10 things Realized and Gained from the Abbey
1. How everyone oriented themselves to be looking out the window while they eat. Much better than staring at our phone screens
2. That I feel like I know the people who were at the Abbey with us, even though I don’t know their names
3. The luxury of silence I was afforded for the weekend, and how it’s a matter of choice of how loud and noisy my life us outside of the Abbey
4. The stoicism of the monks, and how intentional I imagine them being with their words
5. The Lord gave me the idea of a sunflower for my tattoo! It was totally a Jesus thing
6. The wind that Saturday night. Some of the most intense, scary wind. I felt so exposed and vulnerable for some reason… I usually love wind
7. The order of prayer. I especially loved going to None and Compline with the monks
8. The certainty of boldness I felt before a prayer time about my future. Go free and fearless into the future
9. I loved being out of the city and sitting in the grass and hearing birds chirp while my window is open and not having my phone with me and not worrying about if I missed a text message
10. I loved what songs would pop into my head. Sometimes they were ridiculous pop songs, but lots of times, they’d be favorite hymns, meaningful songs, or just a song that I forgot that I really loved that I hadn’t heard in a long while
Several years ago Eugene Peterson wrote a book called A Long Obedience in the Same Direction: Discipleship in an Instant Society. I have never read his book, but I have loved its title since the first time that I heard it. I often struggle with staying focused and continuing with a course once the novelty and the original excitement wears off. But staying the course is essential to our faith.
A few nights ago my housemates and I watched a documentary about the Barkley Marathons. Ultramarathon participants attempt to run 120 miles across the mountains of Eastern Tennessee in under 60 hours. They go without sleep and run through the night. They train for months and carefully calculate the equipment they’ll need. The elevation change in the course is equivalent to climbing and descending Mt. Everest twice. In the 30 years that the Barkley has existed, only 14 people have completed the entire course.
At one point in the documentary, the founder of the race observes, “People who have completed graduate school are disproportionately represented in the 14 race finishers. These people are used to taking on a big project and slogging through to the finish line.” Over its 120 miles, the race loops through the base camp 5 times. Each time runners enter camp, their sleeping bags and tents beckon, and they have the option to quit the race. Runners who complete the course make up their minds before they approach camp that quitting is not even a possibility.
The discipline and single-mindedness of the Barkley Marathon runners brought to mind the discipline and single-mindedness of the monks at the Abbey of Gethsemani. Now, the monks may not be running long distances, but they are convening to pray 7 times throughout the day and night and they have committed themselves to a disciplined way of life. At the Abbey, I noticed that some of the monks looked very tired at prayers. I wondered what it would be like to commit to waking up for Vigils at 3:15am every day for the rest of your life. I am positive that at least occasionally some monks don’t particularly feel like waking up to pray at 3:15am. And yet, despite whatever they might be feeling at the moment, they pull themselves together and honor their commitment to their chosen life.
Similarly, I remember hearing a story about Mother Teresa– that for most of the last 40 or 50 years of her life she experienced a “Dark Night of the Soul.” This was a period of darkness where she felt alone and separate from the love of God. Mother Teresa receives universal acclaim for her compassionate work among the extremely marginalized in Calcutta. And yet, despite her tremendous work, she was not fueled by a constant sense of the presence of God in her work. She must, of course, have intellectually realized that her work was God-glorifying and God-blessed…but there was not the sense of God’s presence. Her legacy of incredible faithfulness seems especially precious in light of this Dark Night of the Soul.
When my good college friend’s father battled brain cancer, she was studying in Romania. As her semester there continued, her father grew sicker and sicker. Hers was a faith-based program and so she continued to attend church with her host family, but didn’t particularly feel the presence of God. Nevertheless, when we were talking about it a year or two later, she mentioned how much she valued going through the spiritual motions, and practicing the rituals, even when she felt only emptiness.
Spending time at the Abbey of Gethsemani brought together all of these disparate threads and gave me a picture of what a long obedience in the same direction would look like. While I doubt that I will ever enter the religious life, I strongly value the faithfulness that the monks showed in their lives. And I hope that I can foster a similar long obedience in the same direction.