Towards the middle of 2015, a good friend of mine told me about a visit he made to the Abbey of Gethsemani in Trappist, KY. It was a part of his sabbatical and every descriptor he used in relaying his experience to me was intriguing. I had to check it out.
What is a retreat at an Abbey?
First, a little background.
The monastery was established by — and is still inhabited with — Trappist monks who “have lived, prayed, and worked in this house of the Lord for over 150 years.” As you might have heard, silence is key for monks in maintaining their walk with God and it’s the silence that is one of the most valuable aspects of the week or weekend ‘retreats’ offered here.
So, quiet, then. Is that it?
In addition to a quiet environment (in the middle of nowhere, KY), the Abbey offers a no-cost guest house in which you can stay and eat — all while surrounded by trails, lakes, and fantastic people. These environments on the Abbey property offer not only a great setting for reflection but they also have the added benefit of being located a decent drive away from, y’know, civilization — I.E., there’s no T-Mobile signal out here — in order to ensure the necessary amount of isolation in which to achieve that reflection.
That drive up here, by the way, was gorgeous. I’ve included some pictures I took on the road (some of which may or may not have been taken while driving; I refuse to say one way or another) in the gallery at the end of the post.
Wait? Did you say there wasn’t a cost?
There are ways in which you can give back to these monks but the retreat itself is no cost. Room and food are included; three delicious squares a day.
Yeah, yeah… seclusion sounds great… but riddle me this: is there Wi-Fi?
There is Wi-Fi available in the library in case you can’t tear yourself away from the Interwebz — or, in my case, if you need to download some offline maps prior to leaving, just in case you can’t find your own way back to humanity. Knowing that I could at least reach my family through Facebook Messenger (since I knew I wouldn’t have a cell signal) put this Dad’s mind at ease.
Did you achieve unprecedented levels of inner harmony with all of that exclusion and stuff?
Well, yeah, I did.
I was able to catch up on some much-needed spiritual reading and, more importantly, rejuvenate my prayer life. My mini-journeys on their outdoor properties led me to experience a type of prayer in which I had previously spent very little time. For me, this was uninterrupted time to thank and praise the One with whom my spirit is undeniably-connected and to reflect on just how amazing that Amazing Grace stuff actually is.
These prayers weren’t interrupted by, say, my falling asleep in the middle of them.
The prayers I experienced weren’t a second thought (checking it off the list as I go about my meeting-filled days).
These prayers were uninhibited, raw talks with God… and they sparked a necessary new habit for me: to pray in a manner similar to what we see in 1st Thessalonians:
1st Thessalonians, 5:16-18. “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.”
These prayers were emotional and genuine and I thank God for the time.
This sounds involved. Can I really do this?
This was a different experience for me and one that required a little bit of planning. However, let me lay it all out there so you know (and can be prepared for) what all is involved — at least at the Abbey of Gesthsemani.
In order to set out on a retreat like this, you need to:
- Prepare in advance. Literally. Reservations for a retreat at the Abbey of Gethsemani are taken four months in advance. For example, as it states on their ‘reservations’ page, if you want to plan a week or weekend retreat in April (which I highly recommend), you need to request a reservation in December.As an aside, and if it’s available, you may want to request a room in the ‘main’ guest house. The second guest house is a little more separated and offers only shared bathroom and showers per floor. (That was a little awkward for me. The fewer people that have access to my vulnerable self in a shower, the better. That’s just me. And, no, I never set foot in a team locker room.)
- Know that you’ll be secluded. Mentally, you need to know that you’ll have some quality time on your hand. You’ll also want to make sure that any preparations have been made at home. Physically, you’ll want to make sure you’re prepared. Bring all the clothes, toiletries, etc. that you’ll need for the week(end). Making a routine jaunt to the gas station isn’t going to be very convenient for you. (This is a good thing!)
- Get there on time. I unfortunately had to leave after work and, by the time I got there Friday night, standard check-in was unavailable and I had to use the ‘night bell’ to bug one of the pajama-clad monks. Getting there on time will also ensure you’re able to participate in the retreat ‘conference’. (For you introverts out there, don’t worry; there’s no talking with anyone if you don’t want to — not during the conference or during your entire stay, if you don’t want to. Although, don’t be rude if a conversation presents itself.)
- Make your schedule. That is to say, no schedule. This is difficult to get used to but you’ve got no obligations during the time you’re there. The time there is yours and yours alone… but use it wisely. It’s not every week that you’re the recipient of guaranteed solitude.
Of course, if you have any questions about the experience, use the form at the end of the post to let me know.
This all sounds amazing. If there’s no cost, how can I give back?
There are envelopes available for ‘retreat offerings’ and the monks also support themselves by making fudge, fruitcake, and cheese.
I’d highly encourage you to take time for a retreat at this abbey — especially if you’re in need of a spiritual awakening. It was a great experience; one I plan on repeating. If you’re interested and have any questions (before reaching out to the monks), reach out to me on Twitter and I’ll try to answer them.
If you’ve had the privilege to experience the abbey first-hand, leave a comment below. I’m curious to hear from others that have experienced this type of retreat.