Photo by Brother Paul Quenon
I arrived at the gates of the Abbey of Gethsemani near New Haven one sunny Saturday morning, having learned about it through the works of Thomas Merton. Merton was a prolific writer, authoring more than 60 books, many of which dealt with topics such as contemplation, solitude and social injustice. He was a Trappist monk who spent the majority of his adult life devoted to spiritual practice within the gates of Gethsemani. The abbey—established in 1848 by 44 monks from the Abbey of Melleray in Brittany, France—is the oldest functioning abbey in the United States.
hat drew Merton to Gethsemani? How do people today find their way to its gates? What is day-to-day life like there?
Although situated on 2,000 acres of land in Nelson County, and with huge structures accommodating the living and working quarters of the monks, the abbey itself is hardly advertised as a landmark. Because I was unfamiliar with the area, I got lost both coming and going. But once I arrived on Monks Road, the structure stood in front of me—white, imposing, wholly out of place in what I knew of the Kentucky landscape. Aerial photos of Gethsemani do better justice to the enormity of the complete operation. The walls of the abbey made me feel like I had opened my car door and stepped into a driveway in the English countryside. There was a smattering of cars in the parking lot but, other than my companion, I did not see another person. No cars drove down Monks Road; there was no movement I could see within the buildings.
I turned to my companion and motioned my head toward the building marked “Visitor’s Center.”
“You want to go in?” I asked. She nodded.
According to Brother Paul Quenon, who is the monk in charge of public relations at Gethsemani, visitors should not be fooled by the vacant appearance. Forty-three monks live at the abbey full time, and Gethsemani hosts two retreats every week for up to 45 participants per retreat.
“For the most part, we [monks] keep out of sight,” Brother Quenon said. “We spend our time in the living quarters [which are marked for visitors to avoid], so other than church services, which are open to the public, you probably won’t see us.”
Approaching the visitor’s center, I was struck with the general silence of Gethsemani. Not only was the abbey itself a quiet place, the lack of activity in the landscape surrounding it punctuated our aloneness.
We entered to find an interactive visitor’s center, complete with a movie, photos of the monks and glassed-in artifacts. The film documented the history of Gethsemani as well as the monks, including how they spend their days. According to Quenon, the visitor’s center receives steady traffic from church groups and schools in addition to retreatants and the general populace as they seek to learn more about the monks’ solitary lives.
“It’s a balanced life,” said Quenon. “We get up each morning at 3 a.m. It’s a quiet hour, a good time for prayer, because you’re not under any pressure to get to work.”
After some time devoted to prayer and reflection, the monks begin their workday at Gethsemani Farms. “We make a living curing cheese,” Quenon explained. “And then we also have a bakery, where we make fruitcakes. And then there’s the fudge department, where we make our bourbon and non-bourbon fudges to sell.” These items generate enough revenue for the monks to live comfortably, and they donate any surplus to the poor.
Inside the visitor’s center, we found our way to the gift shop, where we finally encountered people: two women behind the cash register. We wandered around the gift shop, stopping to touch the various nativity depictions and books either by or about Merton.
“Let’s not buy anything yet,” I said. “Let’s walk around more.”
We left the visitor’s center and walked the path toward where the church services are held. Upon reaching the gates of the church itself, we noticed a sign directing us to be silent from that point forward. I raised my eyes toward my companion, a 14-year-old with a cell phone in her hand.
“Put it up,” I said. “We’re doing this.”
We passed through the gates toward the church, stopping only briefly to gaze at the gravestones dotting the earth to our left. And then we pulled open the tall wooden doors to the church.
The sanctuary was long and narrow, with ceilings high enough to make me feel a little disoriented. We had come between services; we were the only people in there. Gesturing, I pointed toward a door that was marked “balcony.”
The two of us climbed the stairs in the required silence. We opened the door and stepped onto the balcony, where a woman sat in one of the wooden rows, her eyes closed, her hands resting on her thighs with the palms up.
We sat. As my mind started to clear, I found myself noticing noises I might have missed otherwise: the slight groan on the pew every time my companion shifted, the low hiss of each exhalation I made, the sound of my stomach growling.
It was here, sitting in the absolute stillness in the sanctuary at Gethsemani, that I started to glimpse why Merton loved it here so much.
My companion touched my arm and tilted her head toward the window. We left, both of us glancing one last time at the woman who continued to pray, and walked across the grounds of Gethsemani until we found our way to the abbey’s trails.
The trails, which wind through the 1,200 acres, are a blend of open spaces and narrow, tree-covered walkways. We wandered the various paths, whispering our desires to run into a solitary monk who also was walking. Although we did not encounter a monk along the trails, we did find multiple reminders of the spiritual aspects of this place: statues of saints, a small prayer shelter—physical testaments to the relationship between nature and our inner beings.
When we tired, we returned to the gift shop to make our purchases. Near the cash register was a plate of fudge for us to sample, both the bourbon and non-bourbon varieties. One small section of bourbon fudge was enough to sell me on buying an entire package. The women behind the cash register asked us many questions about what had brought us to Gethsemani that day.
“We do have hired workers,” Quenon said. “Usually their job is to package our products and take orders, especially during the holidays, which is our busiest season.”
“This has been really fun,” my companion said as we returned to our car to make the trip home.
“Really?” I asked, shocked. “I thought you might be bored.”
“Nope,” she shook her head. “I had a great time.”
During this season of holiday parties and rushing from place to place, her words, “I had a great time,” continue to come back to me, as do Brother Quenon’s parting words.
“People have a natural instinct for quiet and contemplation,” he said. “But they just don’t know it until it’s been awakened in them. Sometimes it takes a place like this, this spiritual sanctuary in the heart of Kentucky, to awaken them.”
If you go …
Abbey of Gethsemani
3642 Monks Road, Trappist
(502) 549-3117, monks.org
The visitor’s center is open 9 a.m.-5 p.m., Monday through Saturday, but is closed on various holidays and holy days (please check the website for a list of closings). No advance arrangements are necessary to attend church services and walk the grounds.
Retreats are held Monday through Friday and on weekends (Friday through Monday). Reservations may be made by calling the office during office hours.