Prayer is Central
While work in the manufacturing facility or retreat house is an important and necessary part of community life, the central aspect of Trappist existence is prayer. In addition to Mass, Trappists pray, as it declares in the Psalms, seven times a day.
They pray the Liturgy of the Hours, the ancient prayer of the Church, in which all 150 psalms are chanted over a four-week period. As our retreat master would explain, “The psalms are God’s words given to us so that we can give them back to God. They contain every possible human emotion and fulfill the four purposes of prayer: to adore God, to thank him, to seek forgiveness, and to ask for his help and guidance.”
Therefore, each day, in a tradition that dates back 1,600 years, the Hours are prayed at 3:15 a.m. (Vigils), 5:45 a.m. (Lauds and Mass), 7:30 a.m. (Terce), 12:15 p.m. (Sext), 2:15 p.m. (None), 5:30 p.m. (vespers) and 7:30 p.m. (Compline).
My first opportunity to join the monks in prayer was at vespers. At the sound of the church bells, several other visitors and I silently took seats at the rear of the church in a glass-enclosed foyer.
Since I was on a women’s retreat, I was rather surprised to find myself among women, men, and even a few children. It was explained to me later that some of the men attending the Hours were considering the monastic life. Other individuals were family members of the monks or simply the general public.
Together, we watched as Trappists entered the sanctuary one by one and took their designated places in opposing choir stalls. Following along in a book provided, I did my best to join the monks as they chanted the psalms antiphonally (one side chanting the first line and the opposite side chanting the next.) At first it was a bit awkward to find the right page, learn the tune, and remember when to bow, but this came more naturally as the retreat progressed.
After prayer it was time for dinner. The Trappists are strict vegetarians. Our meals were simple but satisfying.
In the dining hall, some thought-provoking tapes by Father Richard Rohr were played for our meditation. I found his thoughts about retreats particularly challenging. He stated that many people go on retreats regularly, almost like a vacation, yet they remain unchanged interiorly — they don’t do anything with their retreat experience. Retreats, he admonished, should cause us to grow and empower us to effect change around us. These were certainly words to consider.
After dinner that first night, Father Anton, the retreat master, welcomed us with a talk and a video about the monastic life. We learned that the spiritual journey of a monk begins when a man responds to the call of Jesus and signs on as a postulant. For a six-month trial period, he lives the full monastic life while still wearing street clothes. His clothing changes with his level of commitment: a white habit as a novice; a black scapular and leather belt after making simple vows; and the cowl or hooded, long-sleeved robe once he makes his solemn profession.
The process of making a permanent commitment to the Trappist life can take five to nine years, with the community supporting him at each stage of the discernment process.
Trappist monks make vows of obedience, poverty, and chastity. But, contrary to popular belief, they do not make a vow of silence. Talking is sometimes required in work, in receiving visitors or in spiritual counsel.
Generally, however, an atmosphere of silence is maintained to foster a state of continual prayer. When not praying or working, the Trappist monk spends time in study of the Scriptures or other spiritual reading. The purpose of the structure and communal living at Gethsemani is to provide an atmosphere in which a man can discover Christ in himself and in others, with an ultimate goal of transformation into and union with Christ. It is a life of simplicity, service, and love.
Mesmerized by Merton
Stormy weather kept me inside more than I had anticipated during my retreat, so I tried to follow the monk’s example by doing some spiritual reading. Shortly after I arrived, I felt compelled to read the autobiography of perhaps the most famous Trappist of all, Thomas Merton. I had not intended to do much reading during these precious few days, but the inspiration would not cease. So I picked up a copy of The Seven Storey Mountain in the gift shop, and it became my devotional reading for the weekend.
Much of this spiritual classic focuses on Merton’s life growing up without faith or purpose, and his disillusionment with things of the world. It follows his gradual discovery of God and the Catholic Church and climaxes with his entry into the Abbey of Gethsemani, which he called “the four walls of my new freedom.”
Not knowing a great deal about Merton before reading his autobiography, I found many of his earlier experiences strangely familiar. I, too, was raised in a family without strong religious conviction and had similar anti-Catholic sentiments passed on to me by well-meaning but misinformed parents.
I also lived in New York and was lured by the things of the world instead of things of the spirit. In addition, I shared Merton’s intense passion for reading and writing. Most of all, I could relate well to the experience of being plucked by God from a most unlikely situation in life and redirected to do his good work.
Silence Echoes in Soul
Between afternoon storms, I took a slow walk on a path that meandered through the woods, periodically stopping at various statues along the way. Each provided a quiet place for reflection, but most impressive to me was the statue portraying Jesus during the agony in the garden.
The Savior is portrayed on his knees, with his hands covering his upturned face. His despair is overwhelming, and I was quite moved to stumble upon it unexpectedly. The sculpture was a poignant reminder to me of what I have done in my own life to contribute to Our Lord’s agony. I stayed there for a long while in prayer.
As the second day passed, I found myself more in the rhythm of the retreat. I learned to take a quick cat nap here or there to keep me refreshed and prepared for rising in the middle of the night to pray. Except for perhaps one or two times when I slept through my alarm, I was able to be present for all of the Hours as well as the 4:00 a.m. Mass that was celebrated by Father Matthew Kelty. This 90-year-old monk began his life at Gethsemani as a novice under Thomas Merton. His evening reflections provided tremendous food for thought.
I decided that of all the Hours, my personal favorite was vigils, as difficult as it was to rise for the 3:15 a.m. prayer. At vigils, the entire church is completely dark except for a small light at the pulpit where a monk solemnly proclaims the Scriptures. The silence between the readings allowed the words to echo deeply in my soul.