In January, while staying at the Bethlehem Road barn-house Airbnb and animal farm near Lexington, Kentucky, my dear friend Russ called me one evening. “Where are you staying now?” he asked. He quickly calculated that I was over an hour from the Abbey of Our Lady of Gethsemani and the hermitage where Thomas Merton, the renowned Trappist monk, Catholic contemplative, author (of some 60 books), and social activist, lived for 27 years. Merton is without a doubt the most influential Christian-inter-faith mystic of the 20th century. Grateful for this nudge, I felt a quickening in my being and made plans to visit the Abbey when I was in Springfield, Kentucky, which is even closer.
I felt a kind of eager anticipation as I drove through rural Kentucky’s narrow, rolling, winding roads, finally reaching Monks Road, which leads to the Abbey of Gethsemani. Just when I got out of my car, just when I put my feet on the ground, the solemn, loud ringing of church bell rang calling me to be still and be called: three times and a pause, three times and a pause, three times and a pause, then twelve times for the hour, tapering off. Then Silence beneath a rare blue sky on a crisp cold day.
Thomas Merton wrote of the bell as a “true symbol [that] does not merely point to some hidden object. It contains … a structure that makes us aware of the inner meaning of life and of reality as well. A true symbol takes us to the center of the circle, not to another point in the circumference. It is by symbolism [we are] spiritually and consciously in contact with our own deepest self, with others, and with God.”
Abbey bells ring every 15-minutes, calling the monks (and anyone who can hear them for miles) to prayer, contemplation, meals, or work. Seven-times a day, the monks stop whatever they are doing to go to the church and sing their prayers; this tradition began the day after 44 French Trappist monks arrived (by boat and covered wagon) on December 21, 1848, and has continued every day without interruption for 172 years. Hundreds of monks have come and gone, but this Place, these Walls are imbued with the unceasing rhythm of ancient prayers sung seven times a day.
Because of Covid-19, the Abbey was closed to visitors to protect the 40 monks within. So, I strolled around the outer wall to see what I could of the church, motherhouse, and retreat center. As I came back down the grassy green hill, a friendly groundskeeper greeted me, “You can go in the garden if you want.” He opened the gate and walked with me through the garden, telling me little stories about the Abbey’s history; how when he was a little boy, his father brought him to the church for the 5:30 am chanting and Mass.
In the yard and on the church’s embankments were rows of identical grave markers for the monks. My new friend pointed out Thomas Merton’s marker (inscribed with the name given him when ordained, “Father Louis Merton”). Like so many pilgrims and seekers who visit Gethsemani because Merton touched their lives, I too paused a moment, feeling reverence and gratitude for his call to contemplation; through his writings, he will be ever-calling us to mindfulness. Merton rang the bell to enter Gethsemani on December 10, 1941 and died on December 10, 1968. (My son, Lucien, was born on December 10.)
Merton’s The New Seeds of Contemplation lends itself to lectio divina, the practice of reading a brief sacred passage four times, slowly drinking in the words or phrases that capture one’s attention, contemplating in silence how the message is relevant to one’s life, and finally, how you might bring this into your life. In particular, the following excerpt has given me direction in knowing why I am here—on this drive-about–and where I am going.
“Contemplation is the response to a call, a call for That which has no voice and yet which speaks in everything that Is.
And which most of all speaks in the depths of our being: for we are the words of That.
We are words that are meant to respond to That.
To answer to, to echo That, and even in some way to contain That.
Contemplation is this echo.“
My new friend, T., mentioned his daughter was pregnant; I signed a copy of Ancient Map to her and gave it to him in appreciation of his kindness. He was so thrilled; he took a selfie of us to prove to her that he met me. I love the people of Kentucky, so warm, authentic; T. says it’s just the “Southern way.” I mentioned wanting to taste the monks’ famous fruit cake made with Kentucky bourbon. Monasteries find ways to be self-sufficient; keeping with their vows, this community balances spiritual life and work—mostly in silence. The monks of Gethsemani have been making fruitcakes since the 1950s; they now sell 70,000 pounds a year in their gift shop and online! — along with fudge and other gifts. But the gift shop was closed and being on drive-about, I couldn’t order and have it shipped to a stable address. Suddenly, with enthusiasm, T. said he had fruitcake at home; he’d go home get it for me while I took a walk through the meditative path of statues in the beautiful forest across the street. When I returned, the fruitcake was waiting on the roof of my car.
I returned to the “blue cabin” Airbnb in Springfield (the cabin where the author Elizabeth Madox Roberts lived and wrote The Time of Man (1926) and The Great Meadow (1930)—in which she describes the corner stairs leading up to the same rooms I wrote in, and slept it—how cool is that?! In the charming, sunny kitchen, I happily made a cup of tea and carefully unwrapped the fruitcake made by the hands of Trappist monks who sung their prayers before they mixed the batter… I savored the aroma and taste of aged bourbon, dried fruits, and walnuts. Extraordinary. For reasons I cannot fully explain–I didn’t even get to go into the church or Abbey or hear a Mass or singing–and yet the abiding peace of this Place, and perhaps my awareness of Merton’s teachings was a profound turning point of my drive-about. If it is in the stars after the Covid-19 pandemic recedes, I will return to Kentucky to experience a Retreat at Gethsemani, to hear psalms chanted and bells rung every 15-minutes. Will anyone join me?
P.S. If you want a bourbon fruitcake or fudge, or other gifts: https://www.gethsemanifarms.org
Thomas Merton, ” Symbolism: Communication or Communion” in New Directions 20 (New York: New Directions, 1968), pp. 11-12. See also Love and Living; edited by Naomi Burton Stone and Brother Patrick Hart (New York: Bantam Books, 1980), pp. 48-49.