Louisville Magazine

AUG 2016

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46 LOUISVILLE MAGAZINE 8.16 Empty and clear. I rubbed my forehead. I blinked. Downstairs, the cafeteria was empty. I walked on, once again as if watching myself move, till I was outside and gliding up the incline, past the parking lot and then across the road, climbing a path cut between the tall grasses of a hill to the apex. Atop a rocky perch thatched with shrubbery, a cross was mounted against the sky. At the start of e Seven Storey Moun- tain, omas Merton's autobiography that launched his literary celebrity — and which he wrote at this abbey — Merton said that he was born in the Pyrenees. Since reading it, I have associated him with southern Europe, and now, the land that spread below my hilltop vantage reminded me of Mediter- ranean France: the hard blue sky, the glare of the sun, the checkered fields of corn with broad, flat leaves shining like light-impacted metal. A shadow passed over me — a wingspan so huge that for an instant I thought it was a pterodactyl. I turned. Perched on the cross, facing the abbey, a hawk cawed, echoing against the far walls and towers. Looking back toward Gethsemani, I knew that something inside me was chang- ing. For the first time since I'd arrived, I was calm. I wasn't thinking about what I was thinking about. I was just there. I felt my lips form the words I heard myself speak: "I am here. Let me be here." At first, there was darkness. Sprawled out in the pews around 3 a.m., I real- ized I was the only one in the church, and I reasoned, like a high school kid, that I could skip class if the teacher didn't arrive in the next few minutes. But then a bell tolled once, three times, and the teacher did arrive — all the teachers arrived, feet shuffling beneath the balcony. Fixed into the wooden trestles, the lights came on — faint glows cast on two lines of robed monks who filed into the choir. Another monk appeared, waving a chain, at the end of which a censer puffed up incense. One of the monks raised his voice: "O Lord, open my lips." e other voices lifted in song: "And my mouth will declare your praise." A monk sat behind an organ, but the notes were only faint background to the sonorous reverberations of the voices. ese men weren't professional musicians. But their voices all seemed to be seeking, as if each monk were singing in his own cell, in tones stripped of artifice. eir harmony swelled with appeal and humil- ity, beseeching some presence they could feel. Many of them closed their eyes. Prayer is the cornerstone of life as a Trappist, and Trappist monasteries are found in every time zone in the world. By the mid-1950s, the population of Geth- semani had reached a highpoint at 279, becoming the largest Trappist monastery in the world, and from Gethsemani, daughter-houses were founded — Holy Trinity in Utah, Genesee in New York, Mepkin in South Carolina, New Clairvaux in Califor- nia. Today, Trappist monas- teries dot the globe. Every minute of every day, some- one is saying the Trappist prayers, which St. Benedict termed Opus Dei: the monks' highest duty, "the Work of God." I thought of a quote I had read framed on a wall downstairs: "Before we search for God, God is searching for us." At last, the monks' song faded. Overhead, the bell tolled. e final notes of the organ rose into the nave. e men closed their prayer books and filed out. en the lights snapped off, and once more there was darkness. After that, I realized that I'd frit- tered away my time at Gethsemani so far. I had done nothing but bitch since I got here. Soon I fell into a cyclical rhythm at Gethsemani that I couldn't help feeling changed my perception of time. On Sunday evening, I filled out an entry in my journal after dinner at a table in the dining room. When I looked up, people were lining up again, for supper. Hours had gone by without my noticing. I felt more at peace at the abbey with every hour that I was there. e mystical experience confounds concrete language, and I struggle to talk about those last two days without lapsing into pie-in-the-sky clichés. As I settled into the silence, the narcotic, pixelated blare of the outside world faded, and in its absence, anoth- er world emerged: my thoughts, my heartbeat, the branches rustling beyond the terraces, the church windows standing forth in lustrous detail. On my last night, I had supper, and then read a book on a bench in the gardens. e blue dusk settled into the trees. e shade deepened into the grass and became night. A great silence emanated from the monastery. I slipped into the current of the present. at night, I went to bed early and woke up for Vigils at 3 a.m. I'd hated the abbey when I'd first come here, but now I didn't want to leave. As dawn lifted, I walked around the gardens, following the stone tablets that wound under the trees. I was filling out my journal in my room after Terce when someone knocked on the door. An older man stood in the hall, his hand resting on a laundry hamper. He wasn't wearing a robe, but from his smile, I could tell he was one of the monks. "Oh," he said. "Are you staying over- night?" I frowned. "I thought checkout wasn't till 8?" His smile deepened. "It is 11 a.m." I stared. "Oh." Still frowning, I slung on my backpack. "I just hate to go." "You are always welcomed back," he said. In the dimness of the hallway, we looked at each other. en he said: "God be with you." "And you as well." Downstairs, I told a different guestmas- ter — Father Seamus, he said, in a soft, gravelly Bronx accent — that I'd like to write an article about the abbey. "You can write it, of course. You can do whatever you would like. But if you want to inter- view somebody, I recommend you talk to Brother Paul," he said, just as another man entered the lobby behind me. "And here he is now. Brother Paul, this young man wants to write an article on the abbey, and I was just telling him, at the very moment God saw fit to direct you into our pres- ence, that he should talk to you." Brother Paul looked about Father Sea- mus' age, but he had on a gray polo shirt and moccasins that seemed woven out of hemp, and he was carrying a cardboard box on his shoulder. His Vandyke beard had turned white, but a youthful receptivi- ty danced across his face, lifting his mouth into a smile that put me at ease. I sensed a guiding patience about him. He shook my hand and invited me to follow him. e abbey had hosted an International omas Merton Society convention over the weekend, and he had shown them around, he said — taking them to the hermitage where Merton used to write, Watching a monk scratch at his eczema was somehow refreshing, as if Brother Paul had excused himself from the onus of acting holy.

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