The Abbey of Our Lady of Gethsemani
Located south of Bardstown, Kentucky, the Abbey of Gethsemani is the oldest Trappist monastery in America, and likely the most famous as well. Gethsemani's fame stems primarily from its most famous resident: monk, author, and spiritual icon Thomas Merton (occasionally known by his monastic name, Father Louis). Since Merton's death, Gethsemani has grown from a home for contemplative Cistercian monks into a center of inter-religious dialogue, and a place of pilgrimage for people of all faiths and none.
The Trappist order, named for the monastery of la Trappe in France, began in the 17th Century as a reform of the Cistercian Order, a monastic order that had developed from the Rule of Saint Benedict. The Trappists sought to recapture the early austerity of the monastic life of the Desert Fathers, as well as the strict discipline of the early Cistercians.
One of the early centers of the Trappist reform was the Abbey of Melleray in France. In 1848, Melleray was badly overcrowded, and the decision was made to establish a new Trappist house. Bishop Joseph Flaget, bishop of the diocese centered in Louisville and an important figure in Catholic history in Kentucky, was well-disposed towards the Trappists (and a Frenchman himself), and in October 26, 1848 a band of 44 monks and laymen set out from the Abbey of Melleray to found a new Trappist monastery in rural Kentucky.
Their destination was a stronghold of Catholicism in a largely Protestant area; the country around Bardstown, Kentucky was called "The Catholic Holy Land" by some witty observers, and was the home parish of the first Catholic priest to be ordained in America, Father Stephen Badin. An earlier (non-Trappist) Cistercian settlement had been attempted, but it had been abandoned by 1809. Gethsemani itself was originally owned by the Sisters of Loretto, the first religious community established in Kentucky, who had run a boarding school on the property.
On December 21, 1848, the party arrived at Gethsemani, lead by Dom Eutropius Proust. The early days of the community were trying. The abbot became seriously ill; most of the community's baggage and supplies were heald up at a warehouse in Louisville for two months. Finally, after a freezing cold winter the monks were greeted by a merciless Ohio Valley summer, which lead them to apply to their Order for dispensations regarding their habits that had previously been granted primarily to monasteries in North Africa.
Dom Eutropis began campaigning in Europe for funding for the monastery soon after his recovery (which followed the delivery of his last rights!). Pope Pius IX made Gethsemani into an abbey in 1851, and in 1852 William Keely was hired to design the three-story main monastery structure. Keely had earlier designed the Cathedral of the Assumption in Louisville.
Dom Eutropius resigned in 1859 due to failing health, and in 1861 Benedict Burger was made abbot- shortly after the outbreak of the American Civil War. Benedict gained a reputation as a shrewd dealer during his term, being placed in the position of coping with both Union and Confederate troops in the neighborhood of his monastery, as well as concerns that the abbey would be forced to close because of a decline in the number of new monks and a several financial and material mishaps (such as the destruction of the abbey's mill by fire, and the closing of the girl's school of Mount Olivet, which the Order had hoped would grow into a Trappistine nun's community).
Scandal and Crisis
Edward Chaix-Bourbon was elected abbot in 1890. He presided over the monastery during the unification of the various reformist Cistercian congregations into a single body, the Order of the Cistercians of the Strict Observance (this is why O.C.S.O often appears after the name of a Trappist monk in official publications). Unfortunately, Dom Edward also presided over one of the darkest chapters in the abbey's history. Early in his term as abbot, Dom Edward expanded the monastery's educational facilities, making the boarding school for boys that they had previously been running into a full college. Chaix-Bourbon then hired Darnley Beaufort, an educated and dashing Englishman, to run both the college and boarding school.
Here, the trouble began. In 1895, Beaufort was accused of sexually abusing students at the Gethsemani boarding school. Dom Edward, it was revealed, had received earlier warnings from Gethsemani monks that Beaufort was inappropriately affectionate with some of the boys, and may have been touching them improperly. Frozen by indecision, Dom Edward did nothing.
Soon realizing that his community had lost confidence in him, Dom Edward traveled to France to tender his resignation to the Order. The abbot general, however, refused his resignation, and demanded he return to the abbey to face the crisis. In his absence, the college directors (including several of Dom Edward's monks) had dismissed Beaufort, and charged him with fraud and embezzlement. Beaufort, who had fled to Louisville, in return charged that the monks had accused him of indecency only to cover up their own immoral acts, which he took pains to attempt to expose before the popular press. Dom Edward returned to France two days after returning to Kentucky to attempt to resign again; again he was refused, but this time he remained in France, too ill to make the return trip.
For nearly three years, Gethsemani was without an official leader. The aging prior ran the monastery, but no word was sent from the motherhouse at Melleray. The monks began to fear that Gethsemani had been effectively dismissed by the Trappist order. Finally, in early 1898, Edmond Obrecht was named the new superior, and elected abbot after his arrival in Kentucky in March. Obrecht would remain head of the abbey until 1935, and preside over its rehabilitation and transformation into a leading American monastic institution.
Recovery and Restoration
Dom Edmond Obrecht is something of a heroic figure in Gethsemani history; from his appearance like "a white knight from a far-off land", to the numerous construction projects that gave the environs of the abbey their modern shape, to his death after 37 years of careful guidance, Obrecht cuts a powerful figure, and has earned well-deserved credit as the monastery's savior and greatest leader. This, despite frequent absences from the abbey- including the better part of 3 years spent overseeing a monastery in Africa. It was during Dom Edmond's tenure that many of the monastery's most popular policies were put in place. In 1901, the abbey received permission from Rome to allow female visitors- becoming the first American Trappist monastery to do so. In 1912, Gethsemani College burned to the ground, and one of the last reminders of the Beaufort scandal was allowed to pass into history, rather than being rebuilt. Finally, in 1920 Gethsemani stopped providing housing for penitent priests- priests who had been charged with misconduct, who were housed at the monastery free of charge- and began holding weekend retreats for Catholic laymen. This last program would eventually evolve into the monastery's modern visitation program, which allows visitors from all walks of life (and all faiths) to enjoy the monastery's environs for short periods of time.
In 1935, Dom Frederic Dunne became abbot of Gethsemani following the death of Dom Edmond. Dunne was no novice (please pardon this ecclesiastical pun) when it came to the operations of the abbey; during Obrecht's frequent absences during trips to Europe and Africa, Dunne had presided over the running of the monastery as its prior, quietly and cheerfully carrying out his abbots numerous instructions (Thomas Merton rescued many of the letters exchanged between the two men from destruction during his tenure at Gethsemani). Dunne sought to continue the expansions and innovations at Gethsemani that his predecessor had made, but wanted to balance the need to present Gethsemani to the public with the contemplative life that the monks were instructed to lead. To this end, Dom Frederic sought writers to represent the Trappist life to the public.
He couldn't have gotten luckier.
The Merton Years
In 1941, Thomas Merton entered Gethsemani under the ecclesiastic name Father Louis. Before his sudden death in Bangkok, Merton would go on to write more than 50 books and articles, including his best-selling autobiography The Seven Story Mountain. Merton would draw the attention of thousands of American readers to the Trappist way of life, and his writings brought a record number of visitors to the gates of Gethsemani. Merton would also garner international attention for the monastery, attention that would eventually cause Gethsemani to blossom in the 20th and 21st Centuries into a center for inter-religious dialogue and understanding, particularly among practitioners of religious monasticism. His explorations of East Asian and Indian religious traditions would contribute to the rise of Western interest in the Buddhism, Hinduism, Confucianism, and Taoism. Merton himself carried on correspondences with a number of leading figures of the religious world, including Japanese Zen scholar D.T. Suzuki and Vietnamese Engaged Buddhism pioneer Thich Nhat Hanh.
Dunne himself set about to reform the way that the monastery functioned, seeking to tighten daily discipline while increasing the creative and intellectual freedom allotted to his monks. The increasing numbers of monastic recruits brought in by the writings of Merton and the second World War enabled Dunne to found two daughterhouses- one in Georgia in 1944 (later known as the Abbey of the Holy Ghost), and a second in Utah in 1947 (later the Abbey of Our Lady of the Holy Trinity). Under the direction of lay brother John Dorsey (Brother Clement), Gethsemani underwent another round of rebuilding and new construction, one that introduced a number of modern advances to the now century old monastery.
In 1948, Dom Frederic Dunne died aboard a train, en route to visit Gethesmani's new daughterhouse in Utah. He was replaced by Dom James Fox, the former abbot of the Abbey of the Holy Ghost. One of Fox's first acts was the publication of Gethsemani Magnificat, an energetic and patriotic book celebrating Gethsemani's hundred-year history, and the institution of monasticism as a whole. Fox has unfortunately become known to the public primarily through his repeated conflicts with Fr. Louis Merton over Merton's writing, and his increasing desire for solitude in a fundamentally communal environment. Nonetheless, there is a great deal of influence that, despite his many private complaints, Merton respected Fox and vice-versa. Fox chose Merton as his private confessor, and Fox went on to retire to the hermitage life that Merton himself began to avow. Furthermore, Dom James seems to have been at once an efficient businessman and administrator (he was a previous student at Harvard Business School) and an innocent and devout man of faith (his favorite saying, which he had carved into a stamp, was "All for Jesus, through Mary, with a smile"; this phrase was often appended to the abbot's writing- including the nearly militaristic, ultra-patriotic introduction to Gethsemani Magnificat!).
Dom James' tenure saw a number of major changes to the structure of Gethsemani, architecturally and otherwise. New renovations were undertaken, greatly reducing the ornamentation and Gothic flavor of much of the interior of the monastery, replacing them with 1950's Brutalism. The buildings were also fireproofed. For the economic future of the monastery, Fox called on his business experience and established Gethsemani Farms as the new mail-order arm for distribution of the monastery's food products. Trappist cheese, Gethsemani bread, honey, and fruitcakes soon began to be sold nationally from the location of a former cow barn. These endeavors brought greater recognition, as well as cash, to the monastery; as a child, long before I had ever heard of a Cistercian monk, I had developed a taste for the Trappist cheese that an obsequious sales-rep sent my father every Christmas. Four more daughterhouses were also established during this period, including one in Chile.
Vatican II brought a number of significant changes to the daily life of Gethsemani. Discipline was relaxed, certain customs were fazed out. The lay brotherhood was effectively merged with the choir monks, eliminating what had been a distinctive facet of Trappist life for many years.
Sadly, the end of Dom James Fox's tenure at Gethsemani was not a happy one. He retired to a hermitage built for him by James Dorsey on a nearby hill in 1967. In 1977, two men broke into Fox's hermitage and severely beat him. He was discovered the next day by a monk who had arrived to take him to Mass. Incapacitated after his attack, Fox lived out the remainder of his life in the monastery infirmary, where he died in 1987.
Following Fox's resignation, the community elected another would-be hermit, Father Flavian Burns. The youngest abbot in Gethsemani history, Burns took office amid the turmoil of 1968. His decision to become a monk had been influence to small amount by reading the autobiography of one the monks under his care- Fr. Louis Merton. Fr. Flavian presided over a quieting and relaxation of the atmosphere at Gethsemani. He dropped many of the formalities involved in interactions between himself and his fellow monks, changed the tenor of the lay retreat program to make it more adaptive and self-directed, and encouraged the liberalizing reforms of Vatican II.
Father Flavian made the unusual step at the time of accepting the office of abbot on a temporary basis. In 1973, he resigned as abbot and returned to the hermitage life that he had lived prior to his election. Burns would move between serving as abbot or superior to a community and living as a hermit several more times in his life. Gethsemani in the late sixties and throughout the seventies was a center for a growing hermitage movement in Cistercian monasticism; while Fr. Louis Merton was the most well-known advocate of this movement, monks at several Trappist chapters began to move out of their dormitories and into independent hermitages. This movement has continued, to a greater and lesser degree, to this day.
It was also the unhappy duty of Father Flavian to preside over the sudden death of his friend Fr. Louis Merton. Merton was electrocuted by a fan in his hotel room while attending an inter-religious conference in Bangkok, Thailand on December 10th, 1968. It took a week for his body to be retrieved, and the desire to bury Merton on the grounds of Gethsemani made it impossible to perform an autopsy, given the conditions. Fr. Flavian responded to the news of Merton's death by writing a homily that he preached to the Gethsemani community, praising Merton's inspiration and commitment to seeking god. He also once quipped that Merton was late for his own funeral.
Following Fr. Flavian's return to the hermitage life, Father Timothy Kelly was elected leader of the Gethsemani community. A frequent dissenter to the many innovations of the tenure of Dom James (while studying canon law in Rome, he wrote a letter back to his home abbey decrying Fox's decision to install an air conditioner without consulting his fellow monks), Kelly was groomed to be a leader of the monastic community from a young age. He studied canon law in Europe at the request of Dom James Fox, and was considered to succeed him. He experienced the Second Vatican Council first hand, as a primarily conservative observer. While supportive of reforms that encouraged the Church to embrace the larger world, Kelly was critical of what he perceived as an eagerness to discard what was old, simply because it was old, and to adopt the material and cultural trappings of the modern era simply because they were new. The air conditioner was, of course, a microcosm of this trend.
Like Fr. Flavian before him, Fr. Timothy has encouraged consultation between the abbey's monks and its abbot. His style of authority has been more democratic than that of his predecessors. He expanded the lay retreat program, opening it to women and overseeing renovations of the guest house to accommodate visitors more comfortably. A few Trappistine nuns have even resided within the community for short periods- a practice unthinkable in previous years.
Gethsemani Farms was also transformed under Fr. Timothy's direction- primarily in that their ceased to be a farm. While the monks continue to grow vegetables for their own consumption, and to make and sell cheese, fruitcake, Bourbon fudge and other foodstuffs, Gethsemani has for most intents and purposes ceased to be an operating farm (on a side note, the proximity of the abbey to a number of Kentucky's fine Bourbon distilleries ensures that quality whiskey is a notable feature of Gethsemani's fudge and fruitcake. The best of both the sacred and the profane, so to speak). The mail-order business, combined with the monastery's donations and endowment, provides enough for the abbey to be self-sustaining, as well as enabling the monks to make donations to caring for the poor.
For more than 150 years, the Abbey of Gethsemani has been a center of spiritual learning and service for its faithful. In the course of that century-and-a-half, it has grown from a place of prayer for forty-odd French Trappists to a holy place for people of every religious tradition. Muslims, Jews, Buddhists, agnostics and others flock to Gethsemani every year- the abbey estimates that one in four guests on retreat are non-Christian. Some want to walk the paths that Thomas Merton walked; some seek a vocation among the abbey's monks. Others just seek silence. The Abbey of Gethsemani has stood as a silent witness to the sea of changes that have swept through not only Catholicism but also all religion in America and the world in the last century. Its endurance is a testament to the dedication and faith of the generations of men who have lived within its walls; its popularity with the outside world, a reminder of the possibility of understanding in a fractious religious world.
Retreats are offered at the Abbey year round. The first and third full week of each month is designated for women, and the other two weeks are reserved for men. All guests have a private room with bath, and handicapped accommodations are available.
Retreats are essentially self-guided; visitors may attend the Offices of the Day, consult privately with a monk, or receive confession. Members of the community give presentations during the week on monastic life, and optional discussions or conferences are scheduled. Otherwise, guests are left essentially to their own devices, but are asked to maintain silence except at meals and certain other occasions.
There is no charge for using the guest facilities; visitors are simply expected to donate what they feel is proper. Reservations may need to be made significantly in advance; the first and third weeks tend to be particularly heavily booked. Reservations may be made by mail or phone.
Inter-religious Dialogue: The Gethsemani Encounters
Several major inter-religious events have taken place at the Abbey of Gethsemani in the past several years. Two of the most well-known have been the so-called 'Gethsemani Encounters', meetings between monastic practitioners of the Buddhist and Catholic traditions. The first encounter grew from discussions on spiritual life held during the Parliament of World Religions in 1993; the Dalai Lama suggested an encounter between Buddhist and Christian monastics, in a monastic setting, and suggested Gethsemani in memory of Thomas Merton.
The first encounter took place in July 1996, a weeklong, intensive monastic encounter between practitioners from several traditions. Discussions of the monastic life and spirituality took place alongside group meditation, and exploration of the practices and techniques of different spiritual traditions.
The participants in this exchange included the 14th Dalai Lama, Cambodian Buddhist patriarch Maha Ghosananda, and Taiwanese Fo Guan Shan nun Ven. Dr. Yifa (from the same lineage as the California Hsi Lai Temple).
The second encounter took place in April 2002. It included a wide variety of participants- Buddhists from every monastic tradition, Christian monks and nuns from several different orders, a number of academics, and members of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue. The theme of the encounter was suffering, a concept central to both religious traditions. It included 22 separate presentations from Buddhists and Christians on a variety of topics.
Several books, articles, and short documentaries have emerged from these encounters. Probably the most well-known of these is The Gethsemani Encounter: A Dialogue on the Spiritual Life by Buddhist and Christian Monastics, edited by Donald W. Mitchell and James Wiseman.
Abbey of Gethsemani
3624 Monks Rd.
Trappist, KY 40051-6152
Gethsemani Farm Orders: 1-800-549-0912
Retreat Reservations: 502-549-4133 or 502-584-7866 in Louisville
Group Day Visits: 502-549-4129
Call Monday through Saturday between 8:00 am and 4:00 pm.
Several pages from the Gethsemani website (history, retreat info, cheese)(www.monks.org)
Several pages about the two Gethsemani Encounters from http://www.monasticdialog.com/
The Abbey of Gethsemani: Place of Peace and Paradox, by Diane Aprille. Trout Lily Press, 1998.