After spending the night in the town that was the birthplace of the Ku Klux Klan, we didn’t know this when we reserved a room online at the motel but should have had something of an idea when the restaurant where we ate dinner had a portrait of Nathan Bedford Forrest hanging on a wall in the foyer, we took a leisurely back road drive across Tennessee, into Kentucky, and on to Bardstown where we spent the night. To have taken the interstate we would have been there in three and a half hours. Our alternate scenic route took us most of the day and suited us a lot better than speeding along over the hills and through the hollows in interstate traffic.
Bardstown has something of a tourist feel to it and there are quite a few attractions, particularly the distilleries. We were more interested in another spirit. Once we had breakfasted and loaded the car we followed the directions from Bardstown to the abbey.
One and a half centuries of daily prayers, a schedule of prayer that begins at 3:00 a.m. and incorporates the seven liturgical hours throughout the day as part of the monastic profession, have permeated the hills that surround the Abbey of Gethsemani. Prayer is the heartbeat, the pulse of monastic life.
These prayers are felt long before arriving at the caution light where you turn into the abbey, long before the large statue of St. Joseph holding the Infant comes into view atop the hill across from the guest parking lot, or the large cross on an adjacent hill. It causes me to wonder how many of the travelers on their way past, or maybe I should say driving through since the property owned by the monastery stretches out on both sides of the road, have any sense that there is something special, sacred, holy about this place and the grounds that surround it.
Brother Rene makes rosaries. I didn’t meet him but in the gift shop I did buy one of his prayerfully made works of art fashioned from seeds that he grows. In the gift shop we met Father Seamus and Brother Camillus. Brother Camillus entered Gethsemani fifty years ago and knew Merton. Father Seamus blessed my rosary.
Like a couple of tourists we had our picture taken with them. I couldn’t help myself and asked Brother Camillus if I could hug him before we left. He was appreciative of the idea and the embrace was a genuinely holy one, sharing something much deeper than mere human touch. I recall Merton writing about how joyful monks are, that people have a mistaken notion that monks are somber, when they are really filled with joy. This joyfulness was abundantly evident in the lives of Father Seamus and Brother Camillus.