Some of you reading this know that one of my favorite places on the earth is The Abbey of Gethsemani near Bardstown, Kentucky. I never tire of going there, and it is easy for me to go there in my mind on days when I am far from its hallowed ground. Today is one of those days. I am thinking about Gethsemani.
Gethsemani is itself a paradigm of the spiritual life I so want to live. Its architecture bespeaks simplicity and purity of devotion. Its silence is a reminder that attentiveness is born in listening, not speaking. Its cloister calls me to remember to walk in prayer. Its grounds invite me into a fresh experience of the beauty and wonder of creation. The Cistercian monastic schedule followed in the Abbey each day (as has been true for a 1,000 years) connects the natural rhythms of the day to the formative movements of my soul. The dress of the monks and their common grave markers together tell me that I am one with everyone else. The liturgy and symbol maintain the centrality of worship and keep me rooted in scripture, sacrament, and tradition. The fresh graves call me to remember my mortality.
Gethsemani opens me to the great cloud of witnesses in general and to specific mentors who now sleep in its cemetery: Father Louis (Thomas Merton), Father Gregory, Father Timothy, and Father Matthew. I can never visit Gethsemani without remembering that my “I” (here understood as the true self) exists because of the collective witness and influence of others. No one is an island.
I always leave my time at Gethsemani (literally or reflectively) refreshed and re-centered. I feed on the new sights and sounds that I carry from each visit, and almost always with a new book and some cheese from the gift shop. But most of all, Gethsemani teaches me that the ultimate reason for cherishing one place is to come to see all ground as holy–the purpose of giving thanks for the past is to be able to live better in the present.
P.S.—You can explore the richness of Gethsemani for yourself, by scheduling a personal retreat there or by visiting the monastery website: http://www.monks.org.