I've had a few friends, classmates, and professors ask about my trip to Gethsemani. First and foremost let me say that it was a deeply personal experience, most of which I won't divulge. That being said, it was a good weekend. Hard, but good.
I arrived Friday afternoon with just enough time to spare for unpacking before going to Vespers. The silence and stillness of the grounds was almost haunting. Going from the Uptown neighborhood of Chicago to Trappist/New Haven, KY is quite the shift. I made it to my room—small, quaint, just what one would expect of a monastery bedroom. The heat apparently didn't work, but there was something soothing of walking on cold concrete.
I went to Vespers, actually arriving slightly late. It took this service as well as Compline the first night for me to get a feel for what each of the Offices looked and felt like. Over the course of two weeks, within the seven services a day, the brothers make it through the entirety of the Psalms. A doxology follows major stanzas, so there's a lot of bending over at the waist—a motion my back still hates me for doing. Most of the retreatants who were present seemed well acquainted with the ritual. I learned later that a group of them had been coming around the same time for nearly 15 years, most of whom are Roman Catholic.
I prayed the Rosary with a group that first night. I found myself slipping into a sort of trance once I'd gotten the feel for it. Though I might not use the traditional Catholic verse, I imagine some sort of prayer practice like this becoming a normal part of my life. The repetition of it is soothing, especially when coming up with my own words has been so difficult as of late.
The next two days I attended five of the seven offices each day, skipping Vigils and Sext (3:15 seemed way too early for me to be up and attempting to commune with anyone, much less God, and lunch... well, I was usually out and about during that time). Saturday I went for two separate hikes—one in the morning that ended up being on the wrong trail, and one in the afternoon that was driven by some of the anger, pain, and uncertainty that arose as I spent time with myself and with God. Both were fruitful, especially the former. Walking through the woods on a path guided only by a not-to-scale map that was hand drawn before I was born was relaxing and invigorating.
Sunday I stayed for mass right after Terce, a service that is apparently attended by a number of locals. I'd never really been to a Catholic mass before. I've only been to a funeral and a Passion play before, so this was a new experience, one I truly loved. The richness of the ritual and the liturgy was intoxicating, though that may have simply been the incense. The chants and hymns were beautiful, the homily poetic, and the Eucharist sincere and welcoming, even for me, the non-Catholic.
By Sunday afternoon, I was ready to leave. I'd come to some powerful realizations about myself, my faith, and my relationship with God—realizations about which I could do nothing more while I was there. I ultimately decided to leave early on Monday to drive to Indianapolis and spend the day and night with one of my dearest friends. Having completed my first silent retreat, I know I will go again. I know not to try to do it for as long of a time period, and I know to plan ahead for spiritual direction while I'm there (or wherever else I end up going). I know that while it's a fruitful time, it's not restful, not for someone as contemplative or emotionally engaged as I am. I know it will mostly likely bring forth more questions than answers, a reality I expected. And I know that I'll come out of it better, drained but ready to be strengthened by my return to the real world away from the bells and the silence.
Again, thank you to those who thought of or prayed for me this weekend. Your intentions were most definitely felt, as was your love.
Love and grace, Michael