A Thin Place (2)

Around this time of year, my heart begins to long for the Abbey of Gethsemani. It is a thin place to me (an old Celtic phrase referring to places where the distance between heaven and earth is negligible). I first discovered it through the writings of Thomas Merton, who spent much of his monastic life there. I started annual (and sometimes twice-yearly) prayer retreats there in May of 2000, if I remember correctly.

It is a place that has done much to keep me in the dance with God, and I will miss it this Spring. While we have, ever since we’ve had paid staff at Cobblestone Community Church, planned an annual Winter or Spring prayer retreat at the Abbey, this year we will be doing something different as a staff retreat. I still hope to take a prayer retreat in the Fall (Labor Day week, actually). But that seems a long way off....too long for my soul’s comfort.

One of the reasons it’s so special to me is because it was there, in May of 2000, that I first discovered constant prayer. It was there I first encountered (firsthand) the Rule of St. Benedict, which is a silent rule--in other words, no talking-- and the opus Dei (or work of God) that constitutes the rhythm of the monks’ lives. They meet for prayer seven times a day:
vigils (2:45 a.m.),
lauds (4:45 a.m.),
terce (8:45),
sext (11:30),
none (2:45),
vespers (6:45) and
compline (8:45).
Seven times a day.
Every day.

Most of these prayer times are no more than fifteen minutes, but . . . 2:45 a.m.? The first thing I did, of course, which would surprise no one who knows me, was figure out the amount of time between the end of compline and the beginning of vigils. And I didn’t much like it. I calculated that, if I went straight to bed after compline --at 9:00!--the most sleep I could expect would be under six hours.

I didn’t think I could do it.
But I did.
And then it happened.

On day two--I had arrived the day before just in time for lunch, which meant that my first prayer time was none (pronounced “no-nay”)--so, after none,
terce, and
I went immediately, like all the others, monks and non-monks alike, to lunch. I went silently down the staircase from the sanctuary to the dining room, silently filed through the cafeteria line, silently filled my tray with food, silently walked to an empty chair, and silently sat down.

That’s when it happened.
I bowed my head over my tray, to say grace...
and realized I was already praying.

I’d been praying as I went silently down the stairs,
I’d been praying as I filed through the cafeteria line,
I’d been praying as I filled my tray with food,
I’d been praying as I walked to an empty chair,
I’d been praying as I silently sat down.
I’d been praying since I woke up that morning.

There was no need to start praying, because just one full day into the rhythm of that community, I found myself no longer “starting” and “finishing” my times of prayer; I did not “enter” and “exit” God’s presence. . . I spent the whole day in a slow dance with God.

Since that time, I have found it possible—not automatic, but possible—to literally obey the command of Paul the church planter to “pray continually” (1 Thessalonians 5:17). And I’ve discovered that it’s not a life of checklists, obligations, agendas, and accomplishments that separate the righteous, the holy, the “prayer warriors,” from the rest of us; it’s a rhythm in my daily life that becomes an accompaniment to dancing with God, a rhythm that becomes self-propagating. . .the more I dance, the more I find myself humming, my toes tapping, the music of prayer throughout the day and night, so much so that I often fall asleep—and wake up—in the middle of the dance!

By God’s grace, I’ve been dancing with God in this way for almost ten years now. So I thank God for the Abbey of Gethsemani, a thin place to me. And I will miss it this Spring. And hope that Labor Day comes around quickly.

The grave of Father Louis
(Thomas Merton)

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