Living in Community….The Abbey of Gethsemani

*Post written by Mona Meyer, Archives and Special Collections Metadata Librarian.

One of the collections within University Archives and Special Collections is Communal Studies. The Communal Studies Collection began in conjunction with the Center for Communal Studies, which promotes the study of contemporary and historic communal groups, intentional communities and utopias. The key word is intentional. These communities were/are deliberate attempts to live communally, with shared goals and economies. This blog is one of a continuing series….you can search for the phrase Living in Community to find others.

This blog will talk about the Abbey of Gethsemani, a historic and continuing Cistercian monastic community in Trappist, Kentucky (near Bardstown).

Image CS 662-190ad-0001, the Don Janzen collection
Abbot Benedict of Nursia, depicted in the act of writing the Benedictine Rule, painting by Herman Nieg, 1926; in the church of Heiligenkreuz Abbey near Baden bei Wien, Lower Austria.
Image found here.

The monks at this abbey follow the rule of St. Benedict to order their days. Benedict (480-547 A.D.) was born in Italy, and sent by his parents to Roman schools. “Shocked by the licentiousness of Rome, he retired as a young man to Enfide (modern Affile) in the Simbruinian hills and later to a cave in the rocks beside the lake then existing near the ruins of Nero’s palace above Subiaco, 64 km (40 miles) east of Rome in the foothills of the Abruzzi. There he lived alone for three years, furnished with food and monastic garb by Romanus, a monk of one of the numerous monasteries nearby. When the fame of his sanctity spread, Benedict was persuaded to become abbot of one of these monasteries.”i

Eventually Benedict formulated what became known as his Rule governing the monastic life. “Accentuated was the harmony of a simple, unpretentious life in common wherein all were exhorted to “prefer nothing whatever to Christ.” Practical, flexible, and balanced, it became the standard for Christian monasticism in the West.”ii

But I initially said this was a Cistercian monastery….so where does this fit in? In 1098 a group of 21 monks, seeking to simplify their lives and return to more of what Benedict originally intended, established Citeaux, the “New Monastery,” near the city of Dijon, France. “They trimmed the thicket of medieval liturgy, creating space for the formerly discarded manual labor, the integral rhythm of Benedict’s rule emerged in a harmony of work, prayer, and spiritual reading.”iii

The monks at Gethsemani are also known as Trappist, springing from yet another reform that began in 1664 at La Trappe, near Paris. “Forced to leave the country at the time of the French Revolution, this community eventually became the nucleus of the Trappist branch of the Cistercian order, also known as the Cistercians of the Strict Observance (O.C.S.O.)”iv

French Trappist monks first ventured to this part of the country in 1805, coming to and staying in the Bardstown area for about 4 years until continual bad weather drove them back home. The second, and successful attempt at establishing themselves in Kentucky came in 1848, when 44 monks from the Abbey of Melleray in France once again ventured to the New World and came to the Bardstown area just before Christmas of that year. Their leader was a man named Eutropius Proust, who became the first abbot of the new monastery. The current monastery was built beginning in 1852, with later modifications and additions.

Abbey of Gethsemani historic marker – photographed September 29, 2009. Image CS 662-190dc-0004, the Don Janzen collection
Front side of document announcing the appointment of Dom. Eutropius Proust as first abbot of Gethsemani Abbey, circa 1851. Image from the Archives & Records Center of the Diocese of Pittsburgh as found on Facebook.
Thomas Merton. Image found here.

A well known person affiliated with Gethsemani that you may have heard of is Thomas Merton (1915-1968. “His autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain, has sold over one million copies and has been translated into over fifteen languages. He wrote over sixty other books and hundreds of poems and articles on topics ranging from monastic spirituality to civil rights, nonviolence, and the nuclear arms race. … After a rambunctious youth and adolescence, Merton converted to Roman Catholicism whilst at Columbia University and on December 10th, 1941 he arrived at the Abbey of Gethsemani, a community of monks belonging to the Order of Cistercians of the Strict Observance (Trappists), the most ascetic Roman Catholic monastic order.The twenty-seven years he spent in Gethsemani brought about profound changes in his self-understanding. This ongoing conversion impelled him into the political arena, where he became, according to Daniel Berrigan, the conscience of the peace movement of the 1960’s. Referring to race and peace as the two most urgent issues of our time, Merton was a strong supporter of the nonviolent civil rights movement, which he called “certainly the greatest example of Christian faith in action in the social history of the United States.” For his social activism Merton endured severe criticism, from Catholics and non-Catholics alike, who assailed his political writings as unbecoming of a monk. During his last years, he became deeply interested in Asian religions, particularly Zen Buddhism, and in promoting East-West dialogue. After several meetings with Merton during the American monk’s trip to the Far East in 1968, the Dalai Lama praised him as having a more profound understanding of Buddhism than any other Christian he had known.”v The Seven Storey Mountain is available in our General Collection, BX4715.M542 A3.

The Abbey of Gethsemani is considered to be the “motherhouse” of all Trappist monasteries in this country, and the oldest one still in operation. Its 40 some monks lead quiet, structured lives of prayer, study, and work, and welcome visitors to visit, only 2.5 hours away from Evansville. There is a welcome center, 1500 acres of hiking trails to explore, and homemade fruitcake and bourbon fudge available for purchase (this is how the monks support themselves). All of its services are open to the public.

Sign at entrance to Abbey – photographed September 29, 2009. Image-190dc-0002, the Don Janzen collection
Main entrance – photographed September 29, 2009. Image CS 662-190dc-0010, the Don Janzen collection
View of Abbey – photographed September 29, 2009. Image CS 662-190dc-0012, the Don Janzen collection

Resources Consulted

Abbey of Gethsemani website                                                                                                            "Cistercian Life at Gethsemani," pamphlet found in CS002-1, the Abbey of Gethsemani collection                                                                                                                                                       Saint Benedict entry in Encyclopedia Brittanica online                                                                                 "Thomas Merton's Life and Work." The Thomas Merton Center at Bellarmine University, Louisville, KY

End Notes                                                                                                                                                
i Saint                                                                                                                                                    ii Cistercian                                                                                                                                           iii Cistercian                                                                                                                                                       iv Cistercian                                                                                                                                                        v Thomas
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