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    By Charles Wolford

     

    Stone tablets wind alongside the path. Engraved into the first stone, Jesus has fallen to his knees, hands clasped in prayer, in Gethsemane, the garden of his agony. I remember that passage in the Bible. Jesus tells Peter, John and James to watch at a little distance while he prays. When Jesus returns, all three apostles are asleep, and Jesus asks them, “Could you not watch for one hour?”

    The other tablets show the stages of the Crucifixion — Judas betraying Jesus with a kiss, the Romans forcing a crown of thorns upon his head, his corpse nailed to the cross. The path unfurls into a knoll of trees that faces the abbey. Ahead, atop one of the terraces of the monastic grounds forbidden to the retreatants, a monk appears.

    Hands crossed in front of his robe, he stands there — a silhouette against a sky paling with dawn. He looks like he’s watching something. But his eyes are closed.

     

    I had wanted to come to Gethsemani Abbey, the monastery 12 miles south of Bardstown, since I learned about it. At Christmastime, my family always ate the fudge and fruitcake the monks sold, and I loved reading the placard at Fourth Street and Muhammad Ali Boulevard in downtown Louisville that marked where the author and monk Thomas Merton, perhaps Gethsemani’s most famous member, suddenly realized that all the passersby surrounding him were “walking around shining like the sun.”

    The monks at Gethsemani (spelled with an i in Latin) are Trappists, a subset of the Benedictine Order of the Catholic Church. Trappists arrived in central Kentucky in 1849. Today, anyone can be a “retreatant” each year at the abbey for free, for seven days or two weekends. I emailed them, and they told me I could stay from Friday through Monday over Memorial Day weekend. On Friday evening, I left work and drove south on I-65, getting off at the Lebanon Junction exit midway between Bardstown and Elizabethtown and winding through the countryside.

    On the old state highways, I passed split-rail fences, a railroad crossing, the Jim Beam Booker Noe plant, spying the names of roads: Jones Farm, Mt. Moriah, Salt Spring Loop. Mailboxes lined the roadside, many with numbers on them painted by hand. Bumblebees splatted against my windshield. In the other lane, cars lined up 10 deep behind an old man driving a combine.

    The sky was cloudless, except for a scar of white puffs where a plane had passed. Sunlight poured onto the woods that banked the highways. I rumbled across a bridge that forded a green brook, into a forest. Mack trucks shot past me, kicking up twigs and leaves that skittered across my hood. Overhead, the trees soared, linking into a tunnel, as if I were riding through a garden arbor bowered in trumpet vine.

    Evening deepened into twilight, but I could still see a sign for the last hamlet I passed: Culvertown, a church next to a store next to a bar that looked like a concrete bunker. I didn’t see any spaces painted in the lot in front of the bar. Young men leaned against the trucks parked in a haphazard tangle, smoking cigarettes and chugging Bud Light.

    I took a left past the bar, and the voice on my GoogleMaps app announced that the monastery was near. That seemed impossible. All I could see were houses carved out of the woods, trucks parked in the gravel drives, American flags fluttering on front porches. But then, running parallel to the road, a wall appeared, enclosing a garden of trees and paths and stone tablets, and beyond it, a bell tower rising into the sky, and then the monastery, rowed with windows that glowed in the gathering dusk.

    The wall ended, and I turned into a parking lot, in the middle of which was a square of grass and trees and benches. I hadn’t turned off my radio since I left Louisville, and when I got out, the silence of the land rushed down on me like a wave.

    The abbey seemed placed inside a crown of hills that I later learned were the Nelson County Knobs — furred with trees and ringing the horizon. A path led from the parking lot between a yard of tombstones and merged into a plaza that approached the main church, which glowed pale in the evening light. A sign on a wall read: Monastic Grounds. Next to it, a cast-iron gate with letters built into the crest: GOD ALONE.

    Across from this gate was an alcove with a mural on the wall that seemed made of squares of brown clay. A face and two hands emerged from the mural, with these words carved into it: Let all guests that come be received like Christ. Taped on two wooden doors, a sheet invited retreatants to sign in with the guestmaster.

    I opened the doors and entered. A door in the glassed-in wall opposite me led onto a concrete patio overlooking the gardens I had seen from the road. To my right was another door, with a sign on it labeled “Telephone,” inside which was a chair and a single corded phone hooked to the wall.

    Blinking at it, I switched off my
    iPhone, just as I realized that the guestmaster — an older man wearing a Trappist habit — was looking at me from the desk in front of me. He smiled. “Checking in for the night?”

    I introduced myself, and he unfolded a sprawling spreadsheet. My name had been printed at the bottom, next to a blank space. “Ah,” he said. “You’re the last to arrive.” He plucked keys from a hook and handed them to me. “We’ll put you in the South Wing. Do you have your bags?”

    “Yes, sir.”

    “Good,” he said. “It’s quite a hike.”

    I followed the monk down a hallway that led past the telephone-room and into a cafeteria, empty now. Wooden tablets on the tables read: “Silence is the only sound spoken here.”

    The monk led me up a maze of stairwells, our footsteps ringing between the close walls, and then across a landing to a door that was so heavy he had to tug twice before it opened. We stepped onto the balcony of a church. The interior soared. The silence stung my ears.

    Great wooden trestles were built into the ceiling of the nave, and the dying light outside pulsed blurs of amber and purple and silver through the stained-glass windows. Two rows of pews filled the balcony, and when we came to the aisle that ran between them, the man stopped. He turned and bowed toward the cross behind the altar at the far end of the church.

    On the next door was a sign that read: “For Retreatants Only.” When the monk opened it, a smell of mildew and close quarters hit me — a reek that I associated with the hall of my freshman dormitory. The passage was unlit, and wooden doors faced each other. I could barely see the shape of the monk, but the markings on the doors (“SW 10,” “SW 20,” “SW 30”) were white, and seemed to float in the dimness.

    At the end of the hall, the monk turned and smiled. “Do you have your key?”

    I fit it into the lock and opened the door. Inside was a desk, a bench, a window, two dressers in opposite corners, two crucifixes hanging on walls of white brick, and a bed that looked like a mattress placed on a plank with four stumps. Next to it, an electric clock on a stand, and a door that opened into a bathroom.

    I thanked the monk, and he said: “You are welcome. Vigils begin at 3:15, if you would like to attend.”

    “3:15 — in the morning?” I said.

    He smiled. “Is there anything else?” I shook my head. He said goodnight and shut the door.

    3:15 a.m. was seven hours away, and I assumed that, since I was the last guest, the monk was going to bed. This was Friday night, though — I wasn’t used to turning in at 8 p.m. I opened the blinds, shoved up the window. The view was onto a garden, and beyond the wall that enclosed it, the lot where my car was parked.

    I unpacked my clothes and took out my laptop. But I realized that I hadn’t asked the monk if there was a Wi-Fi code. Staring at my screen, without internet for the first time in as long as I could remember, I had nothing to do. I should’ve asked if there was a billiards room or a Jacuzzi.

    By 9 p.m., I had taken a shower, done 50 push-ups, jotted a paragraph in my journal, read a chapter in the novel I had brought, texted my friends till they stopped texting back, and was sitting at the desk near the window, staring again out toward my car. I had come here, in part, to escape the roar of modern life. But now that I was here, in an enclave of silence, I was almost scared. Without Netflix or the gym or a restaurant, I felt naked, as if I were lonely company when I was finally, truly alone with myself.

    So I left. I got my keys and found my way down from the South Wing to the front entrance. Nobody manned the desk at this hour. I wandered across the parking lot and, like a student at a boarding school who had broken curfew and snuck out, jogged the last few paces to my car. But nobody had tried to stop me, and I realized that I hadn’t gone through any interviews or background checks. True, the rooms were locked, but I could think of no other housing arrangement in which the proprietors accepted anyone who came to them, for free, and let you come and go as you pleased.

    I drove onto the road that led back to Culvertown and pulled into the bar that looked like a concrete bunker. Most of the cars that I had seen parked around it earlier were gone, and I walked across the starlit gravel toward the entrance. Plastic chairs had been pushed against the building, and a black dog lying in one of them raised its head and blinked at me, as if even he could tell I was a stranger.

    Everyone inside the bar seemed to know one another, and they all looked up when I entered. I ordered a chicken sandwich and a Budweiser and sat at a table that faced a TV screen, watching the Cleveland Cavaliers wallop the Toronto Raptors in the NBA Eastern Conference Finals.

    People, music, beer — this was better than the monastery. I’d thought it would be relaxing, but already I wondered how anyone could live at Gethsemani. All the monks did was work and pray. Pray and work. For years.

    When I went to the bar to pay, the man in the stool next to me said, “Staying at the abbey?”

    “Yes, sir,” I said. “Just got here.”

    He held out his hand. “Name of Wendell.”

    “Nice to meet you, Wendell,” I said. “You from around here?”

    “Born next door. I own the country store just up the road.”

    “Really? I love country stores.”

    “Well, come see me tomorrow. I’ll be there before noon.”

    “Wendell,” I said, “I’ll do that.”

     

    I couldn’t sleep when I got back to the monastery. The mattress was as hard as the plank below it, and the pillow flattened under my head like a cardboard scrap. Finally, I rolled over and squinted at the clock on the bedside stand: 3 a.m. Somewhere within these walls, the monks were stirring for the day’s first prayers.

    The next morning, I came downstairs at 11 a.m. Another monk, not the man I’d met last night, was talking to a woman in the kitchen as she prepared food for the guests. I stepped in and waited until the woman said, “Can we help you?”

    “I was just seeing where I could get some breakfast,” I said.

    They blinked at each other. Then they looked at me.

    “Oh,” the woman said. “Breakfast is served at seven o’clock. But dinner will be ready at noon.” Supper, as they called it, would be later that evening. She pointed to a plastic container of cereal atop the cafeteria line. “You can have some Cheerios, if you’d like.”

    The lights were off in the dining area. I sat at an empty table and ripped open two boxes of Cheerios and poured them into a bowl that I’d filled with milk out of a canister. Slurping up the mush, I thought of a joke my uncle Matt had told me:

    “If you’re a monk in one of them real serious monasteries, there’s one rule: The only time you can speak is Christmas Day, and then you can only say two words. So one guy, he joined the monastery, and after a year, he says, ‘Bed. Hard.’ The next year, here comes Christmas again, and the guy says, ‘Food. Bad.’ The third year, he says, ‘I. Quit.’ And the head monk goes, ‘Well, good! ’Cause you ain’t done nothing but bitch since you got here!’”

    I ate another bowl of Cheerios and two bananas, but I was still hungry, and I wanted to leave. I couldn’t see how I was going to fill up the rest of the day.

    Fifteen minutes later, I had driven back to Culvertown. This time, I didn’t go to the bar, but instead turned past it and parked in front of Wendell’s store and went in. He was behind the counter. We shook hands. “I like the place,” I said. “Got anything to eat?”

    “You want a sandwich?” he asked. “I make a mean sandwich.”

    He made me a “city ham” sandwich, and I ate it at a table in the back. After a while, Wendell joined me. “What do you think of the abbey?” he said.

    “Man, I’m bored to death. I can’t see how people stand it up there.”

    “Yeah.” He smiled. “They don’t get out much.”

    I asked him what people around here thought of the abbey.

    “They’re really good people. They help out the needy people. They’re really open-hearted,” Wendell said. “I guess if somebody had a fire or something, they would probably give them a donation just to get them back on their feet.”

    I nodded. “What’s this town called again?”

    “Culvertown — they call it God’s country,” he said. “Yeah, it’s a pretty nice little area. We get a lot of people from the abbey to come have a bite to eat or a cold beer before they get locked in for the week.”

     The sandwich was so good that I ordered another. Back at the abbey, I wasn’t hungry, but with nothing else to do, I went to the dining area for lunch.

    So far, I had seen only the guestmaster, and the monk and the woman in the kitchen, and I nearly thought I had the monastery to myself. I was used to skipping down the stairs like a child, but now, as I turned down the last flight, I almost crashed into a guy on the landing. Beyond his head, I saw a stream of other people, all lined up to enter the kitchen.

    I’d assumed that the admonition on the tables (“Silence is the only sound spoken here”) would be broken, the way people jabber in a public library. But the other retreatants said nothing, and we all glided into the kitchen without a word. I counted about 30 other people. I’d guess the median age was 50, but they ranged from students wearing backpacks who seemed like they were in high school to couples in their 70s. Nobody looked at each other.

    The monks were vegetarian, and they served us mushroom orzo and tomato soup and salad, which we scooped onto the plates on our trays. The only empty table was in the back, behind a middle-aged woman praying over her meal. Here I was, in a room with 30 strangers, acting as if we were all invisible. This felt cultish. My eyes darted. I had the tingling sensation that I was in some Polanski film. I wanted to tiptoe outside, or lean close to the woman behind me and whisper: “I’m watching you.”

     But I did neither. I ate. The food was so unadorned with sugars and chemicals that it tasted bland, and, like everyone else, I scraped what was left off my plate and dropped my silverware into a bucket, the water splashing on my shirt. By now, I was livid with impatience, and even a stain was enough to make me mutter, “Goddammit.”

    In a leaflet that had been left on my desk, I had read that the monks worked from 8 a.m. until noon, but their days were primarily structured around seven community prayers of the Psalms, which they repeat in a cycle every two weeks during the Liturgy of the Hours: Vigils (3:15 a.m.), Lauds (5:45), Terce (7:30), Sext (12:15 p.m.), None (2:15), Vespers (5:30), and Compline (7:30). Afterward, sleep — the Great Monastic Silence. (As Father James Conner, one of the monks at Gethsemani, later explained to me: “The Vigils is seen as a way of watching for the coming of the Son of Man, which will be at an hour not expected. Also, since the night hours are the hours of most sinning of whatever kind, it is the time to pray specially for the world.”)

    “None” was two hours away — an eternity in this place. With None to do, I walked outside and down a flight of stone stairs into what looked like a shaggy lawn with a bunch of trees. Stone tablets were spaced alongside a path that I rounded a few times, kicking pebbles, passing some of the people from the cafeteria, who averted their heads when I smiled — then waved — at them. Cicadas droned through the noon heat, shimmering like the air above fresh blacktop. Sweating, I wandered back inside to the AC, then trudged up to my room and fell in bed. Jesus, was this dull.

    Staring at the ceiling, wondering how I was going to make it to Monday, I felt, flowing through the rooms of the hall, the vast presence of silence — so complete that my breath rasped in my ear, as if I had strapped on the mask of an oxygen tank. I wanted to start yelling — to shatter the tranquility that oppressed this building.

    I went to the window. And then it was as if I were watching myself, wondering what I was going to do. I knew that I wanted to go driving again, maybe to Bardstown. But I also felt an impulse to stay where I was. I hated that I was here. But, in a strange way, I was relieved to be here.

    Then I was awake. I had taken a nap, apparently, because the bedside clock read 6:30 p.m. I had missed supper. But I wasn’t hungry. My mind felt — cooled. Empty and clear. I rubbed my forehead. I blinked.

    Downstairs, the cafeteria was empty. I walked on, once again as if watching myself move, till I was outside and gliding up the incline, past the parking lot and then across the road, climbing a path cut between the tall grasses of a hill to the apex. Atop a rocky perch thatched with shrubbery, a cross was mounted against the sky.

    At the start of The Seven Storey Mountain, Thomas Merton’s autobiography that launched his literary celebrity — and which he wrote at this abbey — Merton said that he was born in the Pyrenees. Since reading it, I have associated him with southern Europe, and now, the land that spread below my hilltop vantage reminded me of Mediterranean France: the hard blue sky, the glare of the sun, the checkered fields of corn with broad, flat leaves shining like light-impacted metal.

    A shadow passed over me — a wingspan so huge that for an instant I thought it was a pterodactyl. I turned. Perched on the cross, facing the abbey, a hawk cawed, echoing against the far walls and towers.

    Looking back toward Gethsemani, I knew that something inside me was changing. For the first time since I’d arrived, I was calm. I wasn’t thinking about what I was thinking about. I was just there. I felt my lips form the words I heard myself speak:

    “I am here. Let me be here.”

     

    At first, there was darkness. Sprawled out in the pews around 3 a.m., I realized I was the only one in the church, and I reasoned, like a high school kid, that I could skip class if the teacher didn’t arrive in the next few minutes. But then a bell tolled once, three times, and the teacher did arrive — all the teachers arrived, feet shuffling beneath the balcony. Fixed into the wooden trestles, the lights came on — faint glows cast on two lines of robed monks who filed into the choir. Another monk appeared, waving a chain, at the end of which a censer puffed up incense.

    One of the monks raised his voice: “O Lord, open my lips.”

    The other voices lifted in song: “And my mouth will declare your praise.”

     A monk sat behind an organ, but the notes were only faint background to the sonorous reverberations of the voices. These men weren’t professional musicians. But their voices all seemed to be seeking, as if each monk were singing in his own cell, in tones stripped of artifice. Their harmony swelled with appeal and humility, beseeching some presence they could feel. Many of them closed their eyes.

    Prayer is the cornerstone of life as a Trappist, and Trappist monasteries are found in every time zone in the world. By the mid-1950s, the population of Gethsemani had reached a highpoint at 279, becoming the largest Trappist monastery in the world, and from Gethsemani, daughter-houses were founded — Holy Trinity in Utah, Genesee in New York, Mepkin in South Carolina, New Clairvaux in California.

    Today, Trappist monasteries dot the globe. Every minute of every day, someone is saying the Trappist prayers, which St. Benedict termed Opus Dei: the monks’ highest duty, “the Work of God.” I thought of a quote I had read framed on a wall downstairs: “Before we search for God, God is searching for us.”

    At last, the monks’ song faded. Overhead, the bell tolled. The final notes of the organ rose into the nave. The men closed their prayer books and filed out.

    Then the lights snapped off, and once more there was darkness.

     

    After that, I realized that I’d frittered away my time at Gethsemani so far. I had done nothing but bitch since I got here.

    Soon I fell into a cyclical rhythm at Gethsemani that I couldn’t help feeling changed my perception of time. On Sunday evening, I filled out an entry in my journal after dinner at a table in the dining room. When I looked up, people were lining up again, for supper. Hours had gone by without my noticing.

    I felt more at peace at the abbey with every hour that I was there. The mystical experience confounds concrete language, and I struggle to talk about those last two days without lapsing into pie-in-the-sky clichés. As I settled into the silence, the narcotic, pixelated blare of the outside world faded, and in its absence, another world emerged: my thoughts, my heartbeat, the branches rustling beyond the terraces, the church windows standing forth in lustrous detail. On my last night, I had supper, and then read a book on a bench in the gardens. The blue dusk settled into the trees. The shade deepened into the grass and became night. A great silence emanated from the monastery. I slipped into the current of the present.

     

    That night, I went to bed early and woke up for Vigils at 3 a.m. I’d hated the abbey when I’d first come here, but now I didn’t want to leave. As dawn lifted, I walked around the gardens, following the stone tablets that wound under the trees. I was filling out my journal in my room after Terce when someone knocked on the door.

    An older man stood in the hall, his hand resting on a laundry hamper. He wasn’t wearing a robe, but from his smile, I could tell he was one of the monks.

    “Oh,” he said. “Are you staying overnight?”

    I frowned. “I thought checkout wasn’t till 8?”

    His smile deepened. “It is 11 a.m.”

    I stared. “Oh.” Still frowning, I slung on my backpack. “I just hate to go.”

    “You are always welcomed back,” he said.

    In the dimness of the hallway, we looked at each other. Then he said:

    “God be with you.”

    “And you as well.”

    Downstairs, I told a different guestmaster — Father Seamus, he said, in a soft, gravelly Bronx accent — that I’d like to write an article about the abbey. “You can write it, of course. You can do whatever you would like. But if you want to interview somebody, I recommend you talk to Brother Paul,” he said, just as another man entered the lobby behind me. “And here he is now. Brother Paul, this young man wants to write an article on the abbey, and I was just telling him, at the very moment God saw fit to direct you into our presence, that he should talk to you.”

    Brother Paul looked about Father Seamus’ age, but he had on a gray polo shirt and moccasins that seemed woven out of hemp, and he was carrying a cardboard box on his shoulder. His Vandyke beard had turned white, but a youthful receptivity danced across his face, lifting his mouth into a smile that put me at ease. I sensed a guiding patience about him. He shook my hand and invited me to follow him.

    The abbey had hosted an International Thomas Merton Society convention over the weekend, and he had shown them around, he said — taking them to the hermitage where Merton used to write, for instance. The box he was carrying was filled with literature on Merton that had been circulating during the conference, and he needed to drop it off at the back of the visitors’ center, which was closed for Memorial Day. I had to get my laptop out of my car, so five minutes later, I found him stretched out across a bench under the cupola of the visitors’ center entrance,  looking up with his hands under the back of his head.

    Then he saw me and sat upright, lifting one of his legs onto the bench and peeling down his sock to scratch red patches that had spread over his shin. “I’ve got some eczema that’s been bothering me,” he said.

    Watching a monk scratch at his eczema was somehow refreshing, as if Brother Paul had excused himself from the onus of acting holy. On one hand, he was a monk committed to his solemn vows. On the other, he was a man bothered by eczema.

    Brother Paul told me that the lower age limit to enter the monastery is now 22, and the upper limit is 50, but he had come to the abbey in 1958, when he was 17 years old. He was from West Virginia, and I asked him if he chose Gethsemani because of its relative closeness. “I came here out of dumb luck,” he said. “I didn’t know there were any other Cistercian monasteries in the U.S.”

    Altogether, the initiation process took about five and a half years, he said. First, you have to apply. You can’t enter if you have debts or dependents. Once you pass the interviews, you’ll do manual labor with the other novices. Then comes a six-month period where you’re a postulant and you wear a half-smock. After six months, they give you a novice habit, which is full white. When you take temporary vows, you get a black scapular. That lasts three years. Finally, you take your solemn vows — conversion, stability and obedience — and you are committed, Brother Paul said, “unto death, as they say.”

    During that time, a monk receives a different name (Paul, for instance, had been baptized Richard) and still has to go through a five-year transition period. After solemn vows, the theoretical door slams behind you. But people still leave after a long time at the monastery. I asked him if he could leave.

    “Leave the Enclosure?” He laughed. “Oh, no.”

    “So you couldn’t go grab lunch at Bardstown or anything?” I said.

    “Actually, I’m a poet, and my editor and a few poet friends wanted to have dinner in Bardstown the other week. I knew the abbot would say no, but I asked him anyway. He said, ‘Our hospitality will be sufficient here.’ So I stayed home.”

    I asked him why he entered the monastery at such a young age.

    “I wanted to live a simple life, close to God,” he said. “This is a different style of religious life altogether from being involved in the church and tending the flock. Prayer is such an important part of the life of the church. There ought to be people in the world who simply witness to the sufficiency of God.”

    Brother Paul looked toward the grounds, which shimmered in the midmorning light. Then he said: “The heart moving toward God is in itself creating a current for the rest of the world. You might say that’s what we mean by ‘praying for the world.’ It doesn’t just mean saying prayers. I think it’s a matter of existing in this current of goodness, in which the spirit of God carries us along.

    “Jesus had one word that said everything about the spiritual life. Do you know what it is?”

    This was way above my pay-grade. I shook my head.

    “‘Watch,’” Brother Paul said. “In the Garden of Gethsemane, when he was entering his final agony, Jesus told the Three Apostles, ‘Just watch and pray.’ And when he came back, they were asleep. ‘Could you not watch an hour? Watch and pray, that you enter not into temptation.’ Watch,” he said. “It’s important, because we’re not just saying prayers — we’re being conscious. Do you know what ‘the Buddha’ means?”

    I shook my head again.

    “‘Buddha’ means ‘The Awakened One.’ That’s Buddha’s command: Awaken. It’s very close to Christ’s prescription: Watch. It’s pure consciousness. You don’t watch for anything. Just watch. Be conscious. Be aware. Know. Anticipate. Hope for. All these things. It sounds very abstract, and in a way, it’s empty, because only God is the thing worth watching for. So God is the only thing big enough for our minds, and our minds are not big enough for him. Our minds are not infinite, but they’re virtually infinite. We’re already finding that out in this world, because of all that we know about the cosmos, with the expanding universe — it’s just …”

    Once again, he looked out beyond the shadow of the cupola, toward the bright grass that ran up to the gate.

    “The more you untangle it, the more complicated things are. So what you want to do is enter that simplicity of mind. Which is what I said when I came here — I wanted a simple life. Ultimately, that’s what it is — the simplicity of God. As Thomas Aquinas said: God is the simplest being of all.”

    Brother Paul rubbed his leg again and rolled up his sock and stood, stepping into his moccasins. “It’s time for noon prayers,” he said. “But we can speak later.”

    When I told him it was my last day here, he said, “Well, before you leave, you should go to the garden.”

    “Oh, I have. The grounds are lovely.”

    “No — the garden in the woods. Have you been? Walk with me.”

    I followed him to the parking lot. We stood upon a crest of grass, and he pointed toward the walled garden I’d seen from the dining room.

    “At the end of the wall, you’ll come to a wooded gate. Go through it, across the road, and you’ll find a path in the woods. It will lead to the garden,” he said. “But you have to watch for it. Goodbye.”

    I went down the concourse that approached the church and through the doors into the lobby and then into the garden — down the steps and around the path that snaked under the drooping branches. A wall separated the grounds from the road. In one corner, wooden doors were secured shut with a plank chunk placed atop them, into which an iron peg had been driven. I lifted the peg and the doors opened outward, into the world.

    A gravel path led through the grass beyond the wall toward the road, which I crossed to an opening in the woods marked with cement blocks laid side-by-side and winding through the undergrowth. A pole stood above this path, with a marble block inscribed with these words: To The Statues.

    I entered the forest portal, moving between the slender pillars of the trunks, past a barrier of what looked like rusted piping that sloped down a hillock to form the railing of a bridge that arced over a sunken stream. Beyond it, the path of cement blocks changed to gravel, rising out of the shadows into a strip of mown grass alongside a moss-scummed pond. Reeds rose from the water like gold lances. A bullfrog splashed. Dragonflies, armored in green-blue scales, droned through the sun-shot air, plunging around my ears and attacking my neck. I swatted at them, cursing, jerking around and smacking my head as I dashed toward another post affixed with the same sign: To The Statues.

    At the end of the glade, a staircase of slats set in a metal frame was propped against a stone bluff. Placed in a crevice strewn with twigs and pebbles was a statuette of Mary bending over a baby who lay on a cushion. Dirt smudged the folds of her cloak and crusted the pillow in which the baby Jesus rested. A necklace of purple beads had been draped around these figures, and next to Mary, an angel prayed atop a garland of leaves someone had plucked.

    As I kept walking, more religious trinkets dotted the path — a slab shaped like a miniature tombstone inscribed with a tonsured monk bowed in thought under a tree, around which sparrows fluttered; a statuette of an old man in a cloak with a staff petting a lamb rubbing against his knees; a sign shaded in the vegetation: “My eyes are always on the Lord. Psalm 24.”

    Descending a slope, I saw something nearby, almost hidden in the underbrush. At first, it looked like a boxcar that some hermit had claimed. It was made of clapboard. I read the sign on the roof: “Rosary House Shelter.” The entrance was a square vacancy where the door had been ripped out. A slanted board served as the doorstep. The outside walls were white, except for gashes of red like streaks of blood.

    I had the wild suspicion that some latter-day John the Baptist lived here, and I called, “Hello? Hello?”

    No answer. I ducked my head and stooped in. A desk was pushed against the single window, and rosary beads festooned the ceiling. In the corner, a wasp hive droned like a car engine. Torn loose-leaf papered the interior — notes and letters and postcards that people had taped or nailed to the walls. Pages were thumbtacked with cardboard crosses. Pages wrapped around pictures of children. Pages folded over each other. Pages tumbled to the floor. Pages upon pages. Prayers upon prayers: “God be with Dr. Leach in heaven. April 3, 2016.” “Thank you for saving Christopher. His heart beats, his brain thinks, his smile shines. I love you, Lord.” “God, thank you for your many blessings to me and my family, and thank you for loving me when I am impatient, which is often. Lord, I desire a husband, and children of my own. Please lead me into my future.” “Please pray for Mary Everett and Emily’s baby.” (Below it, in different handwriting: “No Trump Please.”)

    Wasps kept buzzing closer to my head, until I returned to the path and skirted the edge of the forest, walking through a tunnel of trees between which light tumbled in from the fields beyond. Roots cabled the track I followed, so that I seemed to be ascending a staircase of packed earth. And then I entered the garden of statues.

    Cast in black iron, the three men wore robes and hoods. One of them was sleeping on his stomach. Another lay on his side. The third was sitting upright, and bent over, so that his face rested on his forearm.

    Light and shade dappled the Three Apostles, but at distance was another statue, which seemed positioned so that a shaft of sunlight fell full upon it without any shadow. Set upon a dais fringed with cobbled stones, he wore a cloak opened at the neck, and his head reared back on his shoulders, facing the sky. Except the statue’s elbows speared outwards, and his hands covered his eyes.

    I circled the statue. Jesus is usually portrayed as pacific in his suffering. But this figure seemed alone and afraid and blind, and for a moment I was disappointed. There was nothing more to see. This had been my reward for hiking through the heat-addled woodland for nearly an hour. I remembered that Brother Paul had told me to watch for them, as if they would be hard to find. Yet here they were, in front of me.

    So I stopped. I sat down to look at them. I swatted at something buzzing near my ear. I guzzled from my water bottle. The forest soared above me.

    I breathed out. Listened.

    Light poured onto the trees, shocking each leaf into detail like a gold icon in a stained-glass window that hovered in the air. And then I was noticing a tablet patched with lichen, the silver trilling of a bird within the canopy, the chiaroscuro of light and shade chasing across the statues, the sweat that glistened upon my arms and whorled my hair into seaweed patterns and splashed upon the pebbled ground, even the droning specks darting somewhere above my head.

    But now I didn’t mind them. I was just there. I was watching.

     

    Photo by Brother Christian, Gethsemani Abbey

     

    This originally appeared in the August 2016 issue of Louisville Magazine. To subscribe to Louisville Magazine, click here. To find your very own copy of Louisville Magazine, click here. 

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