for those who simply can’t resist a little conversation.
That wasn’t a temptation for me, however. I was on a quest for quiet. I once told my pastor that if I weren’t married and raising four boys, I might seriously consider the monastic life. He just smiled and told me I needed to find a little more alone time.
At Gethsemani, I found that time. Situated in the sprawling hills of the Kentucky countryside near Bardstown, Gethsemani is a place removed from the world, though not untouched by it. For over 150 years, the doors of this restful sanctuary have been open to visitors from the outside.
The Trappists are a reform within the Cistercian Order, nicknamed for the area of France they originally inhabited called La Trappe. Visitors at Gethsemani are a sign of Christ and, therefore, always welcome. This rare and gracious hospitality allows thousands of pilgrims each year from different faiths and backgrounds to experience a taste of the monastic life and the benefit of time alone with God.
Out of Control
I arrived at the monastery three hours later than planned due to car trouble and a wrong turn, my first indication that I would not be in control of this retreat. I was relieved, therefore, to see the church spire rising above the tree line, signaling I had finally arrived.
As I surveyed the grounds and parked my car, I looked around with some nervousness and excitement to see if I could catch a glimpse of one of the hooded monks that I had seen on the web site. To my surprise and delight, two of them were stationed at the front desk to greet me. For an awkward moment, I wasn’t sure if I needed to act out who I was and why I was there so that I wouldn’t betray the silence. But their hushed voices and shy smiles let me know it was permissible to speak in this part of the building.
The room they provided me in the retreat house was ample, with a bed, desk, and private bath. When I settled in and looked over the daily schedule of prayer, meals, and retreat talks, I saw that I had some free time. After reading a little background about the monastery, I decided to take advantage of the sunny spring afternoon and walk the grounds.
The landscape enveloping Gethsemani is beautiful, despite the fact that most of nature was still in hibernation during my visit. The monks own 2,000 acres of land in Kentucky, rolling hills that once played host to herds of sheep and cattle. The animals are no longer there. Gone also are the acres of vegetable gardens that once fed the monks their modest meals.
Today, the cloistered men work indoors, due to their smaller number and aging membership. A mail-order business is now the primary source of income for this religious community, which has become world renowned for its homemade cheese, fudge, and fruitcake. This productive little business enables the monks to continue to live by the labor of their hands as the apostles and early Christians once did.