When I was in college, I was part of a group that twice traveled to the Abbey of Gethsemani to spend a weekend-long retreat with the monks who make their lives there. It was something of a dissonant connection when our bus full of boisterous young adults descended on the peace and order of this highly regulated religious community.
We were well-prepared for what we’d experience there, and we were expected to maintain some semblance of the silence that the monastery treasured. We would have our own retreat talks and community time, and we would participate in praying daily prayer with the monks, joining them in the simplicity and rhythms of their lives.
These rhythms gave a certain amount of predictability to these visits; on one level, I very much knew what to expect. But there were still a number of surprises in store. Monks were not, as it turned out, as distant and unrelatable as I thought.
I had envisioned monks as solitary; their emphasis on silence and on relationship with God seemed to preclude meaningful relationships with others. There was certainly a contrast between the energy of our youthful socialization and the quieter ways the monks cared for each other, but deep friendship wound through the hearts of both communities. Love was being lived out in different ways, but it was the same love.
I was touched to see younger monks taking care of older ones, guiding them to their place at prayer and helping those whose vision was fading find their place in the liturgical books. Needs were met; someone was always there to step up. This was a reminder I’d need later in life as the contours of friendship changed. As distances grew, obligations increased, and availability diminished, friendship started to look different. But I know now that friendship doesn’t always look the same, and that makes it no less real.
Okay, so these monk guys are tight with the people with whom they share a lot in common. Fair enough. But my image of a monastery was still a place of seclusion. Its very purpose was to draw its residents away from the outside world, offering them protection and peace that is inaccessible in secular life.
But monks also commit to radical hospitality. The Rule of St. Benedict — the ancient document that guides many monasteries even today — commands that monks “treat every guest like Christ.” Their rhythms of prayer and work are important, but the disruptions that guests provide are seen as an opportunity to encounter Jesus and to grow in holiness.
We were certainly a disruption to the monks’ usual way of being in the world. But they treated us with nothing but kindness, tending to us with care and anticipating our needs with attention to detail. To them, the disruption was worth it; as someone who struggles with interruptions, it helps me to remember this approach.
Monks live a very disciplined way of life; on the surface it may appear to be strict or rigid. But these rules are freely chosen and rightly enforced, and they actually provide a measure of freedom. They take away distractions and enable community members to strive to become their best selves. And the joy with which they live this life is hard to miss.
It’s a quieter, restrained joy — again contrasting with the noisy exuberance we imported on our bus — but its authenticity is evident. I especially saw this in the singing that carries their daily prayer. It is simple song, led by the human voice, sometimes accompanied softly by organ. It is not the trumpets and cymbals we usually associate with joy. But the joy is still there, and it invites participation from those who visit.
There’s something here for all of us
Perhaps most surprising of all was the idea that monastery living wasn’t something completely separate from the life I was living as a student. Their way of life may seem foreign, but monks aren’t some alien race that’s meant to be separate from all of us. They live an unusually intense and hyper-concentrated version of Christian life, but we’re all called to the same holiness, and the basic principles of monastery life hold lessons for us all.