I started writing yesterday about the things I've learned over the years from the Trappist monks at the Abbey of Gethsemani, where I've gone for an annual prayer retreat at least once a year since 2000. I mentioned that I learned to pray without ceasing, to rest, and to be. But those things only scratch the surface of what the monks taught me.
I learned to pray. Of course, I've been praying since I was a kid. But for most of my life and ministry, I felt a woeful deficiency in my prayer life. On coming home from my first prayer retreat, though, I had learned that finding the right rhythm in prayer is key to faithfulness--at least, for me (and I suspect for most of us). St. Benedict prescribed a rhythm that would foster a life of prayer. The point of those seven "hours" of prayer wasn't just the prayer times themselves, but the fact that they infected the rest of the day and night with prayerfulness. And, while I don't observe seven fixed times of prayer a day, I have found that morning and evening prayer, a weekly Sabbath, and at least an annual prayer retreat are crucial to keeping me in a prayerful rhythm.
I learned to listen to God. I talk too much. Not just in meetings, but in my conversations with God. And for decades, I didn't quite grasp what other people meant when they talked about "listening to God." But the monks helped me with that. I have learned in my dozen or more visits to Gethsemani, that silence really does foster an internal, two-way conversation with God. I have learned what it means to hear from God. I have learned that, always a gentleman, he seldom interrupts me. He will wait for me to stop talking, and listen. So I have to shut up. For a while. And then he speaks. Not audibly (not yet, anyway). But unmistakeably.
I learned how to read my Bible. Again, I've read my Bible my whole life. I've read through it many times. But on my second or third prayer retreat, I began to pray through the Bible as I read, and that opened up to me a whole new world of prayer and intimacy with God. I also learned the ancient practice of lectio divina (divine reading), which is a way of meditating on and internalizing the Word of God. After all my years of relationship with God and ministry in the church, you would think I would have realized somewhere along the way that the Bible's purpose is not information....but to foster and deepen relationship with a relational God. Duh!
These things are not all I learned from the monks. For example, I learned that fried potatoes can become potato soup or potato pancakes or any number of things! I learned that 2:45 a.m. is really, really early. I learned that nuns can talk really, really loud! I learned that monks are likable people, and that non-Catholics can learn a lot from Catholics. And more.
And I know, too, that some of the things I've mentioned have been learned by others much sooner, much easier, and in non-monastic settings. I get that. Maybe it's just God's way of dealing with me. In any case, I will always be grateful to the monks of Gethsemani for their ministry of hospitality and prayer.