“James you should consider coming down to the Abbey of Gethsamani in Kentucky with me one of these summers. We can stay in the monastery and reflect and pray and read Thomas Merton. We can also hit one of the famous bourbon distilleries on the way there or the way back. I’ve been going for years and I think you’ll find the experience very enriching…”
I heard those words countless times in my three and a half year friendship/apprenticeship with Richard Harsch. I usually responded by saying something along the lines of, “Never in a million years would I choose to spend my summer vacation time staying in a place with no air conditioning during the hottest days of the year in the middle of Kentucky!”
I can hear him chuckling in the background as I write this next paragraph.
This morning I leave for a week long pilgrimage to the Abbey of Gethsamani in New Haven, Kentucky. I have been granted permission to stay with the monks in the old south wing of the monastery. In the days of Thomas Merton the south wing was used to house the monks, but since the numbers have dwindled now it is only used by those on retreats at select times of the year. I will spend my week reading and meditating and perhaps I will visit a bourbon distillery on the way there or the way back. I expect the whole experience to every enriching.
Another reminder that the power of intention is not bound by the veil that exists between the human and the spirit world. In our three and half years together on this planet Richard usually found a way to encourage me listen to his advice and counseling. Since he has left the encouragement has continued in ways that I am only beginning to be able to describe in human words. So how did this all happen? Let me see if I can find the words…
For those of you less familiar with the back story, Richard died suddenly on April 9th, 2014. He was with us at work in the morning and lying of a hospital gurney with a sheet over his head at 6:30 p.m. that same night. I can’t possibly cover the magnitude of that loss in one short blog post, but suffice it to say that Richard had become my coach/spritual teacher/cheerleader/co-conspirator/big brother figure/father figure/and champion in the three and half years we worked together and became intimate friends.
To have him ripped from my life at a point where I was already fragile was more than I was prepared to handle. I was fragile because I had just moved from a neighborhood where I had put down deep roots and lived for over 25 years. I was fragile because I was uncertain what the new chapters in my recently re-married life would look like. I was fragile because I was about to turn 50 and was not feeling my most healthy. Richard’s death moved me from fragile to broken. I began a downward spiral like none I had known in my adult life. There is much more to this story. In fact there are tens of thousands of words that have already been written in that story, but now is not the time to tell it. That day will come… soon.
This story is about how once again I was reminded that the answers we seek come from within when we can tune out the static and allow our souls to speak to us. The words are always there when we allow for stillness and listen.
A few months back, Christiana began making plans for a trip where she would be working on a project with our dear friend and Spiritual teacher Wendy Isaac. I knew that this plan would require us to spend a week or two of our summer apart from each other but I was excited and surprised to discover that I had no fear about that separation…..er, well let’s just say I might have had some fear, but I wasn’t overwhelmed with fear. That seems like a more realistic assessment.
At first I thought I would just spend the time at home and save myself from using vacation days. I figured I could spend the weekends Christiana was gone hanging with the boys in New Buffalo, Michigan. Play a little golf and drink some wine. A funny thing happened on the way to that plan. Our little cottage in Michigan booked for nearly everyday in July and I took a little sabbatical from drinking wine. On to plan B.
I figured I might return to Florida for a week. I have a good friend who lives in Palm Coast who has left me an open invitation to stay at his seaside home with him. It would be driving distance to Jupiter (the city not the planet) and Orlando where I have other people I would love to spend time with. Something about Florida in July just didn’t fully resonate with me though.
Then one day as I was doing my meditation in the park following my martial arts workout I got a message as clear as if it was spoken to me live and in person, which of course it was! That message said, “Go to the Abbey of Gethsemani, James. The time has come…”
The instant the thought formed I knew it was going to happen. If only I had trusted that knowing I would have saved myself a whole lot of frenetic energy and micro-management. The next day I sent an inquiry to the Abbey to find out if I could visit for the weekend of July 21st. On the application it said “please allow up to five days for a reply.” I had no idea how I was going to survive those next five days not knowing what was going to happen! Did they mean calendar days or business days? Did the weekend days count. I could hardly wait!
On Tuesday May 24th (four days later) I got my response:
“I’m sorry but we are completely booked that weekend. We have every other
weekend in July or August though. And our weekend starts on Friday and
ends on Monday morning or you can leave anytime on Sunday.”
I began to panic. It was the only full weekend that Christiana was going to be gone. I didn’t need another weekend in July or August. I needed THAT weekend! Or did I?
I started to wonder what it would look like if I took an entire week off and drove down and savored the experience. I imagined myself eating meals with the monks and sitting in prayer with them and taking long walks by myself on the grounds and sitting at Merton’s gravesite like Richard was doing in the photo on his memorial card.
On a whim I sent a follow up request. I asked if a weekday retreat might be possible. I wondered if I might be able to come down from Monday until Friday instead of from Friday until Monday. This time my reply came the very next day:
“Yes I have that week July 18-22 in the South wing of the Monastery, which
is for men only. This section was once used to house monks back in
Merton’s day but since there are not as many monks now, this wing is used
only for retreat stays. Only men are allowed to stay there because there
is a common bathroom in the hall that is shared with private showers and
private toilets. There are also stairs that have to be climbed in order to
reach it, and there is no air conditioning but fans are provided.”
So today I begin another important chapter in the the remarkable journey that is my life. With Richard at my side and in my heart I am open to any and all of the possibilities. I begin this pilgrimage on the same day my beloved soul partner and wife begins her own. I journey to a place where I expect to get as close to Source as I possibly can. The word that keeps coming to mind as I embark is “Magnitude”.
The Magnitude of the brightest star in the Universe is perhaps not as bright as the light that I feel in my heart as these days unfold. How unbelievably special it feels to be going to a place named Gethsemani to pray and reflect as the next chapter of the amazing journey of my life opens up. End the word with an “e” or an “i” it makes no matter to me. There are so many chapters left to write and I promise I will not look for rest in any distractions until I have found them all and in finding them I trust that I will also find the path to true joy:
“Do not look for rest in any pleasure, because you were not created for pleasure: you were created for Joy. And if you do not know the difference between pleasure and joy you have not yet begun to live…”