Sermon and reflection by Rev. Laura Kirkpatrick McMasters, from January 20, 2016
Each summer, while the majority of students are away, all Martin Methodist College employees are required to evaluate his or her performance, as well as set goals for the coming year. As I approached these goals last summer, I knew I needed to take a retreat, time away to renew my soul, but I struggled with the self-discipline to make it happen. Then, I received an email during the fall semester that helped me meet my goal. The international United Methodist Campus Ministry office sent an invitation for NOVUM, a new retreat in the New Year for those serving in Campus Ministry. I signed up as quickly as I could, and on January 4th, I departed for a mostly silent retreat at the Abbey of Gethsemane in Trappist, Kentucky.
Now, if you’re like my husband, you’re probably a bit suspect about me attending a “silent” retreat! So, I must share that in the days before the retreat, I came down with a sinus funk, and I lost my voice. As I departed for the retreat, my spouse said something like, “Well, you’ve proven God still does miracles ‘cause the only way you’re surviving a silent retreat is to not have a voice!” (And yes, it did prove helpful the first few hours.)
Upon arrival at the Abbey of Gethsemane, there was brief conversation to check-into our rooms, directions to the church for evening prayers, and locating the Silent dining room.
As I entered the church for evening prayers, I had soooo many questions. Why was one monk wearing street clothes while all the rest were in robes? The average age of the monks appeared to be fairly high, so I wanted to ask the age of the youngest monk.
Following evening prayers, we quietly proceeded to the dining room where we received a supper of cream soup and tuna casserole. I sat across from my colleague from Austin Peay’s Wesley Foundation, and I found myself constantly wanting to make comments, hence the no voice was very helpful here!
After supper, we went to the conference room, where we could speak, or at least try to. Father Carlos greeted us and introduced us to our retreat surroundings. Father Carlos shared about the Trappist Monk’s yearning to live life as constant prayer and communion with God. He repeatedly highlighted Psalm 46:10a, “Be still, and know that I am God!” Father Carlos challenged us to peel back the layers of life, to allow space for the Holy, and reconnect with fully knowing each one is a Beloved Child of God.
And as I departed for my room from this time together, I was inspired by Father Carlos and ready to soak up this Holy experience. In the next hour, I read several pages of Thomas Merton’s Life & Holiness and fell asleep. I woke up an hour or two later, and I was struggling with the silence and reflection, so I played Jewel Saga for an hour! Then, I went back to sleep.
On day 2, I woke up, went to breakfast in the Silent Dining Room and attended morning prayers. Next, I returned to my room to continue this silent thing. I looked at my bed, but knew I probably should avoid sleeping the whole time I was there. I looked at my art supplies, my journal, my stack of books, and then, I saw my bible. And I decided if I was in this space to reconnect with the Holy, I guess I should probably open my Bible a bit, but I wasn’t sure where to begin, so I decided to begin with monks’ list of daily readings they had provided in our room. And this is what I read:
18 For thus says the LORD, who created the heavens (he is God!),
who formed the earth and made it (he established it;
he did not create it a chaos, he formed it to be inhabited!):
I am the LORD, and there is no other.
19 I did not speak in secret, in a land of darkness;
I did not say to the offspring of Jacob, ‘Seek me in chaos.’
I the LORD speak the truth, I declare what is right.
God formed the earth, but God did NOT create is a Chaos!!!
God did NOT create the chaos. So, what is the root of all the world’s chaos today? What is the root of my chaos?
As I spent the day in silence, eating in the silent dining room, walking through the Abbey’s gardens, and perusing the Abbey of Gethsemane’s museum I wrestled with this passage and these questions. And by that evening, it hit me, and it hit me hard as I realized just how much I contribute to the chaos in my life, and how each of our pieces of personal chaos contribute to the chaos of the world.
Peeling back the layers…
- Chaos of the world – war, refugees, hate, lack of value of all human lives
- National Chaos – political drama, stock market, racism, violence, disrespect for community living
- Chaos closer to home – employment, financial concerns, those who are hungry & on the streets
- Personal Chaos – we each have an array of titles – as child, maybe sibling, cousin, friend, neighbor, caretaker, student, teammate, employee, member of the community – with each title comes certain responsibilities and a level of care for those whom we are responsible.
When we pause in silence, we peel back these layers and remember we are a beloved child of God, just like God told Jesus at his baptism. God loves you, and you and you….
In peeling back the layers and allowing the Holy to remind us we are a beloved child of God, then we grow in holiness, we grow in being more Christ-like.
Thomas Merton was a Trappist Monk and lived at the Abbey of Gethsemane until his death in 1968. Amidst the flow of life at Gethsemane, Merton’s long periods of silence led to a deep connection to the Holy, and Merton wrote prolifically about these Holy experiences and reflections.
In his book, Life and Holiness, Merton talks about the value of silence and growing in holiness, and he says, “[through this practice of silence, we grow in our] capacity for concern, for suffering, for understanding, for sympathy, and also for humor, for joy, for appreciation of the good and beautiful things of life.”
And, it’s true in my last 12 hours at Gethsemane, I felt like I was flying high as a kite as my soul was filled with joy. There was no chaos interfering with my wholly knowing I am a beloved child of God.
But in the last 24 hours, I can tell you I’ve had a stress headache; I’ve been anxious about tending to details at work and home before leaving for a conference tomorrow, and late last night I realized, uh oh, I’ve let the busyness of the days crowd out a time for silence.
And so I stand before you today as one who is yearning to grow in holiness by taking 5-10 minutes at various points of the day for complete silence to reconnect with the Holy.
And, I stand before you today to invite you to join me on this journey of setting chaos aside and taking time in silence to soak up the Holy and remember you are a beloved child of God.
Rev. Laura Kirkpatrick McMasters is the chaplain for Martin Methodist College in Pulaski, Tennessee.