By John David Dyche
Pray for the monks of The Abbey of Gethsemani. It is the least you can do since they have been praying for you, even while you were sleeping, throughout your entire life.
Following the Rule of St. Benedict, the Trappist monks of Gethsemani usually pray and work – ora et labora – in relative obscurity. They have done so since 1848 at their monastery in Nelson County.
But Gethsemani is now in the news. A grand jury indicted a former employee and his wife for stealing, more than a million dollars from the abbey’s mail order business.
The accused apparently claims that he is the victim of retaliation for blowing the whistle on sexual improprieties involving monks, other employees, and outsiders.
The abbot, Elias Dietz, asks that people “join us in prayer for all who may be involved, as we seek a just resolution of this matter.”
Some who ought to respect the principle of due process nonetheless hastened to publicly point out the mote that might be in the monks’ eyes while ignoring a beam in their own. From glistening glass houses some threw stones at the monks in the form of sophomoric slurs.
The monks will forgive them, of course, just as Jesus forgave the similarly self-righteous persecutors who knew not what they did to him. And the monks will go right on loving and praying for those who spitefully use them.
None of this is to say that the monks are without sin. They do not claim perfection, but instead regularly confess, do penitence, and seek God’s forgiveness.
The abbey has known hard times before. According to Dianne Aprile’s book, “The Abbey of Gethsemani: Place of Peace and Paradox,” “screaming, lurid, accusatory headlines” in 1895 accused an abbey college and its chief administrator of sexually abusing students.
The jailed wrongdoer leveled accusations at the monks, and it took years for the monastery to emerge from the pall. A strong new abbot eventually put things right, resurrected the abbey, and restored its good reputation.
The remarkable life and writing of Thomas Merton brought Gethsemani international fame that it still enjoys today. But the true spirit of the abbey lives as much or more in its ongoing mission of hospitality, labor, and prayer than in the great Merton’s legacy.
Perhaps personal bias prevents this Protestant writer from being objective about this remarkable Catholic refuge. Gethsemani has been a source of very special blessings to this and so many other pilgrims from across the planet.
We have studied not only Merton’s works, but books by other Gethsemani monks. Our church groups have traveled to the monastery to learn from the monks, retreat from life’s troubles, and worship.
After the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, my wife and I repaired to Gethsemani with dear Bardstown friends to grieve, mourn, pray, and seek some context, solace and understanding. The peace present there provided some hope against the awful violence that had been burned into the American soul.
Lying on my back atop a dam next to a pond on another visit, I watched with reverent awe as shooting stars and satellites crisscrossed the clear sky all night long. Then, at the otherwise ungodly hour of 3:15 a.m., the bells chimed as if from Heaven calling the monks to their first prayers of a new morning.
I have hiked the grounds many times, pausing at evocative sculptures or woodland huts, in silent search for divine guidance or giving simple gratitude for the beauty of God’s creation. And I took my children to Gethsemani when they were young so they would always know that there was a fortress of unceasing prayer close by.
To support this holy place, and for the pure pleasure of them, I have bought, eaten, and given as gifts the delicious cheeses and fudges that the monks make. (We must forgive them those fruitcakes!) I sip my morning coffee from a Gethsemani mug as a simple reminder of the monks’ simple and spiritual lives.
I love Gethsemani as a matter of pure Kentucky pride, too. Kentucky’s basketball teams have just enjoyed fine seasons; its bourbon industry is booming; and its horse racing just had the world’s attention. Like these, Gethsemani is a Kentucky treasure, and we should value it as such.
Bias may becloud my judgment, but it seems that the abbot has it right. Everyone should seek a just resolution of this matter, loving and praying for all involved. Regardless of what the facts are ultimately determined to be, an even better, more blessed Gethsemani should be the goal. God grant it, amen.