Before I visited St. Bernard Abbey and became an Oblate of St. Benedict the only monasteries I had visited were in Germany while I was in the Army in the mid seventies. All but one of those was ancient, abandoned, and falling down and my reason for visiting these ruins was purely superficial. I was bored and needed something to do when I wasn’t on duty. The reason for visiting the other one was also superficial. I went there to drink some beer and eat bread made by the monks. Both the beer and the bread were in a class all their own. In retrospect, now that I think about it, so were the monks who made them.
I owe my interest in monasticism to Thomas Merton and will ever be indebted to a dear friend who introduced me to Merton’s writings eight years ago. Little did I know, at that time, that the path of my life would lead me to where I am now. Nothing in my past history as a Christian in the evangelical world embraced or fostered the monastic life. In fact, back in my Bible College days in Houston (1979-1984), we were taught that the early monks who followed Antony into the desert to live as religious hermits were merely deranged and that Luther’s reforms made him something of a savior who rescued the Church from the errors of Catholicism.
So, for me, there has been a tremendous change in the way I understand and go about living a life of faith, change that I view as positive and healthy even though it has come with something of a price tag attached to it. It’s more than interesting what happens when an evangelical, not to mention a fundamental evangelical preacher, embraces Catholicism and monasticism. In some cases it’s as though we’ve contracted leprosy. In a lot of cases we experience more subtle forms of rejection and coldness.
Visiting the Abbey of Gethsemani wasn’t my idea but, when Shirli suggested it as part of our vacation, I was ready to go. I knew it would have special significance but I had no idea how deeply I would be affected in the center of my being. I looked forward to visiting the abbey where Merton lived and wrote, to do some serious browsing and shopping in the monastery gift shop, and to see where this significant contributor to my life is buried.