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Retreating To The Holiest Place In The South

Retreating To The Holiest Place In The South

What I learned at Gethsemani Abbey in Kentucky

On a far-flung road in a particularly rural area of Central Kentucky is one of the holiest places in the American South, a large Catholic Abbey surrounded by endless rolling hills and winding roads. It may seem unassuming and secluded at a distance, but it is a place that is held dear in the heart of Catholics the world over.

To get there from Nashville, take I-65 two hours north, drive through the countryside past the Kentucky Railroad Museum and Lincoln’s boyhood home, and keep going until the distant bell tower of Gethsemani Abbey appears on the rural outskirts of Bardstown. It does not look like much more than a large church from the road, but experiencing it firsthand shows just how unique this plot of land is. 

The word “Holy” denotes one of the most important concepts in Christianity, referring to that which is “set apart.” A Holy place is a place that has been specifically consecrated or dedicated to the worship of God. You don’t eat meals or play sports in a Holy place. 

This has long been the role that Monasteries serve in Liturgical Christianity. During Medieval times, it was believed that mankind had three jobs available to him in life—to work, to soldier, or to pray. Those who chose a life in the church were often whisked away into a life of seclusion in large Abbeys or Monasteries to dedicate their life solely to prayer and the upkeep of sanctuaries through labor and chores—praying “unceasingly” on behalf of the masses.  

Gethsemani Abbey is no different, but it is set further apart by its distinguished status as home to one of the most famous Christians of the 20th century: the Catholic mystic and theologian Thomas Merton. Though not considered a Saint within his faith, Merton’s influence is massive as he remains one of the most popular theologians of the past century, thanks in part to his willingness to engage in dialogue with Eastern religions and becoming friends with the current Dalai Lama, who last visited Merton’s grave there in 1994.  

It is curious that such a historically and religiously significant place might be found in Kentucky, but that area has a surprising history of Catholic colonization. The Abbey was the first Cistercian Order to be planted in the United States in 1848. Its foundation was tied to the first settlers who cultivated the land in the early 19th century. It was placed just south of a large collection of Catholic communities that had simultaneously migrated from Maryland and planted the surviving Proto-Cathedral of St. Joseph in Bardstown—creating a strange but sizable hub for Catholicism in the culturally Protestant state. 

This outpost of Catholicism certainly makes it secluded among the hills and religious differences of the locals, but such seclusion is part of the point. The roughly forty Cistercian Monks who call Gethsemani Abbey home live in a rural order that focuses on a quiet life of prayer, meditation, and peace. 

When I arrived at the Abbey in mid-August, it was on a quiet Saturday afternoon. Six visitors gathered in the Abbey’s undecorated white brick chapel for daily 2:15 p.m. prayers known as None. Forty monks in robes gathered to recite Psalms and hymns for a short service, as they do seven times per day, every day, for their entire lives. Afterward, I spoke with Brother Paul Quenon, who has lived at the monastery for 65 years. 

“I had no aspirations of being religious, despite being in a Catholic school through grade school and high school. I used to go to mass before class every day. No students went, except the girls, so a friend and I would go to talk to them afterward,” Brother Paul tells me. “But then I read Thomas Kempis’s The Imitation of Christ and it got me onto personal prayer. I discovered that love is always available. You don’t have to go searching for it. And a monastery is a place where you can have a sense of the presence of God all the time. Then I read Merton’s Seven Story Mountain and it made me realize I wouldn’t have to move to West Virginia or France to apply to live in a monastery. I was only 17 when I joined in 1958.”

Brother Paul was himself actually trained as a novice by Merton for two years, working with him privately to help him attain his vocation as a monk; although to him he was less a celebrity author and philosopher and more of another monk that happened to write popular books. Many generations of Catholic monks since found their passion and desire to join Gethsemani Abbey by reading his books. 

It is easy to assume the life of a monk is hard. They begin their days with prayer at 3:15 a.m., attend morning mass, labor for four hours per day, and meet for prayers every two or three hours in between. Yet, there is much leisure time in the life of a Cistercian monk, with the monks dedicating their afternoons to reading, walks, and quiet time. The monks all go to bed early at 8 p.m. and get a consistent seven hours of sleep every night, before rising again to repeat the day’s tasks.  

“We’re contemplatives. Franciscan monks are preachers. Dominicans are teachers and priests. Our order focuses on the life of prayer, contemplation, work, and reading. It's more oriented towards the interior life. Our life of prayer defines us,” Brother Paul tells me.

Brother Paul is a member of the order of “strict Cistercians,” also known as the Trappists. Unlike the concurrent Cistercian movement, his fellow monks do not eat meat and observe stricter rules. The order aims to be an agricultural order, but the rise in industrial farming has largely rendered this a moot point when the majority of that work can be outsourced to tractors and machinery. Now, the order focuses on producing desserts and selling them by mail order—including fruit cakes and bourbon fudge infused with Jim Beam for a local Kentucky flavor. 

Gethsemani Abbey’s penchant for delicious desserts and rural seclusion has meant that it has become popular across the U.S. as a retreat spot, with roughly 9,000 people making pilgrimages to it for meditation and hiking retreats every ye. Many of these guests aren’t even Catholic. The Abbey welcomes regular Protestant, Buddhist, and non-religious guests, merely requiring that they not partake in communion during morning mass. 

Br. Paul says that the silence and peace of the Abbey provide something that visitors find is missing in their lives. “It represents something that they’re looking for, a personal approach to spiritual experience. They want to experience that,” he says of the guests. “People are hungry for something deeper.” 

“The presence of God in this place is implicit, sometimes more so than others. It is the unstated ground of my existence, somehow always there but hidden. You might feel it or not, but if you try and feel it, it disappears, lest it insinuate itself. Life sits on the verge of eternity and you don’t always feel it. The feeling isn’t describable, but sometimes it floods your soul—something descends upon you and you find you’re quiet all of the sudden.”  

Places like Gethsemani Abbey are strange because they feel otherworldly and set apart. Even for an area as spiritual and deeply rooted as the South is, a monastery has a way of setting itself apart. Its distance from major cities makes it a pilgrimage to get to, and the effort of the monks to prune and keep it a quiet and sacred place makes it feel like a place where a small piece of heaven has been brought down to earth. 

Gethsemani Abbey is open to the public seven days per week and has a public store that sells its baked goods.

It also hosts a retreat center where visitors can sign up to stay overnight at the Abbey for several days.