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A Monastery Retreat of Silence and Solitude

It is late as I write here at the Abbey of Gethsemani in Kentucky.

Amidst the busyness of the holidays I became aware of this monastery of approximately 40 Trappist monks of the strictest order of silence and solitude. With a little need for both, I was blessed to have been confirmed for a four night and five day stay in January. During my stay, I have found there are not enough hours in the day with seven prayer services (I skip the ones at 3:45 a.m. and 5:45 a.m.☺), silent time to read, journal, pray, meditate, and acres of trails to explore.

The 1200 acres belonging to the Abbey are beautiful with wooded trails, as well as wide open spaces. It was such a joy hiking approximately 17 miles the last few days.

Two mornings ago, when I realized I was going to miss the 12:15 p.m. mass right before I lunch as I was high on a hill top in the heart of the woods, I finally just let it go. I laughed feeling like Sister Maria at the beginning of the movie Sound of Music not making it back to prayer service.

What has been fascinating and such a joy is finding out Thomas Merton, one of the most influential spiritual writers of our times, was a Trappist monk here for 27 years and has written more than 50 books, 2,000 poems, and countless number of essays. I can’t read enough about his thoughts, especially on contemplation. I have come to think of it as enlightenment in my yoga world. So much still to digest. He says, “[I]n active contemplation a man becomes to live within himself…to be at home with his own thoughts…he derives inner satisfaction from spiritual creativeness…you discover the secret of life in the creative energy of love, as a profound expression of freedom.”

Why do we need silence? It is a physical relief to be silent, in a silent environment, even for a day. Noise pollution is one of the principal causes of stress in the western world.

In the West, it seems we are almost afraid of silence. We seem desperate to fill every corner and every occasion with sound. After even a few hours of silence, we are more gathered, more contained, more present to ourselves than if we had flung words over our friends like confetti.

With silence can come mindfulness! All of a sudden, you are aware of everything around you and feel gratitude. My hikes brought mindfulness with nature. Author Roger Housden in his book entitled Retreat said, “Nature can often shock the mind away from its habitual preoccupations by the sheer impact of its beauty, grandeur and power. Nature invites us to listen and join in to its teeming aliveness”. Purpose of retreats are often so “the mind can find the place in the heart”.

Mindfulness can lead to meditation? If we can find silence and quiet our “monkey minds”, we become more aware and mindful of our world. This mindfulness can lead to meditation. We get away from our ordinary self and begin to find our true identity. Whenever you notice your attention wandering away from the meditative state, the best thing you can do is bring your awareness back to the breath…that, too, is meditation.

There is a type of meditation I have just recently started incorporated into my daily practice that has allowed me to be aware of all the people in my life, past and present, from the ones dearest to me to the ones I have found a little difficult (oh, so few on the later ☺). Metta meditation is the practice of loving kindness. It involves generating the feeling of loving kindness towards oneself and others. I would hold someone in my heart and repeatedly say: May they be safe. May they be happy. May they be healthy. May they be at peace. This is a tremendous practice when you are trying to let go of resentment, dislike, or whatever you are harboring toward someone who is in your life that is a challenge. It is also such a joy to bring all those you love in your life into your heart and send out these blessings.

In summary, I have learned it is important to find time for silence and solitude. However, it does not mean finding a monastery to reach those goals. My suggestion is to have intentionally scheduled time every day for this to happen. When you are going to be in your car alone more than 15 minutes, plan on turning off the radio to just be mindful and quiet. Take a walk alone out in nature without a cell phone. I have also learned the need to be aware of your breath throughout the day to bring you back to the present, which leads to mindfulness and gratitude for something higher than yourself, whatever that is for you. And, praying unceasingly for anyone and everything. So, enjoy your journey of silence and solitude and discover your own lessons.

“The contemplative waits in silence and when he is ‘answered’, it is not so much by a word that bursts into his silence. It is by this silence itself suddenly, inexplicably, revealing itself to him as a word of great power.”

Thomas Merton.

Sally Bassett

January 2022

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