A monk’s day begins at 3:15 a.m.
At the Abbey of Gethsemani in New Haven, KY, forty white-robed monks file into their narrow Chapel hours before sunrise. This is Vigils, the first of eight daily prayer services, the monks’ opportunity to bless the hemisphere while it sleeps. I slip into the back of the Chapel, sweatshirted and bleary, ready to chant litanies and Psalms from the little booklet that materializes on a table before each service.
Monks know the Psalms like I know my own skin. These poems of agony and love spin slowly beneath their days, rotating through their liturgy every two weeks, bookended by hymn and prayer. How many years before each line is indelibly etched in the mind? How can I convince them to linger longer in mine?
It’s spring break, and while my classmates slumber states away, I trace a cross—forehead, sternum, shoulder, shoulder—and sink into the first Psalm of the day. This is Gethsemani. This is peace.
The Abbey of Gethsemani has been in continuous operation since a handful of French Trappist monks set up shop in the Kentucky hills in 1848. The men live by their hands, selling monk-made cheese, fudge, and the most bourbon-laced fruitcake I’ve ever sampled. Funds also roll in thanks to Thomas Merton, Gethsemani’s famous son, whose bestselling 1948 autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain, put the Abbey on the map.
The operation is simple: a spare, white Chapel flanked by a Retreat House and the monks’ quarters. Fields and forests unfurl for acres across the rolling hills. My group of six from Ann Arbor has joined the weekly complement of two dozen retreatants for a few days’ respite. Here, settled, I’m free to do as I wish. No schedule, just the invitation to monastic rhythm. Time passes at its own pace, marked by bells but demanding little. Long minutes sink into a single cup of coffee. Prayer begins to come as easily as thought.
Many times and places in the Abbey are reserved for silence, so we speak only when necessary. The mantle of silence is warm and weighty. Quiet sinks into my bones and stretches me, opens up spaces long constricted by noise and distraction. Untethered from screen and keyboard, my thoughts have slowed to a pleasant meander. The peace of this place releases the tension in the pit of my stomach. In its place, I find a smooth, warm stone of calm. I breathe at half-pace.
In the dining room, twenty-five people eat in comfortable silence. Most chairs face the garden windows, where cardinals and juncos hop over fresh-fallen snow and white hills rise to the horizon. My fellow retreatants sip soup and tea, and my heart swells with gratitude for their presence. Who knew what community of spirit could be built among people who never speak? We say all that’s needed through smiles and held-open doors. Our stories spool inward, woven between ourselves and God. I find myself praying for strangers. We are solitary here, but not alone.
Between services, prayers, and chapters of Mere Christianity, I shuffle the Retreat House halls like a convalescent, wrapped in a shawl, toting a mug of tea. Skip the shoes, shed the hurry. One evening, I slip onto the Chapel porch and stand in my socks to watch fluffy flakes drift through the dark as the bell rings for Compline. This service draws down the monastic day at 7:30 p.m. Compline, alone of the eight services, remains the same from day to day, year to year. The monks know the liturgy by heart so we stand in darkness to sing our goodnight.
Geneva Langeland (’13) survived graduate school with minimal blood loss, escaping with her ms in environmental policy and communication. She now works in Ann Arbor, Michigan, as the communications editor at Michigan Sea Grant. There, she gets to hang out with educators, researchers, and communicators who love the Great Lakes as much as she does.