As they have for more than a century and a half, the bells of the Abbey of Gethsemani rang bright and early. As they will throughout the week, they summoned me to Morning Prayer and Holy Mass with the Trappist monks and my quartet of friends. The sun won’t rise officially here for another half-hour, so only a faint light in the sky is visible out the large wall of windows as we sit down for our silent breakfast.
Here, in this holy place, silence isn’t merely golden. It is the very atmosphere, what we inhale all week. Breathe in silence; exhale prayer, meditation, contemplation. Silence is the oxygen for the soul that drew me.
When communication with spoken words pauses, the senses become more acute — seeing and hearing most noticeably, but I find the soul’s sensitivity intensifies as well. I started coming here some years ago to fine-tune that sensitivity. This year, I’m counting on that developing tenderness to actually produce some results. I want to explore some important things about myself. I need to discern something. I need to decide something, and I’m giving my soul five days to get it done.
My breakfast of oatmeal and fruit has been consumed. The scene outside the dining room’s windows looks brighter. The world here, in this monastery garden, is throwing back the covers and stretching to jump into another day. I step onto the patio. Silence lives here in a powerful way.
The earth is dark brown mud and the grass is a glistening bright green after last night’s steady rain. A yellow-and-black butterfly is hard at work. It sucks nectar from a purple flower, then a pink one and an orange one. The butterfly floats off, somewhere, then returns to dutifully pollinate some more. How it decides from which flower to slurp first and then second and then third — that’s a sensitivity I don’t understand.
I walk to a metal chair overlooking the garden’s lower level and take a seat. Somewhere in a tree overhead, a bird chirps. If it had been a chair under a different tree in a different garden in a different place, I might be carrying on dialogue that would drown out the chirps. But in this place, bathing in silence, I listen. And I wonder.
As part of my hope for exploring, discerning and deciding, I have plans. The monks pray seven times daily; I want to join them each time, including 3:15 in the morning for Matins. I want to “unplug” completely — no texting, no Facebook, no emails. I want to pray, attend daily Mass, read, sit with God, write — retreat from the busy world outside but not take a vacation, so no extra sleeping. If I am to get any “escape,” let it be from my depression and anxiety.
On Tuesday, I nap more than two hours and spend a good bit of the afternoon online. On Wednesday, I endure a mild panic attack in the morning, take another long nap and delve into Facebook for a while. On Thursday, feeling somewhat defeated, I get another nap and trade some text messages. I fear the week is a loss, a waste. A few of my retreat friends invite me to join them praying the Stations of the Cross in that lower level of the garden, beginning a half-hour before Evening Prayer.
The Third Station: Jesus falls the first time. My Tuesday fall. Lord, have mercy on me, reads our prayer. The Seventh Station: Jesus falls the second time. My Wednesday fall. I beg you to have mercy on me. The Ninth Station: Jesus falls the third time. Help me, Lord. Tears are streaming down my cheeks. Someone had told me they would pray I find joy on my retreat. I have let them down, let myself down …
We reach the Fifteenth Station: Jesus is raised from the dead. I look down at the sculptured plaque depicting the risen Christ, in all His glory. Something deep in my heart stirs. Something deep in my soul dances.
And in the tree overhead, a bird sings.