What the Monks Taught Me (Part One)

I’m a Protestant. An evangelical. A pastor, no less.

But about nine years ago, in a time of great spiritual need, I journeyed to the Abbey of Gethsemani, near Louisville, Kentucky, and spent four days and three nights at that famous monastery. It changed my life. I learned things from the Trappist monks there that I had not learned in my own tradition.

I learned to pray without ceasing. Paul's admonition in 1 Thessalonians 5:17 had always seemed a practical impossibility. But just twenty-four hours into my first prayer retreat at Gethsemani, unceasing prayer became my experience. I arrived on a Friday, checked into the simple guest room, and decided to join the monks—at least for the first twenty-four hours I was there—in their observance of 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. So on day two—I had arrived the day before just in time for lunch, which meant that my first prayer time was none—so, after none, vespers, compline, vigils, lauds, terce, and sext, 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. 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 had been praying since I began my day.

I learned to rest. I've never been a nap-taker. In fact, I've always had trouble sleeping, even at night. I have trouble shutting down the things running through my brain. But early on in my annual (sometimes twice a year) sojourns at the monastery, I forced myself to a state I called "constructive boredom." Other people, less obsessive-compulsive than me, might call it "rest." It usually takes a day, sometimes a day-and-a-half or two, but I've discovered that it's possible for me to get to a point where I can actually lie down in the afternoon....and sleep! Sometimes I've actually taken a morning AND afternoon nap in the same day! I think it's because when I am there, I achieve a state of rest that I never experience the other fifty-one weeks in the year.

I learned to be. I have always been a "doer." Even, at times, a workaholic. My temperament and my upbringing combined to make me a hard worker....and long laborer. And day after day, month after month, year after year, that had become my life: doing, not being. But on one of my early retreats at Gethsemani, I was intrigued to see the lives of several dozen monks ordered, not by frantic efforts to “do” and to “accomplish” things—though they do accomplish much—but by the priority of “being,” putting themselves in God’s path, so to speak, and waiting on him, in patient prayer, devotion, silence, and solitude. Being, not doing. It wasn't an easy discipline to learn. The first time or two, I arrived at the monastery with a stack of books to read, an agenda of items to pray through, and more. But little by little, I learned to be still. To stop my incessant "doing." To surrender my need to accomplish things. To spend time in God’s presence, not “accomplishing” stuff, not chattering or checking off items on a list, but being with him. Being still. Being present. Being.

(To be continued tomorrow)


  1. To be continued? TO BE CONTINUED? Dude, you're killin' me. I've wanted to visit this monastery ever since my days at Asbury. In lieu of that I was living vicariously through you and, bam, "to be continued."

    Who ever thought that you could write a cliff-hanger about a monastery? Oh, wait...I forgot that you're a professional.

    Can't wait until tomorrow.

  2. hey bob....can women participate in this monastic experience?

    -Christin Kapp

  3. Christin, yes absolutely. Check out www.monks.org. They used to do women one week, men the next, but I think they've changed that. But look under retreats on the website. They take reservations 3 mo. in advance, and the dates book up pretty fast after the 1st of the month. I shouldn't be telling you this, because then it'll just be harder for ME to get a room....but since I love you..... :)