Some Personal Reflections on The Abbey of Gethsemani

Thomas Merton

Abbey of Gethsemani (Lori Erickson photo)

“Cistercian architecture explains many things about our rule and our life. A church [in this tradition] is born of prayer and is a prayer.  Its simplicity and its energy tell us what our prayer should be. It simply says what Saint Benedict already told us: that we must pray to God ‘with all humility and purity of devotion…not in many words but in purity of heart and in the compunction of tears.’ The churches of our Fathers express their humility and their silence…They did not waste words with God or with men and in their buildings they did not waste anything either.”

So writes Thomas Merton in The Sign of Jonas, in a passage describing his home at the Abbey of Gethsemani in Kentucky.  The passage explains very well why the abbey’s sanctuary is exceedingly spare and simple, with a single small icon for adornment.  Even its stained glass windows are subtle in color and reserved in style.

What the church has, however, is sense of soaring interior space and a powerful sense of prayerful silence.  That’s not surprising, of course, given the fact that those who worship here are intimately acquainted with silence.  It’s as if that silence has seeped into the bones of this building, permeating its very molecules.

When I first saw the abbey church I must admit to feeling a twinge of disappointment.  My personal preference is for a bit more color and decoration.  But as I sat there, because it was so spare and simple, I began to notice subtle things.  As the minutes passed, I saw how the pattern of sunlight on the wall ever so slowly shifted.  And the silence around me came to seem almost like a living thing, brilliant and muted at the same time.

“Even when I cannot think straight, God straightens me out as soon as I get a minute alone in church,” writes Merton in The Sign of Jonas.  ”It is good to go and pray even when you feel washed out.  The mere effort makes you feel better. You are giving something of your silly self away, and that always nourishes you.”

You are giving something of your silly self away—marvelous line, isn’t it?  And certainly this church, this haven of silence and sunlight, is a good place to let it go.

At the Abbey of Gethsemani (Lori Erickson photo)

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