Me and Gethsemani Abbey, Ten Years Later Print
By Austin Ruse   
Friday, 26 August 2011

Ten years ago last week I stood on the front lawn of the Abbey of Gethsemani in Kentucky with my cell phone plastered to my ear. A friend in Washington D. C. was holding her phone up to the television so that I could hear President Bush’s prime time speech on stem cell research. Given that I was on a vocational retreat, this was perhaps a pretty good sign that my vocation lay somewhere beyond the walls of a Trappist monastery.

This was the end of a desire placed in my heart many years before sitting behind the Louvre along the River Seine smoking a Cuban cigar and reading Thomas Merton’s The Seven Storey Mountain. What got me was the way Merton talked about the “mystical union with God.” I wanted that. I went back to New York and joined the Catholic Church. That was 1985.

At that time, I wanted to be in the house, but was not really ready to clean up my room. So it took several very dangerous years away from the practice of the faith for me to become what you might call a faithful Catholic or at least a Catholic who was faithfully trying. Eventually, in the spring of 1993, I broke up with my girlfriend, went to my first confession in eight years, and became a daily communicant, all with the view – at long last – to join Merton’s former home, the Abbey of Gethsemani.

Even during my eight wilderness years I dreamt of that place. I dreamt of my small cell and my narrow bed, the Abbey Church, and mystical union with God. Out drinking with my friends, I would not get maudlin over lost loves, but over that place in the Knob Hills of Kentucky that had lodged so deeply in my heart.

I spent four years in such yearning, all the while avoiding the company and even the friendship of women because I did not want attachments to form. I didn’t want anything to get in the way of trying this thing that would not leave me alone. I applied to the Abbey and was invited down for a two-week retreat.

On the night before I was to leave for the retreat that occupied even my daydreams for years, I was invited to a dinner party at a friend’s apartment, a penthouse, high above Park Avenue.  Susie Vasilov sat down beside me and even though there were ten other people at the table, we sat talking intensely almost nose-to-nose for the entire evening. Needless to say, when I arrived the next day at Gethsemani I spent most of my time thinking about her, bouncing off the walls, thinking about her.

             The lake at Gethsemani in Trappist, Kentucky

At the end of the two weeks, I was driven to the Louisville Airport. Before boarding I checked my messages and there was a startling message from John O’Sullivan, the editor of National Review. I had submitted a piece to him about a U. N. confab I had attended. He said that they wanted to publish it. This, of course, was a wild dream of mine, to be published in Bill Buckley’s magazine. And this on my first try.

It is sometimes impossible to discern the will of God. Was he testing me with Susie Vasilov? Was he testing me with National Review? Or was this Him telling me he really wanted me in the world?

Over the next several years I went on a handful of vocational retreats. I lived with the monks, worked with them, sang in choir with them. But I never ever felt comfortable. I did not know what to do with the wide-open time that they had. Work stopped at noon and the afternoon would open up – not like a flower but like an abyss.  I would sit on a bench and pray and read for half an hour or so. Walk over to another bench and do it some more and then, and then, what would I do?  The local community came for Sunday Mass. When they left, I wanted to go with them.

I had the oddest thought one day walking in the Abbey woods. I came upon a lake, the water was smooth and inviting, and the thought came to me that if I joined Gethsemani, I would never be able to get into that water. Monks don’t recreate. I would never swim again. Funny thing, back then I never went swimming anyway. Except now I do, with my daughters and it is one of the great joys of my life, being in the water with them. I would say that God spoke to me that day by the lake, and he gave me a sweet glimpse into my future.

I never went out with Susie Vasilov and National Review never published me, though John O’Sullivan is now on the board of the non-profit I run.

And this summer I took my wife Cathy and our daughters, Lucy and Gigi, to Gethsemani, my first time there in ten years. We walked around the grounds, ate Trappist cheese in the shade of the great trees, bought some books, took a picture with a monk, and participated in the noontime office. It was a beautiful visit but no pangs of what-might-have-been, or even wonder came over me. When I left it was so right and that is how God speaks to us, by the people he places in our lives and by the peace we feel.

In the end, I decided that God put the desire for the monastery in my heart for the single reason that it was the only way he could make me a regular Catholic. I had to shoot for the moon simply in order to hit the earth where he wanted me to be all along.

Gigi and Lucy Ruse at Gethsemani

Austin Ruse is the President of the New York and Washinton, D.C.-based Catholic Family & Human Rights Institute (C-FAM), a research institute that focuses exclusively on international social policy. The opinions expressed here are Mr. Ruse’s alone and do not necessarily reflect the policies or positions of C-FAM.

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