Retreat Reflections

My wife and I recently returned from a silent retreat to the oldest monastery in America, the Abbey of Gethsemani, located on Monks Road in Trappist, Kentucky. We heard of it last year after visiting the nearby, and also very quiet, Shaker Village, the largest restored such site in America and the place where the late monk and bestselling author Thomas Merton used to retreat to when the monastery got to be too much.

One detail worth sharing is that our retreat was over Independence Day weekend, which also happens to be just after our wedding anniversary, but before whisking my bride off to the monastery, we did spend a couple of nights at a nearby bed and breakfast to celebrate. For the record, we were allowed to communicate with each other, simply not publicly. While we understand the reasoning and we enjoyed the retreat overall, the enforced silence kept us from engaging with our fellow guests, which we found limiting.

Another quirk of our retreat experience was round the clock ritualization of all activities by, you guessed it, the omnipresent clock. Ironically, it was medieval monks who concocted clocks to regulate the routine of daily devotions at monasteries. And the unintended consequence of the innovation was that the very contraption designed to draw people toward the divine instead became the means used to manipulate life as we know it.

To that point, here is an excerpt from Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death: “In [Lewis] Mumford’s great book Technics and Civilization, he shows how, beginning in the fourteenth century, the clock made us into time-keepers, and then time-savers, and now time-servers. In the process, we have learned irreverence toward the sun and the seasons, for in a world made up of seconds and minutes, the authority of nature is superseded.”

Postman adds, “With the invention of the clock, Eternity ceased to serve as the measure and focus of human events. And thus, though few would have imagined the connection, the inexorable ticking of the clock may have had more to do with the weakening of God’s supremacy than all the treatises produced by the philosophers of the Enlightenment; that is to say, the clock introduced a new form of conversation between man and God, in which God appears to have been the loser. Perhaps Moses should have included another Commandment: Thou shalt not make mechanical representations of time.”