Pilgrim Path

This blog is the work of a seeker and poet. Walking stick in hand, I head out into the world, not of the world, but in the world. My words and my friends carry me along and light the pilgrim path of spiritual journeys.

Monday, May 24, 2010


On a pleasant Sunday fall afternoon in October, 2001, my friend Bob and I prepared to leave Chicago for a weeklong retreat at Our Lady of Gethsemani Abbey in Trappist, Kentucky. After finally getting Bob’s SUV packed, he turned the key, started the car and clicked the radio on. The news reader reported that the bombing of Afghanistan, in response to the attack of 9/11, had begun. Bob and I looked at each other. He wordlessly reached for the radio volume dial and turned it to the off position.

After a “last supper” breakfast that included meat (forbidden at the monastery) , we arrived at the abbey on an early Monday afternoon. We grabbed as much of our belongings out of the SUV as we could and made our way to the retreat center to check in with the guestmaster. We were surprised to find a mingling crowd of men in various states of check-in. When it came to our turn, the guestmaster shuffled papers somewhat endlessly before apologizing that they had overbooked and that Bob and I would need to take a room in the monk’s quarters. I’m not sure how others would react to this news, but as for me, I felt that I’d hit the monastic lottery at my first attempt.

The rest of the first day was spent settling in and getting familiar with the grounds and labyrinthine staircases. After a day of travel and expectation, I was looking forward to The Great Silence – the time after the last service of the night, Compline, when monks and guests alike were expected to retire for the day. Due to the early start of the monastic day – 3:15am – the last service is held at 7:30pm.

Compline is a beautiful service that is identical every night. The same prayers and psalms and songs are chanted and sung each night concluding with the blessing of the Abbot with sprinkled holy water as we processed past him. To my surprise, we were shepherded off into a side chapel after Compline. As obedient oblates (of a sort), we quietly moved into the chapel and each found a seat.

After a very short time, a small, stooped, ruddy-faced monk carrying a large pile of books with all sorts of scraps of paper bookmarks entered the chapel, mumbled a blessing and opened one of his books. Without introducing himself, he began by speaking the title of a poem, the name of the poet and then the poem itself. He didn’t keep his nose in the book, but neither did he look us in the eyes. His upward glance from the book was just that: upward and a glance, to his holy audience.

Finishing the poem, he closed the book and moved it to the nearby altar while quickly shuffling through the other books, almost as if panning for gold. A-ha, you could almost here him exclaim. Before long, you were deeply immersed in the listening of another poem. It seemed the most natural thing to close one’s eyes in order to more deeply hear the words. As he finished the poem, it was my turn to inwardly say, A-ha.
The second book was closed, placed on the altar (the symbolism was deep), and then the book shuffling began again. A third and final poem was read. There was a certain rhythm to his reading. Perhaps it was a rhythm learned from years of chanting psalms. To my ears however, his words sounded like a lullaby.

(to be continued…)

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