Month: October 2015

A Green Mango Pilgrimage – Part 3 – Abbey of Gethsemani

What can we gain by sailing to the moon if we are not able to cross the abyss that separates us from ourselves? This is the most important of all voyages of discovery, and without it, all the rest are not only useless, but disastrous. – Thomas Merton

I know that this is going to sound hyperbolic and absurd, roll your eyes at me if you must, but the moment that I stepped out of my car in the parking lot outside of the Abbey of Gethsemani in Trappist, Kentucky, I immediately heard the birds in the air and the trees that populate the acres of beautiful land that the abbey sits on sing more clearly and and beautifully than I’d ever noticed anywhere before. I felt like I had just stepped onto the set of a Snow White film and soon the squirrels and bunny rabbits would be running up to me carrying freshly plucked flowers and ripe fruit for me to snack on while we all speak to each other in our universal animal language. But I guess, in a way, that’s sort of the point of this sacred space. Not to feel like you’ve been sucked into a Disney film, but to feel like you’re separated from all of the hubbub and chaos of modern life and are able to find a sort of serenity and solitude that allows you to commune with God, nature, and your very self, in a completely different language. Specifically for the monks and others who retreat at this monastery, that language is silence.
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IMG_0095The Abbey of Gethsemani is a monastery of the Cistercian order of monks who “lead a life of prayer, work, and sacred reading, steeped in the heart and mystery of the Church,” according to their brochure. It is through the methodical study of Scriptures and concentrated prayer regimen that monks here are able to explore more deeply what it means to live fully in Christ and discover the depths of the love of God and ultimately to share that love with the world. They are in a unique position to intercede on behalf of the Church and the world through their prayers in a tumultuous time when the average person does not take the time to slow down and pray themselves. This very fact hit me hard to realize that with all of the division that currently exists within the Church and uncertainly about its future as well as in the world in general with injustice and misunderstanding plaguing every corner of the earth, there are people whose job it is to intercede on our behalf. All of us, myself included, without these monks even knowing who I am, are being prayed for by men who have the strange luxury of being able to focus all of their life’s energy into that prayer. That’s a powerful realization and it brings extra gravity to my own personal prayers, knowing that these men center their life around such a gift, to come in contact and communicate with God. It brings extra vitality to the need to embrace what a true gift it is.
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The Abbey’s most famous monk was Thomas Merton who lived there from 1941 until his death 27 years later during which time his prayer and study led him to become one of the most respected theologians of the 20th century. His works focused on interfaith truths and social justice and have drawn connections between a number of world religions including Buddhism and Native American beliefs, from a Christian viewpoint. He studied Eastern religions as a way to draw himself deeper into the human experience which he considered being at the core of his own beliefs as a Catholic. Merton’s work has been credited as giving rise to an explosion of spiritual exploration in the 60’s and 70’s and continues to inspire and inform seekers of all backgrounds to this day. His grave is placed in the cemetery right outside of the monastery in Kentucky, but his legacy continues to live through the many who have been touched by his writings to plunge the depths of the human soul and rise to seek justice and peace for all on the planet.
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IMG_0098Although most of the property of the Abbey is off limits to the public and reserved for the monks, they do allow the public into the sanctuary and invite anyone to join them for their daily prayers. I was blessed to be at the Abbey just in time to witness their afternoon prayers inside the beautiful, narrow sanctuary. I sat there for a few minutes alone before the monks entered, meditating in a silence that was even more intense than what I had experienced at the Baha’i Faith Temple the week before. When the time came for the prayers, the monks came in one at a time, in complete silence, and took their places. Once everyone was there, with no fanfare of any kind, no speaking or instructions, they simply stood and began singing in unison a cappella. I naively expected it to sound like one of those Tibetan chanting monks CD’s that you find next to the spa music in some holistic health store. But as soon as they started singing, it was clear that their goal was to pray, not to sing. This is not to say that they were bad at singing, it was just clear that they were not concerned with how they sounded to anyone but the Lord that they were praying to. The authenticity with which they sent their voices up and sincerity with which they sang each word filled that simple space with a Sacred Presence so palpable that no one could deny that the Spirit was active in their prayers. It was refreshing in a world where so many churches have turned praise into performance and the singing becomes empty when authenticity is sacrificed for entertainment. There were no fancy lights, or instruments, no hipster glasses or skinny jeans, no frills, no show to be put on, just pure honest praise that ushered in a more powerful worship experience than any modern service could offer. For four simple songs and fifteen simple minutes, I witnessed a group of men unified with one simple goal of praising the God that they loved and inviting him to work through them in this world. Everyone in worship services always claim that they’re there only for God’s glory, but I never really believed it fully until I saw those men consumed by it so purely at the Abbey of Gethsemani.
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After my short visit, I have to admit that I left the Abbey of Gethsemani thinking to myself, “I could be a monk for a while”. The revelations offered through the lifestyle the monks live there and the unadulterated experience that is offered through such a simple and direct encounter with something so Holy is so undeniably attractive that it certainly makes one question why everyone doesn’t commit themselves to such a life at least for a while. But I’m afraid I won’t have the courage to trade in my Levi’s for a white robe any time soon. I will, however be reading more Thomas Merton and doing what I can to walk through life with a more conscious appreciation for both the opportunity for solitude as well as the gift of relating to the rest of humanity.
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This post is part of my Pilgrimage series where I write about places as I check them off of my Sacred Spaces Bucket List.
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A Green Mango Pilgrimage – Part 2 – Baha’i Faith Temple

O Children of Men! Know ye not why We created you all from the same dust? That no one should exalt himself over the other. Ponder at all times in your hearts how ye were created. Since We have created you all from one same substance it is incumbent on you to be even as one soul, to walk with the same feet, eat with the same mouth and dwell in the same land, that from your inmost being, by your deeds and actions, the signs of oneness and the essence of detachment may be made manifest. — Bahá’u’lláh

I have been traveling around the US again this month and during that time I’ve been able to check several more places off of my Sacred Spaces Bucket List. I have been busy with so many other activities during these travels that I haven’t had time to stop and write much. But as I go, I promise to record my thoughts and experiences in these places even if it comes a couple weeks later. The experiences that I am blessed to have in these spaces stay with me and travel with me, so I will be sharing them with you as soon as I can. They have been, in fact, the necessary pause in the midst of the nonstop activity of a whirlwind road trip. No place better embodies this sense of pause than the first sacred space on my current trip, the Baha’i Faith Temple in Wilmette, Illinois.

IMG_0038This temple in Wilmette is one of only eight Baha’i temples in the world, representing the central symbol of light and unity for all who follow the Baha’i faith in all of North America. This is why I absolutely had to see it while I was in the area. As someone who seeks to understand and learn as much as possible about all world religions, I have opportunities in every city that I visit to see churches or mosques or synagogues or temples from other religions, but Baha’i only gives you eight chances in the world, so I had to take the chance when I got it. I will admit, however, that I knew very little about the Baha’i belief system before visiting Wilmette. I had known a few people who had dabbled in it and even had a couple of my roommates in Haiti who briefly converted to a local version of Baha’i a few years back. But that didn’t last long as I always suspected that they were just doing it because of a couple of cute girls who were also in the group that they wanted to impress. “Hey Girl, yah I totally believe in the oneness of humanity and dignity of every human being. What you doing later?” So despite their weekly devotional meetings, they were never great wells of information for me to learn from. So I approached the temple with a significant level of ignorance but also a significant desire to replace that ignorance with understanding.

Once I arrived and spoke with some of the individuals there and spent some time absorbing the clarity that the space there offers, I have to admit that what I learned there was in overwhelming harmony with my hippy heart. Central to the Baha’i faith is the belief that we all belong to one human race and that all religions share a common source and aim. They believe that all scriptures throughout history combine to reveal the truth of God and that God himself has used a number of messengers to transmit wisdom to the human race. They believe that civilization is constantly undergoing a spiritual evolution and that Baha’u’llah is the latest of the Divine Messengers to share God’s truth with the world. Basically, in Baha’i, in my very simplified summary, we are all one big happy family. Christians, Muslims, Jews, Hindus, Buddhists, and everyone else. What each believes represents some part of what is True but they each are all just part of something much bigger which they may not recognize themselves. To a traditionally Christian Theist who has always tried to be as inclusive as possible, with a leaning towards pluralism and a desire to find the wisdom present in differing religious traditions, this incredibly encompassing foundation that the Baha’i faith is built upon really made sense. It seemed so refreshing in a world where everyone is always arguing about who’s right and who’s wrong. It seems so refreshing in a world where even people who claim the same labels, claim to follow the same God, and even sit in the same pews next to each other once a week, always seem to end up disagreeing so much on what is truth and what we should do with the truth. The idea that there is a place where everyone is allowed to be some sort of right is refreshing.

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By entering into this specific space in Wilmette, refreshed is exactly what I felt. As mentioned, that was exactly what I was already searching for after some busy days of fundraising and traveling, a needed an opportunity to pause and refresh my soul. The Baha’i Faith Temple provided just that. From the moment that I stepped in even the welcome center, and not even the sanctuary yet, all of the inertia from my go go going suddenly halted and seemed to fade at the doorway. The simple presence of such a unified, peaceful faith being expressed in a single location, changes the way one breathes, sees, even speaks. When the gentle woman inside greeted me I found myself responding with such a calm moderation in my voice that I surprised even myself. There was suddenly absolutely no reason to speak any other way than with absolute open sincerity. I was tempted to simply stand there and have an entire conversation with this woman about entirely everything that she believed. But that, of course, was not why I was there. I wanted to get into that sacred space where one was invited to encounter the Divine. So after a short chat with her I asked directions into the sanctuary.

When you enter into the sanctuary, guests are welcomed and instructed by another compassionate volunteer to maintain silent to respect the sanctity of the space. Walking into the room, which is adorned my a series of tremendously intricate shapes and symbols, just the same as the exterior, all representing different religions and traditions which are all interconnected and all welcomed there, one is immediately filled with the realization that if God were ever going to speak to you, that would be the perfect place to hear Them. In the top of the dome an invocation in Arabic is written, “Oh Glory of the All Glorious”. As you sit in the chairs there and look up through the carvings on the walls, the windows shedding light on every inch of the interior, and ultimately up into the beautiful dome, you are drawn naturally into a meditative state of communion with whatever Spirit you believe in. You are not imposed upon with any doctrine or influenced by any icons, only the whir of the air conditioners to supplement whatever prayerful condition you choose to enter into within yourself. Pause. Refresh. See and Understand. Be.

IMG_0039Outside the sanctuary, the space is expertly designed with every inch of the building itself and the gardens and grounds around it to reflect the principles of light, unity, balance, and universal brotherhood. As someone who has lately been fascinated with the artistic and spiritual intersected possibilities of East Asian mandalas, I was naturally inspired by the arrangement of the temple grounds themselves in such a pattern with the temple being at the center of the mandala with gardens and pools radiating out from it. So, before leaving, I had to take the opportunity to walk around the grounds as well in a continued state of prayer. Whatever a particular seeker’s current situation in life, or reasons for searching out an opportunity there to pray, there is place there for them to find the exactly what they need. There is a space to come in contact with the divine direction they crave.

So, whatever your spirit craves, whatever commotion is filling your life demanding for pause, if you have the chance while in the Chicago area to stop by the Baha’i Faith Temple, please take it. Whatever God you follow or don’t, I guarantee you will find something in the silence that speaks to you and changes your perspective upon leaving. Praise be.

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