It is probably not surprising that my mind and reflections are focused on the weekend spent with a group of students in a Trappist monastery nestled in the hills of Kentucky. It is also not surprising to know the students are what make the whole adventure worth the effort. And there was some effort. Getting a bunch of college students for a seven-hour trek is not easy. But they were eager. I was expectant and that matched their eagerness.
The last time I was there, it was snowy. I had never seen the monastery snow-covered and glistening white. Somehow the weather becomes more real when I am in a monastic setting. This time I knew it was going to be cold in the morning and beautifully sunny during the day. Indeed it was. Morning greeted us with a cold rain. And then came the warm sun. In that kind of setting, I think the weather reveals something of God’s Spirit.
It reveals there is a nature in which we all live, move, and have our being…and seldom pay much attention. Most of the time, we hop in cars, windows tightly protecting us from the elements, noise, and “otherness” of our world, and ride away. Somehow being in a monastic setting rivets one’s attention.
Even though we drove there, when you step out, you are in a different world. And this world turned out to be a fantastic fall day. The colors embraced the monastery I have seen in other seasons. But for the students, it was their first time. They probably will never think about Gethsemani without beauty, without color, without the purity of their first experience.
Oddly enough, the dress of Cistercian monks (for that is what the Trappists are: Cistercians of the Strict Observance) is white. And the inside of the cloister church is all white with only the brown beams high above the ceiling. White is the color of purity. And for many, if not all of us, purifying is one aspect of the weekend.
We came away more pure, more whole, more centered. We know we have now returned to the land of our normal reality…classes, meetings, readings, and the rest. But we have been to the land of the pure, the white country. And if we are lucky, and if God is providential, we will never be the same!
There is a Psalm which says something to the effect, “seven times a day should you pray.” These Cistercian monks have taken that literally! So seven times a day we “went to church with them.” They chant Psalms, they sing, and they meditate. There is very little preaching. In almost every respect, they leave the individual to wrestle with the God about whom so much is said.
I come away wondering how many times I have chanted the Doxology….thirty or forty times daily? It is praising “the God who is, who was, and who is to come…” I like this description of “God who is”…but no attempt to tell me more. God is…..…and you make whatever you make out of the God who comes to you. It’s that simple.
A theologian is someone who tries to explain “who God is.” And this explanation can get pretty sophisticated! I can only imagine one of my monk friends smiling at the theologian. A Trappist monk, committed to silence as he is (yes, we had a great deal of non-talking), would lead us into the Doxology to experience “the God who is…”
I cannot explain “the God who is…” I know as best I can know, that I experienced that God. That God was in the darkness of the monastic chants at 3:30am! That God somehow swirled in the fallen leaves…or maybe, God swirled the leaves?
I come back home fully aware there is nothing in my life which proves God exists. If I were to hold out for a proof, I will hold out forever! But a weekend in the monastery provides evidence….and it is pretty normal evidence: students, fallen leaves, and serendipity. I can affirm the “God who is…”