Earlier this week I attended a church service at the Abbey of Gethsemani (great URL, there). This was Compline, the last of the seven ‘hours’ or prayer services which the monks recite daily. Because part of the monastery’s mandate is to “turn no stranger from their gate”, the public may attend any service.
There was a vaguely voyeuristic feeling to the proceedings, however. The public sits in a cordoned section at the back of the church, just past the narthex. We’re separated from the rest of the church by a railing (though those wanting blessings or take communion pass through a gate at the appropriate time). The monks, most of them clad in a kind of cowl (you can see a bunch of them here), amble in and take their places in pews. The ceremony begins–there’s no obvious officiant–and you watch.
Rituals aside, I was actually fascinated by the life the monks lead. It’s exactly what you’d expect. It’s also nothing like what you’d expect.
Every day (with no exceptions–monasteries apparently know no weekends), the monks rise at about 3:00am. They take their first prayer service at 3:15am–Vigils. Then, I gather, they go to work.
In terms of work, I kind of imagine the Abbey like a big, permanent summer camp. You need cooks, caretakers, gardeners, cleaners and so forth. Monks fill many of these roles, though they’re getting a bit long in the tooth and do hire laypeople for certain work.
The monks also make chesse, fudge (with bourbon–very tasty) and fruitcake on site, and apparently do brisk business through their online store. They also run a retreat centre with 45 beds. It’s very popular, and is booked ahead of time for months.
There are also scholars (many have advanced degrees) writers and artists among the monks. I spoke with a monk–a published photographer–who recently went into Louisville for a Photoshop course. Another was consulting on a movie script with a number of Hollywood names attached to it.
These monks are a cloistered, silent order. So while you might expect them to live in a kind of jovial brotherhood, I guess they actually choose to live solitary lives. I heard of one monk who, in twenty years of shared living, had only had one conversation with a fellow brother.
The Last Generation of Monks
There were 400 of them in the early fifties, but through attrition and departures it’s down to 50 mostly old men. Judging from what I saw in at Compline, I’d say the average age is north of 65. One brother, in his nineties, rolled into church in a motorized wheelchair. The abbey was founded on December 21, 1848. The next morning, forty-four monks said the seven prayer services. They’ve been said every day since. They probably won’t be said in 2048. This is almost certainly the last generation of monks at this abbey.
It’s an extraordinary lifestyle, and I’m glad to have glimpsed it. I feel about the abbey the same way I do about Cuba under Castro. I’m glad I could experience these places when I did. Before they change.