By the third day, as I was finally acclimating to the routine of monastic life, I also found myself beginning to miss my family and my schedule. As blissful as this place of prayer was, I was still an outsider here, among strangers, and it made me feel somewhat lonely. I realized I hadn’t really escaped routine – I had merely adopted another. Gazing at the picture of my boys that I had stuck between the pages of my journal, I found I missed their little voices. I missed their noise.
That afternoon I made the Stations of the Cross, using a meditation of female saints that I had found in the library in the retreat house. The quotes were inspiring and challenging. I felt close to these great women of Christian history and proud to be a woman. In particular, I felt honored to be a wife and a mother.
For the rest of that day, in between prayers and meals, I finished Merton’s book. As I was reading the final pages, I could almost hear the tapping of the author’s typewriter escaping from one of the rooms overlooking the monastic garden.
I tried to visualize what the Trappist community was like in the glory days after World War II, when a surge of vocations filled the building to capacity with 270 men. There were so many, in fact, that the overflow was sent to establish new abbeys throughout the country.
I closed my eyes and imagined what the worship must have been like — the church resounding with young male voices, singing the ancient verses in Latin.
With Vatican II came changes to religious life, even in the remote hills of Kentucky. For the Trappists, there were renovations in customs, lifestyle, and physical surroundings.
Today, the psalms are sung in English from modern-looking choir stalls that are filled to only one-third of their capacity. The average age of a Trappist monk is considerably older than in Merton’s time. In some ways, the empty seats and graying heads made me a feel bit discouraged.
Despite this, I could not deny that there was still something special here at the Abbey of Gethsemani: something timeless, something peaceful, something holy.
It was impossible not to be profoundly touched by these special disciples who committed so earnestly to maintaining this tradition of prayer. We owe much gratitude to communities like these around the world where men and women are called to a state of perpetual focus on God because their prayers and sacrifices are made on our behalf.
The apparent limitations and monotony in the life of a monastic can seem harsh and undesirable. Some people may accuse the monk of running away from reality or wasting his life in such an obscure existence. But the kind of person who comes to a monastery and stays is a person not running from something, but to something.
In terms of exterior things, he has finished his search; he is ready to begin a new interior search. This does not mean that he is exempt from the challenges of sin, disillusionment or distraction that all of us face in our own lives. He has simply found his home and his vocation.
When I pondered this thought, I realized that the monk is not all that different from me. As I live out God’s plan as a married person with children, I too am faced with limitations, structure, and responsibilities. In the end, though, I have discovered that these confinements are actually liberating and necessary for my spiritual growth and they are what will ultimately lead me to true joy and fulfillment.
Bringing Peacefulness Home
That evening, I climbed a nearby hill and watched the sun set over the Kentucky countryside. I felt a mixture of sadness and gladness that my retreat was coming to an end.
I had found a peaceful refuge in Gethsemani. It was not my home, but a quiet place that spoke loudly to me of the importance of bringing some of this peacefulness back to my true home and vocation as wife and mother.
On the last day of my retreat, I reflected on all that I had experienced at the monastery. I spent a few minutes alone in the empty church, gazing down at the choir stalls from a loft in the back of the building.
I took one last look at the white-washed brick walls, the high ceilings with the original beams of wood, and the simple altar. I longed for the world to know about this place, about the men who lived here and prayed for us daily.
A thought occurred to me as I sat in melancholy silence. Perhaps I could use the image of empty choir seats and aging monks as a reminder of my own limited spirituality. Yes, I have God in my life and I strive to know him, love him, and serve him. Still, am I only a shadow of my potential, of what God has planned for me?
What do I need to do to make my “house of prayer” more vibrant and alive? I packed my bags, pondering that reflection.
I have returned to the world to which God has called me: a world of soccer cleats, bug jars, laundry, dishes, and unfinished manuscripts — and all the subsequent noise that comes with it. I think often about the monks at the Abbey of Gethsemani. They have taught me a great deal about the value of finding quiet time in my own busy day to praise God.
Whenever I look at the clock, I remember when they are in prayer, at work or asleep. I pray for these special men and their gift to the world. And I petition for those choir stalls to be filled once again to capacity, echoing with the sound of young voices singing the eternal verses: “Praise the Father, the Son, and Holy Spirit. Both now and forever. The God who is, who was, and is to come at the end of the ages…”
Elizabeth Ficocelli is a Catholic author of fifteen books for adults and young people, a national speaker, and host of the radio program, “Answering the Call.” For more information, please visit www.elizabethficocelli.com
Published in St. Anthony Messenger, October 2005