Common Good Collective member Greg Jarrell had become all the way burnt out. This story of a week of silence in a monastery helps him find restoration, as a silence becomes a teacher and friend.
From my front porch I look out onto a 200-year-old post oak — and, beyond that, my street in Charlotte. The sidewalk mostly stays busy enough to keep me interested while I’m in my rocking chair. When people are absent, the birds are active. The porch looks west, and the sunsets are often spectacular. What I am saying is, I’ve been pretty content at being told to “stay at home,” North Carolina’s polite way of ordering us to shelter in place. Even as that order is phasing out now, I’m in no rush to venture back into the world. I worry about the health of my family and my neighbors, and I’m willing to be patient out of a sense of neighborliness. I’ve also grown fond of the different pace. My rare trips out in the car have confirmed for me that I don’t miss errands running errands or waiting on traffic.
But after another night of my limited cooking, and another mound of dishes, and yet another planning session for our new homeschool, my wife and I rocked and wondered how many more weeks we would enjoy this daily pattern. We winced, knowing that at some point suffering and death wrought by COVID-19 will break the routine. Working and playing from home, and only from home, is one thing. Grieving the illness or even death of someone we love – possibly even each other – from home is something else altogether.
The front porch and the century-old bungalow behind it are our cloister now, we have decided. There is much grief ahead. This is where we will stay put to weather it.
I have thought, watching the sunset each night, of Father Juan Carlos, who lives in an actual cloister at the Abbey of Gethsemani, about 10 miles outside the revered little bourbon-making town of Bardstown, Kentucky. He described to me, when I visited in March 2019, how the goal of monastic life is not to become a saint.
“The goal, you might say, is to become more human,” he said.
I drove myself from Charlotte to Gethsemani, the highways winding through the Blue Ridge, skirting the Smokies, and finally into central Kentucky’s “knob country.” There, the countryside hints at the Appalachians, dotted by peaks too tall to be hills and too small to be mountains. I was in the car alone, but I was being chased by something that wouldn’t leave: burnout — and the accompanying dread of daily life that goes with it.
My burnout felt like overwhelming waves of grief and confusion and fear. I struggled to stay above the relentless questions brought about by creeping middle age and the inevitable suffering of being alive. A week at the monastery seemed like a place to find, if not answers, then balm for a weary soul. And if not that, at least a guilt-free nap.
The Abbey of Gethsemani is perhaps the most widely known monastery in the United States, owing to its most revered member, the late Thomas Merton. Merton died in 1968, when he was the most celebrated spiritual writer in the country. The monastics here still feel his presence.
The brothers at Gethsemani take vows into the Order of Cistercians of the Strict Observance, commonly known as the Trappists. Trappists around the world live “enclosed,” in the religious language, having little contact with outsiders. They daily observe vows of stability, faithfulness, and obedience through a highly disciplined rule of life that places an emphasis on silence.
Trappists spend part of their time outside the sanctuary, but still in the boundaries of the cloister, engaged in work to support their community of monastics. Beer connoisseurs know them for their brewing. Trappist beer from Belgium is widely considered some of the best in the world. At Gethsemani, there is no brewing, but there is baking. The monks ship confections and cakes all around the country to support their lives of ora et labora – prayer and work. This being Kentucky, many of the sweets receive an added kick. Like fudge? Try the bourbon fudge. Not a fan of fruitcake? You will be when the fruit is soaked in bourbon.
Though the fruitcake was excellent, I did not go to Gethsemani for baked goods. I craved the silence.
The vows the monks take require them to refrain from “unnecessary speech,” which seems like a useful descriptor for much of the speech in the world. I got a quick immersion into this sparse language when Brother Godric greeted me on the Monday afternoon I arrived. He handed me a room key and gave a brief orientation: cafeteria, left; sanctuary, right; dorm, upstairs; supper at 6.
“Peace unto you this week,” he said.
And then, silence until my Friday morning departure. Silent meals. Nods to the other retreatants. A bow of gratitude to the cooks in the refectory. No unnecessary speech.
This is what keeping silence for five consecutive days was like: On the first day, I walked the trails. I watched birds and wrote in a journal.
On the second day, I walked a trail to the top of a knob. I watched birds and wrote in a journal.
On the third day, I walked a trail to the top of a different knob. I watched birds and wrote in a journal.
The fourth day I wrote in a journal while I watched birds and then went out to walk the trails.
I knew something unusual was happening on the afternoon of that fourth day when I found myself dancing. Alone. In the woods. I’m a white guy raised by Southern Baptists. Not dancing, for my people, is both a genetic condition and a step toward holiness. I mean, I might have joined a square dance or two some years ago, but only because my granddaddy was playing banjo in the band. And I did not enjoy it.
And yet, there I was, late winter in a forest of Kentucky. The air was cool, and the sun was hot. It was a day of contradictions. My learned quietism gave way to a freedom that had been longing to escape. My soul was thawing, the burnout slowly melting away. Out it poured, through my lungs and feet. My hips tried to cooperate too, although … well … you crawl before you walk.
I paused at one point and wondered if I was okay. Should someone have stumbled upon me there, they surely would have worried for me, limbs flying everywhere, body out of sync with itself. And maybe I wasn’t okay. It was just that, for the first time in so long – maybe ever – it was permissible to be sad and confused and hopeful and depressed and anxious and content and exhausted. What I had come to the Abbey of Gethsemani to do, walking by the creek beds underneath those knobs, was to be still with all those feelings for one week. In silence. I had come here to stop running away.
The fifth day, the Friday appointed for my departure, I packed my bags and went to a distillery. When in Rome, you know? But even there, still refraining from unnecessary speech, the mystery of quiet transformation was on display. Hundreds, even thousands, of charred barrels sat stacked on one another in dark rickhouses, subjected to years of unconditioned air: stifling heat, bitter cold, never a break from the elements. The contents of the barrels slowly transform from harsh and unrefined “white dog” whiskey to complex and mature bourbon that display dozens of flavor profiles. The white dog “sits a spell,” as the old folks might have said, and emerges transformed. The process reaches completion over years, not weeks.
And the end result makes you want to dance.
The work that happens in a monastery or a rickhouse is interior work. While the world buzzes outside the cloister, on the inside transformation happens in silence. In sweltering summers and frigid winters, by prayer and work, through farming and baking and growing to love one another, people move toward maturity. The process takes place too slowly for guests to observe. The pain and the joy of becoming more deeply human goes on for periods measured in decades and years. The visitor gets only a taste.
Monastics try to wait patiently for the gift of maturity in what they call their “cells.” At Gethsemani, a retreatant’s cell is essentially a dorm room. In each cell are
a single bed, a desk with a chair, and a bench. A crucifix hangs above the desk upon which sits a lamp and a simple alarm clock — no radio, and definitely no WiFi.
,The ancient wisdom developed by the first monks in the deserts of Egypt taught that the silence of a cell is the place where wisdom begins. Abba Moses, one of those early monks (c. 330-405), went out to the very edge of the Roman Empire to a monastic enclave called Scetis. There, followers would seek Abba Moses out to sit and learn from the master. In one famous story, a man found him and asked for a word of wisdom. Moses replied, “Go into your cell, and your cell will teach you everything.”
I’ve been thinking about that story a lot lately considering the “Stay at Home” decree. We do not choose these rules, as monastics choose to take their vows. This pandemic will only widen the gulf of injustice that our immature American society depends upon for its existence. Some will get the comfort of a front porch; others will get high-risk, low-paying jobs, called “essential” but not paid like it. And yet, with the economy slowed, and our pace along with it, we could reimagine what maturity might look like, and who it might work for.
“Go into your cell,” the governors and mayors and epidemiologists seemed to be saying, if by accident rather than monastic wisdom. If we, collectively, can sit and listen long enough, who knows what we might hear?
The monastic’s shack on the edge of the wilderness is not a perfect analog to the wired houses most people live in. The former is spare to the point of asceticism; the latter is filled to the brim with distraction. I’ve long flirted with the idea of joining a monastery, but in this pandemic, my life is far from solitary. I’m now a homeschool teacher, a three-times-a-day cook, my children’s only suitable playmate, and on top of that, a broke, stressed freelancer, all out of gigs. Add in a smartphone, a Netflix account, the care of neighbors, and the constant worry of trying to stay alive through a pandemic, and the discipline of silent contemplation is a remote dream, a wispy cloud drifting by.
And yet, some basic practices remain the same. I’ve found myself returning, during these weeks of isolation, to long walks and watching birds. Each day I take my coffee to the porch and observe the morning congregation flitter from branch to branch. The children and I stop our afternoon lessons when we notice some less-common species perched near the feeder. We are trying to learn which bird sings which song. Sometimes we try to sing with them, though we can’t get it right.
It’s all terribly ordinary — the same cheap coffee, the same red mug, the same small wren family building a nest. We are still cooped up, and now those fledglings are being pushed from the nest. But in these moments of sadness and confusion and hope and anxiety, ordinary feels comforting. A porch, away from the noise of machines, is my cell. My cell is teaching me, if not everything, then enough for this moment.
Greg Jarrell is a writer and the Chief Door Answerer at QC Family Tree, an intentional community in the west Charlotte neighborhood of Enderly Park. Greg shares life there with a host of neighbors who have become kin, as well as his wife Helms and sons John Tyson and Zeb. He is the author of A Riff of Love: Notes on Community and Belonging, from Cascade Books (2018). Greg can also be found around Charlotte playing saxophone. He regularly performs in concert and club venues in jazz, classical, and commercial settings.