It’s the winter of 2009 and I find myself eager to take a holiday, to abandon my work and leave the cell phone and computer behind, but mostly to have a Christmas (since the death of my parents) that doesn’t involve my being an orphan at someone else’s table.
It’s always a difficult decision, how and where to spend this time. I always feel that wherever I am, I might ought to be somewhere else. If/when I am with one sister—I feel badly that I am not with the other. If with friends, I feel humbled and loved, but also out of place and burdensome.
In truth I just need a place to be so that this year I don’t have to be somewhere else that isn’t home.
So I decide to drive the 70 miles to Trappist, Kentucky to spend a weekend at the Abbey of Gethsemane where Trappist monks have lived, prayed, and worked for over 150 years.
Hospitality is important in the living monastic tradition. As outlined in Saint Benedict’s Rule for Monasteries, the guest represents Christ and has a claim on the welcome and care of the community. The Abbey of Gethsemani has received guests from the first days of its foundation in 1848. People from all over the world are welcomed to come and stay.
Because it’s a silent retreat I can bear being their guest, not having to explain my orphan status or being asked about why I am alone during the holidays.
I look forward to the humble and sparse room that I’ll be staying in, the scheduled meal times, and having been raised in the faith of this sacred place; I take comfort in the masses with their familiar and reassuring rituals.
But what I don’t expect, and what turns out to be the long lasting effect of this place for me, is the west side of the property, totaling about 1200 acres on the side of the road opposite the church, that is available for extended walks and hikes. There are miles of trails through the knobs on this side of the road. It is said that even the monks have been known to get lost in this vast landscape.
The first order of business of my weekend retreat, I strike off on my own for a hike and I encounter more than just nature. As the sun sets, along a trail I’ve chosen to follow, in the footsteps of others, I begin to find things along the way that people have left behind: small statues, religious icons, propped next to a tree or hanging from a tree, there are these little “Easter eggs” every where– even large pieces of art just appear seemingly out of no where as I walk this path. Little pieces of grace along the way, pieces of art, pieces of people’s spiritual hearts, these guide me along the way.
After a while I come upon what I can only describe as a makeshift prayer shack. The most humble of all churches I’ve ever entered. As I step inside to investigate, I can see that this is a holy place where people have lined the walls with their handwritten prayers. I read these prayers and feel my heart changed somehow. I feel connected to these lost people. I feel not alone. I feel these people speaking to me, with their hearts, using the silence to reach me, their words time travelling. And somehow I understand each and every one of these profound and hallowed written/spoken prayers in a deep and inexplicable way.
I leave with a feeling of solace. I leave not feeling alone. I leave feeling I’ve had some of the most profound conversations one has ever had, without even speaking a word.
About the Author: Gail Lowery currently resides in Kentucky. She once had a mother, a father, and a beloved little dog named Becca. She loves to hike and has spent many weekends doing so at Raven’s Run nature sanctuary—time she definitely doesn’t regret.
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