I recently returned from a trip to the Abbey of Gethsemani - a working monastery with several dozen monks in residence, 2000 beautiful acres of Kentucky blue grass and a commitment to silence that spans just over a millennia. I took a vow of silence the week I was there and found it to be one of the best things I've experienced, or given myself, in a very long time. I understand why Thomas Merton ultimately called it home, created his hermitage, wrote, prayed and wanted to be buried there.
No one needs me to enumerate why I might want to be quiet for 5 consistent days in a world that is noisier and more assaulting to the senses than ever. And I'm not a luddite. Nor am I a hermit or anti-information or even shy for that matter. I use and love technology in the post-modern era, and I get the attraction to distraction. In fact, I find myself awash in it most days.
Engagement in the world has its brilliant upsides, but one of the downsides is that we're surrounded by a cacophony of ring tones, sound bites, special breaking news reports (they call them breaking by the way, because that's what they do .... they break the silence, they break the rhythm of thought), pings from social media, etc. There is a rabbit hole with your name on it at every turn and if you get pulled in, it's a long fall in and a long climb out.
It's no secret that we need peace and silence and it's getting harder and harder to find without throwing elbows. I started thinking about escape to a place of peace (vs. escape through substance abuse or other unhealthy distractions) as the greatest luxury.
The Abbey provided me with just that. I vowed not to talk - as did the other guests - and took it an extra step by unplugging entirely. No phone, no laptop, no TV, no radio, no media of any kind. Just some books, writing materials and walking shoes for the hiking trails just outside the Abbey walls.
The monks are called prayers 7 times each day, and we were invited to do the same. 3:15 am Vigils - 5:45 am Lauds - 7:30 am Terce - 12:15 pm Sext - 2:15 pm None - 5:30 pm Vespers and 7:30 pm Compline.
During each of these, the monks sing from the Psalms, read scripture aloud and pray. Not surprisingly, since I’m not Catholic, some of this was foreign to me, most especially the number of times they go to the chapel to repeat this process. For them, this is a lifestyle of focus on one thing: listening to the voice of God. So one minute you’re mowing part of the property, or making cheese, or crafting pottery and then you stop and return to prayer and song. Then back to cooking or cleaning or writing and then - the bells toll - and back to the chapel. And it goes on all day, every day, regardless of season, personal mood, global events, health or weather. This daily (hourly in fact) schedule re-centers the monks. They are just as curious and desirous of knowledge as we are, but deliberately avoid the kind of engagement with the world the rest of us have.
Every day, I set my alarm for 3 am and made it to Vigils. How moving, beautiful, centering it was and important to me personally, I’ll save for another blog, but suffice it to say, I made it every single day for a reason. The rest of each day, I wrote, hiked, read and wandered the areas of the Abbey where retreatants are permitted. And I napped under a tree one afternoon, because I was drowzy and I could. And through it all, I said not a word to another human being.
When I got home, I tried to keep to the Vigils at least and succeeded for about a week, but it’s hard. What I realized - the point of this blog really - is that I need not only more sanctioned escapes, more quiet time, prayer, silence, contemplation but specifically, I need a place for it. Mindfulness, meditation, prayer rooms and meditation rooms have all become more prevalent in the last 2 decades and I would venture that it’s commensurate with the rise of the noisier age in which we find ourselves.
Back yard gardens, national parks, churches, ... we need them. Again, it’s the intersection of nature and quiet - the sacred and the natural. What heartens me about a project like Ebenezer Chapel is that very thing. It’s purpose, or one of them, is to create a place to be quiet. You can wander the park, as I did the grounds at Gethsemani, and you can breathe and think and be in prayer. Those of us who aren't called to prayer 7 times a day or live at a monastery - which is pretty much all of us - need a place like Ebenezer Chapel. Finding yourself in a more complete place of comfort and peace has implications for your headspace and sense of balance and restoration than it's possible to know. It's more healing, more vital, than I ever thought it could be.