The hill beside the abbey church had been tiered. A stacked stone retaining wall with a poured concrete side walk led to a statue of Mary who stood overlooking a circular pathway inside the walled enclosure below us. Several small stones had fallen from the wall, insignificant toward its structural strength.
I suppose that time and the long, slow but effective process of water freezing and thawing had caused these small chips to break off and fall. Someone had stacked some of the flatter stones in several of the crevices in the wall giving the appearance that druids had been there and we found that to be a little amusing. We watched as two monks slowly, contemplatively made their way around the pathway below us. I couldn’t help myself. One of these small stones now sits on a shelf in front of me, and, like the rosary prayerfully made by Brother Rene, much more than a memento or keepsake.
Saying that the abbey church is beautiful isn’t based on any concept of modern artistry or fashion. It is very plain. So plain that it is quite stark with its high white walls and ceiling. Its beauty is in its simplicity on account of what takes place there, has taken place there, and ever will take place there as long as monks live, work, pray, and celebrate Mass at Gethsemani.
It is a long way from the back to the front with the choir situated close to the back of the church. I noticed the floor. It was concrete with an exposed aggregate finish and quite fitting as an aspect of the ambiance.
There are no fancy padded wooden pews to be found here but black stacking chairs instead. A glass knee-wall separates the guest seating area in the back and the traditional monastic choir. Viewing all this from the balcony, looking down on where the monks would be seated in choir, and ahead toward the altar, Tabernacle, and burning candle suspended from the ceiling added to the sense of holy awe and worship evoked when we first entered the church.
St. Joseph holding Jesus at the top of the hill was too inviting to pass up. The hill had been mown and looked like it was cultivated for hay containing a blend of grass and pink clover. The pathway that led to the top was mown closer to make it obvious that it was a pathway. We made our way to the top of the hill and sat on the chairs. There were only two chairs. Apparently the hill doesn’t get a lot of group sitters.
We were afforded a spectacular view in every direction. The field to the east was planted in corn, perhaps a hundred acres with a silo and what appeared to be a neighboring dairy farm about a half mile away. The hill with the cross was to the south and beyond it stretched tree covered Kentucky hills. To the west sat the monastery with its wall surrounding it. Farther to the west, and to the north, we could see the knobs that Merton often mentioned and the woods that he loved to visit as he sought an ever deepening solitude and awareness of God.
There was a stiff June breeze blowing across the top of the hill and a blue sky with only a few high clouds. It was really hard to come down from the hill. We could have sat there for hours enjoying both the peaceful scenery and the prayerful solitude that made the scenery even more beautiful. But a lot of miles awaited us before we would arrive at a family reunion in the mountains of North Carolina.
Gethsemani is not a place to visit as if it were some kind of tourist attraction. It is a place to experience, to feel with spiritual senses, where one hears best when they listen with the ears of their heart. It is the kind of place one goes and never leaves. And if we must leave, we leave something of ourselves there and, in exchange, we take something of it with us when we do.