Gethsemani Post 3

**Written during my silent retreat last week**


I write this at 3:45 AM (2:45 Mississippi time). Just returned to my “cell” from Vigils. It’s quite a different service. They begin with chanting a Versicle and Response, Invitatory Psalm and a hymn. Then the lights are all turned off as Nocturns of Psalms interspersed with other Scripture readings and a commentary or two from the ancient Fathers. All is done in darkness except for a light at the lectern for the reader, and one monk who introduces each Nocturn with a verse of Scripture.

There were two other bleary-eyed retreatants in the guest seating area with me, and I think one other in the balcony above us. I was relieved to see the monks looked a little sleepy also. They turn in each evening after Compline, which is at 7:30 and I believe they are in bed by 8.

The wonderful thing about the Vigils service was the comforting aspect of it. To think that every night at this time these monks are praying and remembering is reassuring. As we sleep, they are in chapel, as we hold our own bedside vigils in homes, hospitals, and hospices around the world, monks are praying and have been for centuries.

I will add to this post as the day unfolds. Next service is Lauds at 5:45, followed by Mass then breakfast. I have a cup of coffee and more work to do on the Ephesians Bible study as I await the dawn.


Laud’s is one of the longer prayer offices, lasting about 30 minutes. As soon as it is finished we move into Mass. They open the gate to our area and we are escorted all the way past the choir stalls to the altar area. The chapel really opens up here, very high ceiling and large altar platform. The guests are seated in chairs, pretty far from the altar, the monks are closer of course.


Of all the weeks to be here, and all the days of the week to attend Mass, there I sat as the first reading was read, and Lo and Behold it was from the 13th chapter of Numbers. St. Patrick’s folks will recognize this as the passage where Moses sends the 12 spies into Canaan, and they return afraid, 10 of them at least (all but Caleb and Joshua) saying they should not invade for there are giants in the land, and we are but grasshoppers to them. Caleb and Joshua, of course, are not concerned about the “giants” for they know God will be with them and give them the land long promised. At St. Pats we have declared ourselves grasshoppers, for there are giants around us as well, but we know God is with us. There is more to it than that, of course, but that’s the short version.  I hear the grasshopper story as my sabbatical winds down and I know it’s getting time to get back to work.

The following comments are not meant as critical of how worship is done here – this place is quite different from a Parish church and the audience is very different as well. Almost everyone here is Roman Catholic and they know the service backwards and forwards (during the dispensing of communion I only noticed one other retreatant who received a blessing instead of the host, as we were instructed to do if we were not RC). But being in the congregation for this service helped remind me of the importance of hospitality to visitors to our services. They handed out a Mass booklet that simply contained the tones for some of the service music, there was no order of service, no way to follow along in the Liturgy at all. The Eucharistic Prayer was similar to ours, although not the same, and the people all knelt at a different time in the EP (not right after the Sanctus as is typically done in the Episcopal Church). I was taken back to the first time I visited an Episcopal Church while dating my now wife, how foreign it all seemed to me, how lost I was in the Prayer book and how no one helped me figure anything out. I carry that experience with me and I am insistent, even when it may irritate our life long members, that we always gear our bulletin (which since Katrina contains the entire service text in it), announcements, etc. towards those who may come from a different Christian tradition, or are non-Christian visitors. Since we don’t have pews and haven’t since the storm, it was an easy decision to produce a full text bulletin, so folks only have a hymnal to juggle, and I have been comforted that several of our members who had opposed not using the Book of Common Prayer itself now tell me they really appreciate why we do things this way. The truth is, you won’t “learn your way around the prayer book” by using the 10 pages or so concerning Rite 2 Eucharist, and you take the chance of alienating visitors in the way I felt awkward this morning.

Still the service was nice and the monks chanting sounded really nice in those closer quarters. All the monks who are also Priests vested with stoles and surrounded the altar, but they stand pretty far (over 12 feet I would say) from the altar, so when they con-celebrated it looked very strange, holding their hands over the host from that far away almost had a Jedi Knight feel to it (invoking the Force, you could say?).

Being in that service also made me yearn for Eucharist in a way I haven’t this entire sabbatical time. I’ve taken Eucharist most Sundays, visiting Episcopal or Anglican churches when possible, but this is the longest time I have gone since my ordination without celebrating at the altar, an amazing privilege that I do miss. Soon and very soon….

One aspect of the service I was curious about was my own feelings around not receiving communion. In our church we invite all baptized Christians to receive the body and blood, bread and wine. At some Episcopal churches they extend that invitation to anyone, baptized or not (although to do so is a violation of the Canons of the church). Some see it as a hospitality issue, some believe you can come to baptism through Eucharist, instead of only the other way around. Our church will struggle with this issue over the next few years I am sure. It’s complicated and way beyond the scope of a blog post to debate it. But regardless, the Catholic church is quite clear that you need to be one of “theirs” to receive communion. But the rest of us are invited (as I do for the non-baptized) to receive a blessing. So I fell in line, approached the Priest, and folded my arms across my shoulders. The Priest already had a host in hand to give me but very smoothly and graciously made the sign of the cross on my forehead and blessed me. It was a good moment and I did not feel left out or singled out or treated like a second hand citizen. It was lovely and I understand this is their position on Eucharist and I can only honor it as such.

After Mass there is breakfast, then the short office of Terce. I am back in my room again and will write more after Sext and None this afternoon.


I declare this St. Patrick’s Day at the Abbey of Gethsemani! Not only did we have the grasshopper reading noted above, but at the None office we chanted “our Psalm”, Psalm 126, which we have prayed together ever since Katrina – “when the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion then we were like those who dream, then our mouths were filled with laughter and our tongues with shouts of joy”. Woot! It was weird though because in their booklet it’s listed as Psalm 125. When I got back to the room, I looked it up in the Catholic Bible which is on my desk and it’s 126 in there, just like it is in Protestant Bibles and the BCP. Maybe it’s a typo? Or there is some difference I am unaware of?

But that’s not all – it is obvious to me that many of these monks should join St. Patrick’s! Why, you ask? Because 1) Not all of them attend every service and 2) at each service several monks stroll in after the Office has already begun. It feels just like home!

So I have been to six services so far today and it’s 2:30 in the afternoon. Vigils, Lauds, Mass, Terce, Sext and None. Vespers is before supper and Compline (which is NOTHING like the Episcopal Compline service) is after supper and the last service before monks go night-night. Some of the Offices are quite short – Sext is 15 minutes, None took about 10, while others are 30 or so (Lauds and Vespers for sure). So it’s not 8 hours of prayer, just 7 prayer hours observed, along with Mass, every day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year since December of 1848. Pretty impressive, even if some of them show up a tad late!

The rain has stopped so going to walk around a bit.


I walked up to the visitor’s center and watched a film on Thomas Merton, the most famous of the monks of Gethsemani. A lot about Merton’s life I did not know. His tragic death to accidental electrocution in Japan was really sad. He has LOTS of books and I will investigate some of them. I understand the Seven Story Mountain is a life changing type of autobiography, maybe I will start there.

Vespers and Compline completed the prayer offices for me today. Now time for more work on the Ephesians study.

  1. L H ough
    August 9, 2011 at 9:23 am

    Are you sensing a “Call” towards Home and St. Patrick’s.

    We are here waiting for you.



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