There’s an old monastery deep in the hills of Kentucky that has been the home of countless monks, weary travelers, and soul searching followers for a 166 years. It is the oldest operating monastery in the U.S.. The famous writer and monk Thomas Merton spent much of his life there. In 2012 Casey and I traveled to this monastery, the Abbey of Gethsemane. I had always wanted to go there for two nerdy reasons. The first, I love Thomas Merton, one his quotes hangs framed in my office. The second, there’s an Andrew Peterson song, “Silence of God,” that sings about Jesus facing the same sorrows that we face in life. In that song there’s a line about “a statue of Jesus on a monastery knoll in the hills of Kentucky” and I was told that I could find that statue at the Abbey of Gethsemane. So Casey and I went on an adventure. We toured the Abbey. We read it’s history. We walked silently though a beautiful garden, visiting the stations of the cross. We hiked up a hill to see the view. I didn’t see the statue anywhere though. It was by chance that we noticed a trailhead across from the Abbey. We walked over to it and there was this little sign, no bigger than a bumper sticker, it had an arrow pointing into the woods and the phrase “to the statues.”
The hike was a lot longer than you’d expect. A narrow trail through a thick forrest, it went on forever. The Abbey sits on 2200 acres of land and I’m convinced they used every bit of it. It was hot and muggy and buggy. But we kept hiking. Just when we felt like we might be lost or mistaken there would be another sign with an arrow saying “to the statues”. I couldn’t help but recall Paulo Coelho’s book The Pilgrimage. Along the road to Santiago Paulo must find the markers to ensure he’s traveling the correct path. Sometimes that means looking back to an old sign, and others it means staring into the horizon to find the next marker. Like Paulo, I find myself looking for those signs, walking blindly at times, just hoping to see the next arrow to the statues.
Two thirds of the way up the trail we encountered this little shack. It was too small to be a room, probably only six by six feet. The wood was old, the windows were missing their glass, and the door was open. Inside was a desk and a chair, and piles of prayers. Journals that people had left, paper tacked to the walls and laying on the desk. Prayers everywhere, but not just prayers, there were other weird things too. Little trinkets, nicknacks, and random things just laying on the desk and floor. It was iconic and moving and beautiful and broken. Casey was in front of me, looking in the little prayer hut when she jumped back, quite startled.
“Oh, sorry. I thought I saw a snake. But it’s just the skin. Someone must have left it there.” She said.
Looking over her shoulder I could see the snake skin stretching from one side to the other. She walked back to the hut, stopped, and immediately turned around running. All I could here was “it’s alive,” before the snake started moving and knocked over the chair. We had encountered the devil on our way to see Jesus!
We did not leave a prayer in the hut.
With our blood flowing and our adrenaline up, we kept hiking, forever. I don’t know the exact distance, I know we hiked over an hour before we finally got there; got to wherever it was we thought we were going.
Like most incredible moments, it came upon us with little to no warning. We simply turned the corner and saw them. A life size sculpture of three men, asleep on the ground. They were tired and weary and they slept. They should have been praying but their eyes were heavy and their bodies were weak. So they slept.
A moment that I would have never thought iconic, but it is. And I knew, as I watched those frozen men sleep, I knew what I was about to see. Just up the hill, a little ways, we saw Jesus kneeling all alone, the man of all sorrows, bearing my shame. I desperately wanted to see his face, but I could not, for his hands blanketed his weeping eyes. The savior of the world agonizing for me.
We sat in silence. Neither of us wanting to pollute the moment with noise. After we spent time individually in prayer, reflection, journaling we started back. Leaving Jesus in the garden, all alone, as his friends slept. On the walk back, with one eye on the trail and the other looking for snakes we talked about the statue. We talked about spiritual things, our faith journeys, our sin. Eventually we wondered how they ever got that thing all the way out there? I suggested that the monks used a helicopter. I still think the image of monks flying a helicopter is pretty awesome. The hike back, like the hike there was arduous. Which is probably appropriate. The entire scene: the hot muggy air, the long hike, the scary snake, the prayers, the sleeping disciples, the weeping Christ, all of it was both, at the same time, broken and beautiful.
Sometimes life takes us into the dark woods. The sings, the guideposts point down a trailhead with very little explanation. But we all need to return to the statues from time to time. It is an adventure that feeds the soul. So we return to slay dragons, to remember the sacrifice, to weep for the cost of grace, to laugh at ourselves, and to rejoice in God’s mercy.