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.
Interesting that monasteries like this one are dying while glitzy evangelical megachurches are growing throughout the U.S. — if you’re going to follow the messages of Jesus, the monastery would seem to be a closer model.
It’s interesting, but of course not surprising.
Indeed. Plus, the Cistercian order is apparently one of the strictest in terms of being cloistered and so forth. There are several other orders which I gather are healthier in terms of numbers. Still, it’s a lifestyle in decline.
I wouldn’t be quite so certain about the decline of this monastery in particular, though it’s possible.
Among Catholic monastic congregations, there’s a sense that the most conservative ones have been more successful in the last 20-30 years than the most liberal (I speak here mostly of things like keeping the traditional “habit,” more traditionalist or rigorous in their style of living, etc.) The pattern is most striking among the women’s congregations.
Closer to home, you may be interested in Westminster Abbey, which is the home of a congregation of Benedictines (their rule places less emphasis on a cloistered life. Besides a guest-house and a working farm, they also run a seminary), and on one corner of the property is an order of (cloistered) Poor Clares.
This is all in Mission.
The life is hardly a “summer camp” as stated above, many people visit for daily or weekend retreats and speculate about monastic life and they often leave with an “idea” of what the life is like as opposed to a realistic experience. It’s dramatic to say attending service is “voyeuristic” while misunderstanding that one is actually being a “participant” in an in honorable tradition that offers an experience many would love to retain and be a part of… but either lack the courage to give themselves to it, or are simply not called to it for lack of the special gifts of personality and charism to live it out. Being a monk is no small task. It may appear to be at brief glimpse a summer camp or men’s club, but over time, it breaks even the strongest of men. It is at this point, vocation becomes a reality.
Add days to months and months to years and you have a very demanding lifestyle, one that requires stamina and an authentic call to live out what could be a lifetime of the same old routines…all for the glory of God and what the monk believes, for the greater good of this crazy world. There has to be and should be on earth, places and people that transcend the everyday human experience of craving for material goods and sense appetite experience; a life that is centered on the spiritual and the transformation of the human person. All the other stuff leaves people right where they started; bored, withdrawn and unfulfilled…been there done that. Monastic Life is a call to Something Greater…
Yes, presently, The Life is weak in numbers but history can repeat itself and who is to say that it will not once again thrive? There is still an active interest in this Life and not surprisingly among middle-aged men 40’s and 50’s who have had their fill of wine, women and song, enough to know that there has to be something, “better than this.”
Personally, I feel that we need such men and women and that monasteries are a crucial part of our spiritual survival; places that give rest and healing to thousands of people. Look around at the global scene…what better time than now for an increased awareness of God, of all things good? If we lose our monks and monasteries, we lose….
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